CoSupport’s Sarah Hatter on customer support

Sarah Hatter literally wrote the book on customer support.

She released “The Customer Support Handbook: How to Create the Ultimate Customer Experience for Your Brand” in 2014, which has become a must-read for people in the software and startup space. Sarah’s also the founder of CoSupport, a consultancy on all things support from coaching and hiring, to UX and technical writing, and the host of the customer support and success conference Elevate Summit. In short, she’s a real pro.

I recently caught up with Sarah to chat about how the world of customer support is evolving, why great support improves product, how to scale an empathetic support culture, and much more.

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What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode. Short on time? Here are six quick takeaways:

  1. Customers have baggage around what customer support means. Self service is emerging as a result, but FAQ pages and email submission forms won’t cut it in this space.
  2. The best way to build a personal, empathetic support experience: Ask, “What is it like for me to be a customer, what are my expectations, and what do I want?”
  3. Support that tracks of every feature request, bug report, and customers’ words and tone is the front line for improving product.
  4. When it comes to hiring for support, you can teach process. You can’t teach light heartedness, self-management, and getting to the root of empathy with others.
  5. When your support queries are rising, adding hires to keep up isn’t the answer. Instead, find ways to track and refine processes to reduce the need for support.
  6. One way Sarah, a frequent conference speaker, thinks the tech industry can increase diversity at its events: Feature more people working on the front lines, rather than founders and CEOs. Their stores are just as relevant and often more relatable.

Sabrina Gordon: Our guest today is Sarah Hatter, founder of CoSupport and host of the customer support and success conference Elevate Summit. Sarah, for the sake of our listeners, can you introduce yourself and tell us about your career trajectory?

Sarah Hatter: Thank you for having me. You’re some of my favorite people, so when Intercom calls, I answer.

I started Co Support about five years ago with the idea to teach and train software companies how to do great customer support. It’s little bit of user experience, customer experience, and customer success, which is now the new buzzword. We usually go into companies that are just launching or havee hit a curve in their startup life – they’re a real life company now and need to do things in a more professional way. We help them get their support systems set up, and sometimes we go into really large scale corporations that are trying to pivot from customer service into a better customer experience for people, and we train teams of anywhere from ten people to 2,000.

It’s a broad scope that we work with, and like you said, we also run this great conference four times a year, about 250 people each time. It features speakers from great companies that are leaders in the customer support field, and it’s super educational and informative. We also wrote “The Customer Support Handbook”. I could’ve been a little bit more creative with the title, but it’s fun to say you wrote the book on customer support.

The shift toward self service

Sabrina: You published the book more than two years ago, and it’s become a must-read for software companies. I know you announced V2 is in the works. What are the biggest changes that have happened in the interim, and what does the new world of customer support look like?

Sarah: When we published the book in 2014, customer support was still a fast and loose game for a lot of companies. Everyone’s talking about Zappos and the Apple experience, but converting that to “how do we do this as a small team, how to we scale it with zero budget, how do we find the right people,” – there wasn’t a ton of resources out there for that. You could find a lot of books on customer service, but I really believe at my core there’s a big difference between how a company like Toyota, Samsung, and Ikea operates its customer service departments, and how a startup that’s in complete control of the experience they can build for customers should curate that experience for them.

We decided we were going to put it down on paper, we got some great people from the industry to do little essays, pro tips and tricks, and all that jazz. And it was great, and I thought, “awesome! We did it!” Now we’re living in this space of technology where everything moves so fast and progress is so swift. In just the last two years some of the stuff we wrote about isn’t even relevant anymore, and there’s stuff we didn’t even cover. Having the conference and getting exposure to thousands of people that are in this sphere, asking us to talk more about culture, support engineering, product liaison, the difference between customer support and customer success, etc. There’s a lot to answer out there.

The trend that is emerging is really self service. We have to get a lot better about the self-service options that we have, rather than throw up an FAQ on a webpage and then slap our email address there. People don’t want to contact support, and that is a real, visceral change that’s happening in the last at least two or three years. You could get away with people waiting a few days for an email back or contact you on Twitter, but we have such a strong inclination from people now in a world space who don’t want to have to have that interaction. They have baggage around what customer support means or customer service means. They don’t want to waste the time; they want to just find the answer and get it resolved on their own.

