With support teams going remote and providing out-of-hours coverage in different time zones, it’s more important than ever to run an organized, productive ship. Do manual scheduling practices have a place in the modern support experience?
Scaling a support team is challenging enough as it is. You’re investing resources in hiring and training the right people, tracking different metrics at different stages, adding more and more complexity with each increase in headcount, use cases, and customers. As a result, there usually comes an inflection point in the growth journey where the internal orchestration of tasks starts to feel a little out of sorts. Maybe you’ve just extended support hours and it’s becoming harder to plan shifts for different time zones; maybe you’re spending hours figuring out schedules for the week ahead; maybe the inflow prediction was a bit off and now your team is under or overstaffed.
“A well-oiled, organized support team is crucial to eliminate friction in the customer experience, and nothing impairs a seamless experience quite so much as a burned-out, scattered team”
Are legacy ways of working ruining the agent experience? For Natasha, the answer is a resounding yes. Natasha Ratanshi-Stein is the founder of Surfboard, a software company that offers scheduling tooling for customer support teams. Despite having started her career in banking and finance, when Natasha moved to Bulb, a renewable energy supply company based in the UK, she encountered the challenges of scaling a support team firsthand. Both the software and the processes were outdated, creating a cumbersome experience for managing scheduling and activities – there were just too many spreadsheets to account for and tasks that had to be done manually. There had to be a simpler, smarter way to tackle the problem. And that’s where Surfboard comes in.
A well-oiled, organized support team is crucial to eliminate friction in the customer experience, and nothing impairs a seamless experience quite so much as a burned-out, scattered team. By automating planning, businesses can save time, increase productivity and turn support from a cost center into a profit driver.
In today’s episode, we sat down with Natasha to chat about managing remote teams, the challenges of creating a new category, and how planning software can help businesses create a more seamless, holistic customer experience.
If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:
- As companies extend their support coverage beyond 9 to 5, complexity adds up. It’s a lot easier to manage shifts, schedules, and workloads if that orchestration gets built from the start.
- Whether you’re fully remote or not, setting up the right tools and processes will help you manage your team collaboratively and productively without resorting to intrusive surveillance.
- It’s the role of the support team to eliminate friction wherever it may exist in the customer experience and pass that feedback on to other teams in the organization.
- When it comes to metrics, too many support teams are looking at agent and internal effort scores instead of customer effort scores. That’s what matters: how painful is it for customers?
- While creating a new category can be difficult, it’s important to not get swayed by the rules of the market, the competitors, and the customers of an existing one.
If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
The complexities of scaling a support team
Liam Geraghty: Welcome to the show, Natasha. Thank you very much for joining us.
Natasha Ratanshi-Stein: Thank you very much for having me. I’m really excited to be here doing the show in person.
Liam: Yeah, I know. This is only the second time since I joined Intercom that I’ve done a podcast in person. It’s nice to be back out there.
Natasha: It really is. It’s great to be at SaaStock as well because you’re meeting so many like-minded SaaS companies that are scaling and starting to think of support, and that’s the intersection where companies like Intercom and Surfboard come in.
Liam: Totally. We always start by asking people about their backgrounds and career trajectories. Where did you start out?
Natasha: I’m Canadian, for anyone curious about the accent, but I’ve lived in London for 13 years. I moved there for university, and then I started working at Goldman Sachs in their mergers and acquisitions team. I spent a few years there and then went to a venture capital fund where I spent five years investing in online businesses with network effects. I had this urge to become an operator, so I joined a company in the renewable energy space called Bulb, and that’s where I encountered the problem and the difficulties of scaling a support team. I went through all the administrative overhead of building internal, cobbled-together processes to enable that scale, and it ultimately culminated in me realizing there weren’t tools out there that created a frictionless experience. And so, I started Surfboard.
Finding the crux of the problem
Liam: What was the moment when you discovered the problem or the problem presented itself?
