CX leader Camille Acey on the evolving dynamics in customer service

A profound transformation is underway in customer service.

Beyond the buzz of AI and having to manage teams through organizational restructuring and the evolving notion of support, CX leaders are also facing increasing customer expectations, dealing with the complexities of layoffs, and the ubiquitous task of doing more with less.

It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, but it’s one today’s guest, Camille E. Acey, loves doing. Camille is a self-professed customer service nerd and seasoned consultant who has worked with startups like CrowdStrike, Humio, and Nilus, is a mentor at First Round, and advisor to TheLoops, a customer data platform that leverages AI. Starting as a Jill of all trades, tackling a bit of everything on the go-to-market side of things, she soon found her footing in the Support Driven community and fell in love with the art of customer service. Resilience may be key to thrive in today’s field, but so is integrity, empathy, and an unwavering advocacy for the needs of both your customers and team.

In today’s episode, we caught up with Camille to explore the ever-changing landscape of the industry: from embracing AI and automation to managing teams in a time with layoffs, we’re delving into the nitty gritty of balancing the needs of different customers with the constraints of limited resources.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Experienced customer service leaders can be leveraged as consultants so you can avoid over-hiring really senior roles full-time or having to rely solely on generalists for bigger picture stuff.
  • AI can’t replace the human touch, and deploying it should be an exercise of addressing low-hanging fruit while still providing opportunities to train junior talent on simpler issues.
  • Layoffs will decrease the quality of the service. To navigate it, you need to secure org buy-in, clearly communicate the impact of resource reduction, and prioritize the essential.
  • For AI to work, you need comprehensive documentation. Take the time to build and maintain a centralized knowledge base – you might even reduce dependency on individual knowledge.
  • Traditionally, whoever pays the most, gets the most attention. But some customers don’t need hand-holding if you leverage automation for proactive care.
  • You can’t fulfill every feature request. Customer service teams need a data-driven approach to work with product in prioritizing what makes sense for the business and delivers value for the target.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

The Goldilocks factor

Niamh O’Connor: Hello and welcome to Inside Intercom. I’m Niamh O’Connor standing in for Liam Geraghty this week. On today’s show, we’re joined by self-professed customer service nerd Camille E. Acey. Camille is a longtime CX leader and has worked with startups like CrowdStrike, Humio, and Nilus, a mentor at First Round and advisor to TheLoops, a customer data platform that leverages AI. Camille, welcome to the show.

Camille Acey: Thank you, Niamh. It’s good to be here.

Niamh: You describe yourself as a customer care nerd. What inspired your passion for this field, and how has it shaped your career?

“Those kinds of things, where I could help someone and just be another human being on the other side of the line, really touched me”

Camille: Yeah, that’s a great question. Maybe I shouldn’t say nerd, but you can see all these books behind me, and a lot of them are about customer care. At the start of my career with startups, I was working in a more generalist role. I’d been working in journalism and as a writer in Europe, and I came back to the US knowing that I probably couldn’t survive in New York City as a journalist. So, I had to make a career pivot. And at that time, startups were starting to blossom again, and people directed me. They said, “The kind of self-starter skills and resources you have would be really useful in startups.”

And so, I began working with them in a very jack-of-all-trades, jill-of-all-trades way. Marketing, customer care, operations, sales – all sorts of things on the go-to-market side and also a little bit on the product side. At a certain point, I was called on to assist customers, and I just started to like it. I remember one heartbreaking moment when a woman called to make a and then get to the hospital to be at the side of her husband, who was dying. Those kinds of things, where I could help someone and just be another human being on the other side of the line, really touched me.

I started letting that be known, and people pointed me to a community called Support Driven. I really think finding that tribe was key for me to devote myself to this, finding those like-minded people who love doing this work, love being helpful, and don’t mind being paid for it.

Niamh: I love that you talk about the transferable skills you brought to CX because the reality is CX people come from all walks of life and bring all sorts of perspectives. And what do you see as the current shortcomings or the opportunities that are being missed in CX? And what could people who manage CX leaders specifically do better?