Sabrina: There is that shift toward self service, but you’re always going to need that front-line customer support team. You tweeted recently that the job of customer support is to “daily prove the empathy & personality of your company”. What tips would you give to people in relation to how they can create a great support personality and what are some of the common mistakes you see people making?

Sarah: The biggest mistake that we see people make all the time is they present this very strategic marketing platform, where people have sat around in a room and decided, “what’s our style guide and what’s our brand and persona”, they build websites around quirky caricatures and say, “we’re cartoon people and if you hover over our picture it changes,” and then you get these emails back from them and it’s like, “thank you for your feedback; we apologize for the inconvenience.” I’m expecting something from you by the way that you present your brand, and then I don’t get it with the language that you use or the experience that I have.

That’s what I mean when I say that your job there is to prove the values of the company you work for, that “we are what we say we are”. I mentioned baggage before, and it’s such a true statement because people come at this idea of, “I need customer support, I’m going to have to go contact someone with guns blazing. I’m already angry, I’m already frustrated, I didn’t find an answer, I’m going to have to wait for a thing, I’m going to get an auto-responder that’s full of weird please reply above the line,” and all of these weird experiences that people have. By the time they get to the human, their intensity is so amped up around “just give me an answer, just do the thing, just fix the thing” that it’s all they want.

If you come at them in a way that instigates more of that frustration from bad language, bad word choice, or lack of empathy in your tone, you’re not winning anything. You’re just spiraling that.

We’ve worked with large corporations that are trying to shift their positioning around customer service to a more branded, concierge-level support, and the biggest hurdle that we face is teaching groups of 200 people at a call center why they can’t start a phone call demanding an account number and a last name and a mailing address and a billing address and a zip code. You have to go into it thinking, “This is a human being who paid us money, that money goes into the profitability of this company, which gives me a job and a paycheck, and I owe them a support experience that’s human centered, that is empathetic, that is emotional, and knows about their baggage and still meets their needs in a way that diffuses that frustration they’re having.”

Providing personal support at scale

Sabrina: We can agree that great companies have great support, and what makes that support great is that it’s personal. Too often customers write in with a complaint and assume it’s a robot on the other end; yet when we engage them in an empathetic, human conversation we see customers who are happier and stick around. How do you begin instilling this type of support culture, and what can companies do to keep it intact as they scale?

Sarah: We always sit people down and say, “we’re doing this training, it’s going to feel weird, and these words are going to sound foreign because you’ve never said them before.” We try to put them in position of, everyone in this room has been a customer, everyone has purchased something and had an issue with it. What was the experience that you got? What is your baggage around customer support and service? What is it like for you when you have to go wait in line the day after Christmas to return something? What is it like when your iPad won’t start, and you don’t know what to do, and you feel overwhelmed with the technology and the process, and you feel condescended to and dumb because you can’t fix it yourself? We take that emotional, human experience and flip the switch on them and say, “This is what we have to remember when we present our service: we were there once.”

A lot of the time people get thrown into this job doing customer support. There is not a lot of training, and they’re in the corporate world or in these large corporations like Comcast or Ikea. It’s typically unskilled labor, and they’re not given great training on how to be an emotional human. That’s not in the handbook at all; that’s not part of the HR seminar that they go to.

We have to do as much as we can. You and Des have spoken at our events before, and you know the theme I’m trying to get out there in the world is disseminating this information far and wide, as broad as we can take it, because there can’t just be 50 of us in a room who know how to do this well. It has to be trickling out of just the startup world and into emerging tech, and then into healthcare or whatever industry that really needs it.

It starts with, “what is it like for me to be a customer, what are my expectations, and what do I want?” The Zappos thing took off was because it came about it in a time where online consumerism was new. The bubble had burst, and now we’re going to convince people to buy shoes online.