Natasha: Yeah, there were two moments. Number one was when I had to physically create the capacity model spreadsheets, looking at our ticket volumes, how many people we needed, who was able to work on what, and when they were available… There was this critical moment for us at Bulb when we wanted to move towards a shift model. So instead of being open Monday to Friday, nine to six, we decided we wanted to be open for extended hours. And that threw a huge spanner in the works around planning complexity, making sure things were fair, evenly distributed, and that we were there when our customers needed us. These spreadsheets just became unfathomable.
“It’s a critical task within the function, and somebody had to build something simpler, smarter, and fairer”
Then, I was tasked with running an RFP process to find software to solve this problem. And there was a disconnect between how support teams want to work and make sure that their team has visibility and is working in a cohesive way, and the software out there is really turning it into this burn and churn-style support model, which we felt really culturally aligned with, but understanding the need for having scheduling in the right place and doing the right things for your organization was so critical for us that we didn’t have a choice but to go for one of these alternative providers.
It was those two separate points. Number one, creating the spreadsheets; number two, procuring software. I realized this market is broken. It’s a critical function, it’s a critical task within the function, and somebody had to build something simpler, smarter, and fairer. And that’s where Surfboard came in.
Liam: And how easy or challenging was that decision to actually decide to do something about it?
Natasha: Yeah, very difficult. I think any founder is bundled with so much imposter syndrome that anytime I thought about it, anytime I thought about the problem, I had this sense of, “How arrogant am I that there are seven billion people in the world and somehow I think I’m the person that is equipped to solve this?” And then, as you get around the depth of owning the problem and realizing all these points of friction, you become quite obsessed over time. It becomes the singular thing you think about, and once it becomes the singular thing you think about, you don’t have a choice but to leap in. So yeah, it was a difficult decision, but it became more and more obvious, and it just felt more and more right. As a founder, there are good days and bad days, but you realize that even on the bad days, there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing.
“We don’t obsess over solutions. We’re always focused on being problem-first”
Liam: That’s what you want to hear. Was there much mulling over solving the crux of the problem after that? Was there a lot more to do?
Natasha: For sure. I think one point of differentiation in how we’ve built the surfboard team is it’s become really design-led. For any group of engineers, we have a dedicated designer who works with them focusing on user research, UX, UI, and fundamental product design. And so, every time we speak to a customer, whether it’s an existing customer, a prospect, or somebody who’s just willing to lend us their time, or we go through an experience of dealing with a customer service organization, we’re always mapping out the experience for the end customer that they have; just mapping out those friction processes. We’re always learning more and more. We’re always refining what the crux is. We’re always refining how we communicate it. One of our values is to own the problem, and that means we don’t jump to solutions. We don’t obsess over solutions. We’re always focused on being problem-first.
An uphill battle
Liam: What were some of the other challenges in setting up in the first place?
Natasha: The challenges are endless. I think that the hiring competitive landscape is extremely difficult. When you’re starting a company, you want to hire 10X engineers, 10X data scientists, and 10X designers, and the market for these people is competitive. That’s an area where it can be hard to set up because you don’t want to sacrifice your quality. That’s going to trickle down into so many different things. And so, the balance of maintaining not just high-quality standards but also velocity and speed is an ever-persistent challenge.
“When you’re running a support team, you’re dealing with waves of inflow, and we provide you with the tool to navigate those waves”
Liam: I’m fascinated by your name as well. Surfboard is something that doesn’t necessarily apply to a function. There are advantages to that, I think.
Natasha: Yeah, it’s memorable for sure. We have people coming to us, and they’re like, “I just remembered Surfboard, and because it’s the most memorable one, you guys are the obvious choice,” which is very validating. The metaphor is a bit more important to us because when you’re running a support team, you’re dealing with waves of inflow, and we provide you with the tool to navigate those waves, which is the surfboard. Everything we build relates to how we equip the customer support team to be able to navigate those waves in the most effective way. And so, we have things like a fish that loads the schedule within the product. I think the name has worked out quite well for us in being able to build a brand.
Liam: I think that’s one of the things branding early. If you can, it is the way to go.