“We can come in and help establish the strategy, but we don’t need to work there full-time with benefits”

Camille: I’ve been thinking about this. A colleague and I are working on a series of blog posts about this. I think startups sometimes over-hire in the area of customer care and bring someone in who’s really senior when they don’t need someone so senior full-time at that salary and with that level of oversight and experience. On the other hand, a lot of startups say, “Okay, let’s let the generalist be the customer care person.” That person, of course, can do the day-to-day work, but in terms of thinking about the strategy of where the organization should be in a year or two or three, how to hire, and things like that, a lot of times, that person’s learning on the job. I think it’s kind of a Goldilocks situation that you’re looking for a lot of the time. Somebody who has enough experience.

And then, there’s a great opportunity in the fractional space now. A lot of customer care leaders, such as myself, are making themselves available either as advisors or fractional CX leaders. We can come in and help establish the strategy, but we don’t need to work there full-time with benefits. We can come in at a consultant capacity and bring that expertise into the organization, and the Goldilocks CX leader can run the day-to-day operations of the team. I think that’s been a little under-explored in the SaaS startup space, trying to find consultants that can come in and help you shape your strategy organizationally and help develop your leaders who are more junior or mid-level.

The human touch

Niamh: Speaking of new opportunities, how do you see the integration of AI, specifically large language models, impacting the future of customer support and the skillset required for customer care professionals? Do you think it’ll help elevate the field by focusing more on expertise and less on team tiering?

“AI can assist in combing through terabytes of data from your customers or product, and then, ‘Here’s where your efforts will reap the best return on investment'”

Camille: The train has absolutely left the station when it comes to AI. A lot of people are doubling and tripling down on it across all the major platforms. I know Intercom is working in that space. Of course, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit there. When I come in and take over a customer team, I’m always looking for where we can automate the repetitive things we do all the time. AI goes hand-in-hand with documentation. I always love to either bolster or start to build up documentation in any team I work with because AI is only as good as the data you put into it. And so, making sure there is data in a public place that the customer and the AI can get their hands on – or robot arms on – is rather critical.

I’m middle of the road. I’m an advisor at TheLoops, who are doing amazing work there, leveraging the data that particularly large teams can bring in to help them not only get insights but decide what to do next. I think that’s what’s critical – not just looking and generating more charts and more spreadsheets, but thinking which things we should do next. I think that’s where leaders need the most amount of help. AI can assist in combing through megabytes, gigabytes, and terabytes of data from your customers or your product, and then, “Here’s where your efforts will reap the best return on investment.” Those are the most interesting things.

“Where things are repetitive and where things can be self-serviced, that’s a great opportunity for AI”

The human touch, I think, is still really critical. As I mentioned, when that woman called, she was so scared that her husband was in the hospital. He was probably going to die soon, and she wanted to talk to a person. The human side of it is always going to be really critical. But where things are repetitive and where things can be self-serviced, that’s a great opportunity for AI. We need to get more sophisticated about the languages we go on, as well, but I’ll leave that to experts to tell us how we should talk about it moving forward.

Niamh: Yeah, I 100% agree. And that’s something we speak about a lot here as well – the human-AI partnership. Both have different strengths, and once you utilize them in the best way, you can really up-level your support offering hugely.

Camille: Absolutely.

Navigating layoffs and care

Niamh: You’ve written a really interesting blog post on speaking to CS leaders about navigating and managing teams in a time with layoffs, which, unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of in the last couple of years. You emphasized embracing automation, creating templates, and writing documentation to streamline support processes. Could you share some practical examples of how leaders can effectively implement these strategies in the short term without compromising the quality of their customer care?