They took this weird experience people were having and convinced them it would work because customers could call and talk to someone that was super nice and super friendly, and they followed up with that agreement through all of the service level stuff that they did. They followed through with the quirky, happy, easy personality. It’s really weird to think about this in 2016, but ten years ago it was pretty uncommon to get free shipping on stuff. It was pretty uncommon to get something on your doorstep same- or next-day. We’re used to that now, and so people have these references in mind about what they’re trying to replicate, and there’s a push to do free shipping.

Free shipping doesn’t mean anything if I get the wrong product, or if I try to return it, and it’s a hassle, or I live chat you for a size and I have to wait three minutes before someone connects. Starting from this idea of, “I’ve been there before, what would I want and what would I expect,” is the best way for any company to build out what they want their customers to experience.

How great support improves product

Sabrina: You said typical large corporations often think of customer support as a non-skilled area. One thing I’ve spoken about before is that customer support can definitely improve product. A lot of our listeners are product people – startup founders or early stage employees, product managers, etc. There’s a line I love in CoSupport’s Manifesto that says “Feature requests aren’t annoying, they prove someone likes what you built and they want to use it more. Stop being so defensive.” Could you expand on the whole idea of how the support team can help improve your product?

Host Sabrina Gordon explains how great support solves customer and product problems.

Sarah: Startup founders and mid-market, mid-level companies are my favorite audience because they really get it. Startup founders, provided they haven’t taken a bazillion dollars in funding and someone else is running the ship, they have the most risk. They have the most on the line if something doesn’t work out. They are the ones who are trying to figure out, “how do we create the best experience possible to gain those loyal customers who will continue to pay us money?” Especially software services – someone’s going to pay me $49 every month; how am I going to convince them to keep doing that?

We got a lot of really bad advice when apps were launching, when people were doing software as a service 10-15 years ago for the first time, there was a lot of the designer’s rights. If someone wants this feature, we’re going to say, “no, we don’t like that feature, so we’re not doing it, you don’t need it. We’re going to retrain people how to work based on the constraints of our product.” And for a good five years everyone got really, “Yeah! The engineer’s right, the designer’s right!” All these companies started failing, and they’re not failing because they said no to a feature request or didn’t improve based on user insights. They failed because their core belief was that the customer insight of experience didn’t matter as much as what the designer wanted to matter.

When I speak at conferences, I’m primarily speaking to people in that startup founder, micropreneur stage and I’m convincing them, you get someone on the front lines who’s empathetic, who’s understanding, who’s really intuitive about people’s needs, and they’re keeping track of every single request, words that are being used, and the tone that’s coming across from customers. They’re keeping track of every bug report and every feature request. This especially is a big thing a lot of people tend to ignore. They don’t think it’s relevant in early-stage life, but I think it is. If you have the right person on the front lines, they’re triaging up to your product people, “this is a trajectory for us to acquire more users and make more money.”

At the end of the day, that’s all it is. It’s not feature bloat. People are very scared when they hear, “listen to feature requests,” They’re like, “well then we’re just promising that we’re going to build everything, and then we have feature bloat!” That’s my cartoon boardroom version of a startup founder’s voice right now.

I don’t think that’s what that means. If you’re pruning to people, your experience with this matters, your experience using every single button that you click becomes a habitual part of your day. This isn’t just a transactional experience that we have, like the Mitch Hedburg joke with the doughnut: I don’t need a receipt for a doughnut. You give me the doughnut, I give you the money, end of transaction. That’s not what we want to build. If you want to build it that way, then you can go work for Samsung or whomever, but if you really want to build a company and a brand and a product that lasts and impacts people’s lives, makes their lives easier, and makes them loyal to you for 10-plus years, you have to come at this idea that building a product with that empathy of the customer in mind really does matter. The endgame is we make more money. That’s what it is. I’ve never ever ever told somebody to listen to people and kindly reference and track feature requests and talk about it with product, who said, “I went bankrupt because of that.” That’s never happened.

Sabrina: Exactly. You’re just building what the customer is wanting. You’re asking them why they want it and using that to guide future decisions.

Sarah: I talk a lot about hiring people have that intuition, because I’m really anti-phone support. It’s too emotionally charged, it costs way too much money, and companies end up offshoring it because it’s so expensive, so people end up getting this bad experience.