Natasha: I have to say, we’ve taken so much inspiration from Intercom on this. Your product marketing is so on point – the way you’ve been able to facilitate this self-serve and onboarding journey that is relatively frictionless, and the way that you position yourselves in the broader market. I think about when Intercom started, creating this category definition around live chat and the importance of that. So much of it has been brand-led and we were really inspired by it.
Liam: That’s great to hear. Then in terms of the pandemic, what part did that play? I feel like it was an important one for the company.
“You need to know that your team is working on the right things at the right time and most importantly, that the team camaraderie that existed before people went remote is replicating”
Natasha: Two things. Personally, the pandemic gave me the head space to think about things and ultimately take the leap into starting a company. When you have something that shocks the world to that magnitude, you can afford to take a bit of a personal shock and jump into the deep end. The pandemic changed the way the world works. It changed the way teams organize themselves. Within the support space, you started to see pretty much every team go remote, and when lockdowns ended, you started to see that teams fundamentally structured themselves differently, either with a hybrid or with a remote-first model. And with that, the orchestration layer, the planning, and the scheduling developed many more complexities.
Starting at the end of 2020, as these ways of working in the world have changed, Surfboard intended to be and is now the de facto tool for managing a remote team. You need to know that your team is working on the right things at the right time and most importantly, that the team camaraderie that existed before people went remote is replicating.
Liam: I know you said there were loads in terms of the challenges, but what key lessons have you learned from the experience so far?
“We want to fundamentally change the way teams work. And for us to do that, this predetermined roadmap doesn’t work for us”
Natasha: There’s the way things are and the way things ought to be. When you see competitors out there – our biggest competitor is Spreadsheets since it’s where most of the market is doing these orchestration tasks –, you start seeing Notion and Slack go in there, and we felt we wanted to fundamentally build something 100X better that removes that friction.
For us, one of the biggest challenges is that the category of software that people end up looking for when they’re looking for a scheduling tool is called workforce management. And when you position yourself in workforce management, your roadmap is basically predetermined, or there’s an expectation set by the user where you haven’t laid out that groundwork for yourself. The market has laid it out, your competitors have laid it out, or these expectations from the customer dictate your roadmap. And that’s something that we’re constantly fighting really hard against because we want to fundamentally change the way teams work. And for us to do that, this predetermined roadmap doesn’t work for us. It’s not going to create the holistic and important change that we want to make within support teams to humanize work more.
That’s something we’re constantly battling. On the one hand, it feels like pushing water uphill if you’re saying, “Oh, we’re not part of this category that you’re already looking for. We’re inventing a new category.” On the other hand, you want to fight the temptation to start building what people expect when you say you’re part of an existing category.
Liam: Why are customer support teams so vital?
Natasha: Look, when your customer experiences friction, which in the end, they’re always going to experience in some form or another, your support team needs to be there to make sure that you’re catching them when they fall, that you’re catching them quickly, with a high degree of quality, and that you have the internal processes to make sure your support team acts as the voice of the customer and is able to pass on that feedback to the product team, the sales team, the success team, the engineering team, et cetera.
The topic that I spoke about at SaaStock was scaling a support team by 10X. And I don’t necessarily mean 10X in terms of headcount – I mean 10X in terms of efficiency. You need to make sure you have the right tooling in place, whether it’s tools like Intercom or Surfboard, that you’re hiring the right people, training the right people, and tracking the right metrics. All of these internal orchestration pieces go beyond the basic questions of what channels to offer or how to do the bare minimum. Do I just deflect the responsibility entirely to outsourcing agencies? There’s so much opportunity for support to make a huge difference within an organization. And the crux of what I spoke about was making sure that your support team is a profit center, not a cost center. And that’s something that we at Surfboard are really passionate about.
“With product-led growth, you want to and you have to eliminate friction, and support comes in when there’s this inevitable point of friction”
Liam: What advice would you give in terms of getting support right in a product-led growth organization?
Natasha: Great question. I actually made a joke in my keynote earlier that if I played a drinking game and had a shot every time product-led growth came up at this conference, I would’ve been hospitalized in the first three minutes.