I always say, “Why do people want phone support? Why do they want a telephone number to call?” It’s not because they want to stay on hold for fifteen minutes, it’s not because they want to get accidentally cut off, it’s not because they want to repeat their problem to four middle-managers before they get someone to give them a coupon code. They want to trust you, they want to know that you’re a human being who can help them. They want immediate help to an immediate need or to fix something. What is the root cause of someone saying, “Can you add another checkbox here, or a dropdown here, or can I add another user here?” What’s the use case? Why do you need that? And we may find that’s not what we need to build for this person. We need to build a whole other scenario that fits around this subset of users who we could acquire if we just had this extra feature with this extra scaling capacity.

The traits of a successful support hire

Sabrina: Phone support is expensive and you have to hire a lot of people for it, so it’s not the best route for most companies. But you do have to hire people for any type of support, and it’s really hard to find the right type of person. One major area where CoSupport provides advice is how to begin hiring and ultimately scale. When should a young company begin building a customer support infrastructure, and what characteristics do those hires who excel in this field share?

Sarah: Personality is huge. I always tell people, “I don’t hire for skill, I don’t hire for background, and I don’t hire for experience,” because I was inexperienced when I started doing this thing. I was literally only hired for my personality, and so if you hire the right people and you have great training and processes in place, you could bring anyone off the street and teach them anything. You cannot teach those people how to be nice people. You can’t teach them how to be light hearted and self managing, you can’t teach them how to not take things personally but really get down to the root of empathy with other people. That’s a big thing, and I find if you’re looking to hire the big areas where you see the best conversion of someone who can do customer support, especially email-based customer support, and work with programmers or people like long-term baristas and bartenders. They’re dealing with tons of personalities, they’re dealing with people in bad moods, and they’re acting as therapists. They’re multitasking, and they have great memory. They’re skills are really sharp, and they can ping pong from things.

Other really great hires are people who’ve worked long term in bookstores or libraries, because they have this innate quality about wanting to learn, teach, and educate. Teachers are another great subset.

When it comes to personality, I’m looking for people who can show empathy, who can show passion, who can show creativity. If your resume says you’ve trained in improv, I’ll hire you for anything. It’s such a valuable skill. Learning how to be present in situations and meet multiple needs at once.

The other thing too is you’ve got to think about if someone’s gotta be a great writer. They better be able to communicate really, really well. We help a lot of companies do hiring, and we always ask for writing samples. If you have a product that’s launched and someone could research you or Google you, you can ask them, “how would you reply if a customer said X” and see how they respond to that. In the design world it’s like specwork, but in this world it’s like you’re proving to this person, “I could do this job for you, and here’s why.”

Also, whenever I’m hiring people and I’m going to bring them in for an interview, I always like figuring out who they are beforehand, what their personality is like, and I always say, “Hey, you probably have a smartphone with a lot of apps on it, what’s your favorite app and why?” And then, when they come into that interview, I always bring that up and just sort of be like, “show me how that works, show me what you like about it.” You give them a moment of space to sort of be themselves, but really demonstrate their talents at teaching and being empathetic and being patient. You want to put on that persona when you’re trying to find someone for the right job like, “if I’m the dumbest person on Earth, how’re you going to get me to use this product without having to call you everyday and show you how to do it?”

That’s always a great way to assess hiring. Also, people who’ve worked in restaurants long term, especially people who’ve managed restaurants, they’re dealing with some of the most entitled, mean, hangry, drunk people. They’re great to have on support, because by the time they’re in a position where there are 100 email tickets, it’s nothing for them. They’ve done the 4:00 a.m. shift before, so they’re wired for that kind of work.

Sabrina: What you said about testing those practical skills they’ll do at the job is really important. Why wouldn’t you test that? It’s going to tell you the most about how they will perform.

Sarah: We’re not in place that we were five years ago where there wasn’t a job description for someone doing customer support. There’s so many examples of what that means now. There’s so many examples of companies doing it really, really well, so you should have an ad for someone doing this job that’s really in-depth, has your expectations all lined out, and has their required talents all lined out. You should be able to assess that pretty quickly rather than hiring your dad’s friend’s cousin’s intern at his optometry shop because she needs a job for the summer.

Keeping your team at home base

Sabrina: Speaking of hiring, a recent trend for rapidly growing Silicon Valley startup firms is to move their support teams to cheaper locations around the US – so anywhere other than San Francisco. You stated clearly this is not the future of customer support – why is that? What are these team’s sacrificing?

Sarah: You and I know the difference between our job in customer support, and the return line at Walmart. They’re very different jobs. Five years ago, we had the same job title. I remember working for a software company and having to fight with my managers because I refused to be called customer service representative. I felt what I’m doing and the talent that I have, the experience that I have, and how I’m working with customers to curate this experience for them is not just sitting in a firing line like a Comcast rep, trying to just get them dealt with as fast as possible.

We read stories about Lyft moving to Nashville. Eventbrite is moving to Nashville now. There’s Portland, or Charlotte, or Cincinnati. We’re talking about companies that have built infrastructure around needing full-time customer service representatives. I don’t think they’re necessarily customer support people or customer success agents. If my job is to sit there answering call after call or just plowing through emails with scripts, it’s not the same job as someone working for Buffer in customer happiness or someone working at Trello as a customer support engineer. Those are very different roles, and they require different skills.

I think the future isn’t in call centers or in unskilled labor, and I don’t like the idea of us perpetuating this myth that support is an entryway into other departments. It’s not just, “I’m going to take this $12-hour job for the next six months, like I’m a college intern, because then I’ll get hired on the marketing team, and then I’ll really start my career.”

Customer support for a lot of startups, even these larger scale, invested startups, are the only people on the front lines of everything that people are saying, everything they’re praising you for, everything they’re complaining about, and every use case that you could possibly get. If I were a VC, I would think, “those are my most valuable assets at this company, and they should be driving the way this company is managed, and designed, and the way that we sell things. Because they’re the only ones who have that keyhole into the temperament, the attitude and the experience of people paying us money.”

When you get to a point where you have bloated this company out so much that a phone is ringing off the hook, people just throw bodies at the problem. And if you want to throw more bodies at the problem, you’ve gotta pay them less and less money, and you’ve gotta find a less and less skilled labor force. What I think really is the future is creating ways for self service, figuring out ways we can track and refine processes that eliminate the need for support, and finding people who are better skilled for these jobs, so that when the people do get to customer support, their experience is not just great and friendly and fun, but it’s relative to building a business.

Someone’s going to take that email and assign metrics to it that we can track and quantify and improve the product with later on.

Sabrina: Empowering members of your support team to help define those processes makes them see a career in customer support, rather than a stepping stone to other parts of a company.

Sarah: Exactly, and it really shouldn’t be. We’re in a tech space and a SaaS industry, we get to make our own rules here, and if we do it soon enough before we’re under the micromanagement of VCs or investors, we get to lay the groundwork for, “how’re we going to build this company and how’re we going to drive it and direct it. Is it going to be through customer experience, through actual user experience, through someone on the front lines who we value and listen to and give a weight to the things they say? Or are we just going to build a thing, sell a thing, get people to use the thing, and then just have a thing?”

Everyone has a story to tell

Sabrina: You have Elevate Summit in Austin, Texas coming up this week, which I’m delighted to be speaking at. You’ve publicly committed to making the lineup of speakers as diverse as possible. Why is diversity at tech events so dismal? Is it just the industry being lazy? What can we be doing to improve the current situation?

Sarah: There’s nothing else to say, it’s pure laziness. I was talking to someone about this yesterday, someone who was contacting me and wanting me to speak an event, and it’s hilarious. You go and look at whom they lined up, and it’s usually the same five guys that we recognize, maybe four or five emerging guys that we haven’t heard, and then me, Amy White, Clara Lu, and Erika Hall. We’re the token female tech speakers, and all of the conferences have one of us on the line up and that’s it.