I think support is critical for a product-led growth organization. With product-led growth, you want to and you have to eliminate friction, and support comes in when there’s this inevitable point of friction, whether it’s a how-to question, whether it’s a “the customer got stuck” question. If you want a product-like growth motion, what that means is that you want minimal effort from your sales team and from your success team. And in order to bridge that minimal effort, you need support. That’s where support comes in – to eliminate the friction. There’s a notion I really like, which is that there’s the way the world is and the way we want the world to be. And in that bridge where we’re not the Brian Chesky 11-star experience, you’ve got to think about the present state, and the present state is that you have to be there for your customers.
Liam: Before we wrap up, I want to ask about optimizing support versus success to avoid being reactive.
Natasha: Yeah, definitely. Within support, there are two parts. Number one is how your support team is interacting, how they’re trained, and the autonomy they have within the organization. And number two is making sure your support team acts as the voice of the customer internally.
“Too many support teams are looking at the agent effort score, the internal amount of effort involved with getting to a resolution. But what you have to focus on is the end customer. How painful is it for them?”
Relating to the first point, it’s really important that the metrics you measure and the incentives you give your support team are focused on customer outcomes. That means you’re not overly obsessed with tickets per hour or average handle time. You’re giving them the space and the autonomy to get to a resolution for your end customer.
My favorite metric that support teams measure, and that I hope is becoming more popular, is the customer effort score. How much effort does the end customer have to go through to get to a resolution? And too many support teams, even when they look at automation and tooling, are looking at the agent effort score, the internal amount of effort involved with getting to a resolution. But what you have to focus on is the end customer. How painful is it for them? If they have to get rooted to five different agents and re-explain their problem five times and answer the same questions, that’s a lot of friction for them, and that’s where you have to focus your efforts.
The second point is making sure your support team acts as the voice of the customer and has those internal processes. Even if you decide to go for having an entirely or partially outsourced team within your support or your success organizations, you need to make sure you have that internal feedback loop where the support team is well connected to product, to success, and to the sales team. Because when it comes to things like identifying your ideal customer profile, how people are engaging with your product and where they’re encountering problems, your support team is going to be the most fluent in all of that. And it’s a huge opportunity to make sure that the support team is a profit center in having that feedback work between the team and the rest of the organization.
Liam: What’s next? We’re nearing the end of the year, but do you have any plans for the next couple of quarters?
Natasha: Yeah. We’re still early on in our journey to make work more human at Surfboard, and there’s a lot we need to do. Number one is nail scheduling. And that’s providing an effortless time management tool for support teams that are scaling, and it’s not just for companies that are hitting 40 or 50 people, and they’re like, “Oh, I’m at breaking point.” We want to make sure that something like orchestration becomes the bedrock of how a support team sets up, that it’s part of that starter kit, so they don’t get to this inflection point where everything’s broken and it feels like a war zone within the support team.
“We really believe that if you have a collaborative team, you don’t have to resort to these desperate measures”
Number two around humanizing work is eliminating the need for intrusive surveillance. That’s been something that has become, unfortunately, more popular in this movement towards remote working. You can’t see where your team is, you can’t see who’s on the phone, who’s on chat, or who’s following up on refunds, and that has increased the temptation to get into the world of intrusive surveillance. That’s where technology can be used for bad, and that’s not what we want to facilitate. We want to make sure that Surfboard is building the tools to eliminate that.
And finally, it’s the point around team camaraderie. We really believe that if you have a collaborative team, you don’t have to resort to these desperate measures. We expect Surfboard to be the de facto leader in facilitating this cultural change that needs to happen, especially as teams move remotely.
Liam: That’s great. Lastly, where can people go to keep up with your work?
Natasha: We’re at teamsurfboard.com. There’s also Surfboard on LinkedIn and Twitter. I post a lot on LinkedIn myself, so you can find me at Natasha Ratanshi-Stein. We talk a lot about scaling support teams and efficiency tools. We’ve got an ebook on our website, so I encourage people to check it out.
Liam: Brilliant. Well, Natasha, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.
Natasha: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.