I go to conferences where I’m the only woman in attendance! I’m the only woman there in the room, and it’s 2016. I got really burnt out on that for a long time, just speaking, and it’s like the same hotel ballroom with the same crappy lunch, and it’s the same dudes. The dudes aren’t even diverse. There’s just white dudes, right? We can’t just keep harping on the fact that there’s white dudes in tech; we have to start doing something about elevating people that are not managers or CEOs or Vcs or co-founders, but are working your front lines. They’re in product, they’re in marketing. They have stories to tell that are just as relevant.

When we started our conference in 2012, we had rules that we wanted to abide by because of our experience being conference speakers. I’m only where I am because I was elevated from somebody else, and working for a famous company, people knew who I was. That’s the only reason people listened to me. But if I were just working for a software company and doing my job and I had this great story and this passion and I was articulate and thoughtful about storytelling, and I could give people core takeaways that change how they work, how would I ever get attention on me when conferences are only hiring these five known white guys to speak?

We asked our friends, people that we knew who were doing these jobs people had never heard of, to speak at this conference. The next one rolls around and there are people from the audience of the last one. It was like, “I think I could tell a story.” And my job became to coach them on how to get on stage and tell a story, and it spiraled from there into a point where it was not difficult for me to get 300 applicants a year from females working in the product space online who wanted to speak at my conference. Then I started to be able to then diffuse all of these conversations where people were like, “I’m running a conference, and I can’t find any women.” Bullshit!

You have to look beyond the top level. Look at events like Digital Summit or these entrepreneurial summits coming up, look at their lineup, and it’s the same people. They’re coming from companies that we all know about. Instagram, Snapchat, Microsoft, Apple, there are women that work there. There are people of color who work there. There are immigrants who work at those companies. We know this. So, why can’t we hear their stories? If we think the whole thing is, “They’re not a seasoned speaker,” then get someone to teach them how to speak. We were able to do that, and now on average our conferences are 60% women, and 30% non-white. It’s not hard for me to do.

I’ve been doing this for four years. We’ve put on ten-twelve events, and people know us, so they’re wanting to speak at our event, but that tells me that they want to speak at other events. That tells me the opportunity for them is there, and somebody on the other end is just being lazy.

Sabrina: These event planners don’t realize that people want to hear from someone who is actually doing their job. They don’t always need to hear from the CEO or the founder.

Sarah: I don’t care what the founder has to say. The only founder I really like listening to is Des, because he’s so good on stage. I’ve had him speak at my conference several times because he’s great on stage. He’s engaging, he’s thoughtful, but I also know that he empowers everyone who works for him to have a story to tell, and if they want to go on stage, he will gladly step by and let them do that.

The other part of this is our tech founders and these white dudes who are hogging the spotlight. They’re engaging in these Twitter conversations, “We need more women on stage, but I’m not leaving the stage just yet.” What’re you going to do? I hate to have this conversation. It’s 2016. But I get thrown into it all the time because I am proof positive that yes, people are lazy, and yes, people are unintentional with whom they choose to get on stage with.

Elevate Summit 2016

Sabrina: This week’s event has sold out, which is exciting, and you just announced you’re taking the conference international this summer with a July 1 event in London. What can summit attendees expect, and where can listeners go to find out more about how to attend?

SH: We sell out every single event that we do. It’s another thing that’s telling me people want to hear more stories from more people.

I’m on Twitter @SH. You can go to London tickets are being sold at Ironically we just announced our first four speakers and they’re all men, but I swear to you we have a lot more being announced.

Talk to us, we’ve got Buffer speaking, we’ve got Intercom speaking – your director of customer support, Jeff. London is a little bit of a different crowd. Dublin is so saturated with companies doing customer support, and London is this huge emerging tech scene right now, so last year in London we decided to do an agenda that was a little more product-heavy, that had more product managers and people talking about building and churn rates and all those scary product things.

It will be more like that agenda this time, where we have product-heavy stuff, but then we do have great people talking about customer support and the field. We have someone doing a status of the industry on customer support too. It’s going to be a great day. London last year was so spectacular. We’re going to double the ticket size this year and then we’ll do two more events later in 2016. We’ve got a lot going on.

Sabrina: Sarah, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I look forward to catching up with you at Elevate Summit.

Sarah: I’m so excited to see you speak. Thanks for having me, and thanks for doing great work in this little world we’re in too.