“A great customer experience comes from a great team experience, and great teams feel like their manager and leader have their back”

Camille: The first thing is that the quality in the short term might go down. That’s a decision that the leadership makes. I don’t think you’re going to get the same level of quality with 50% of the resources allocated to it. I have to be honest. One of the things I emphasize in the blog post is the importance of the CS leader getting buy-in with the organization, saying, “I might not have had a seat at the table when you made this decision, but now that the decision’s been made, here’s what’s off the table.” It’s a hard conversation to have, and I think people are so frozen with fear of losing their jobs that they don’t want to have it. But that’s the kind of leader I am. For me, it’s critical to protect my team.

I think a great customer experience comes from a great team experience, and great teams feel like their manager and leader have their back. That’s the first thing, saying, “Here’s the entirety of what we have traditionally offered our customers with 25% RIF [reduction in force], 50% RIF. Here’s what we can do. Here’s what we can offer you,” and making sure that is clear and that there’s buy-in so that people don’t come around later on and say, “Hey, retention’s gone down,” or, “Customer satisfaction’s gone down. What did you do wrong?” Well, we don’t have all the people we need.

Of course, we never want that. And you want to keep your eyes on those KPIs regardless of whether you’re operating with a skeleton crew or not. But step one is that human element of connecting with people who are leaders and saying, “What things are non-negotiable and have to keep moving forward, and which things are we going to have to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to put this initiative on the back burner.'” Or, “This bespoke care we were giving to this segment of our customers, we’re going to have to move the bar up a little bit – top 5% get the white glove experience, not the top 15%.”

I think that’s the most important thing. The work of documentation should be ongoing as it comes up, and also trying to continue to fight for the time and say, “Okay, we might have support agents off the desk 20% of the time, but that investment will come back to us because then the AI automation tools that we’re using can draw from the documentation.” Also, our team, internally, can draw from it. This happens so frequently on support teams. One person figures something out and they don’t get the time to write it down, so anytime it comes up again, they’re like, “Oh yeah, Susan knows how to do this,” as opposed to giving Susan that time off the support desk to write it down and put it in a place that’s accessible to the entire team and hopefully, as is appropriate, to the customers. Okay, you’re going to lose Susan’s time on the desk or on the phones or on the chats for a little bit, but that’s going to come back to us because all those shoulder taps will hopefully go away.

Niamh: Absolutely. Some of the things you mentioned there, like lack of time, lack of resources, and the introduction of AI and new technologies – are you seeing a hit to team morale? How are leaders tackling that in your experience?

Camille: The rifts are definitely across the industry, not just on the support side. You’re seeing it across every side of the building. I think if you log into LinkedIn, you’re going to see the little green around people’s circles all the time. It definitely is taking a hit. And it’s hard because, on the other side, there’s so much enthusiasm about AI. But it has to be balanced. I hope the people who are continuing to develop this AI are thinking about it in a way where they can cultivate more opportunities for other people. But I haven’t heard anyone say, “A robot took my job,” so far. Nobody feels that way. They definitely feel like they still have a contribution to make. I think we all do.

“I love nurturing junior talent. And there’s no such thing as a degree in customer support. You learn on the job. You learn alongside people”

It’s not a competition. I don’t think most of us feel like we’re in competition. I do hear that maybe on the design side a little bit more. These design tools can be sophisticated, if a little bizarre, in terms of what they generate. Sometimes, even content creation because, now, a little bit of effort in ChatGPT can get you a suitable piece of content. So yeah, it’s something people are thinking about.

I haven’t heard a lot of conversations on how we can raise our game across all the fields so that we bring something to the table. I’ve talked to someone who was thinking about going to a coding boot camp. And I’m concerned about the future of junior developers. The quality of code junior developers can create, AI can create. And it’s really senior developers and people with a stronger eye that are going to have the edge. So, what do we do about everyone else who would like to rise through the ranks and get to senior developer? I love nurturing junior talent. And there’s no such thing as a degree in customer support. You learn on the job. You learn alongside people. If we say, “Tier-one things are going to be automated,” how do people get a foot in the door? I’m a little concerned about that.

Niamh: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something we’ve been thinking about here as well because we have an AI chatbot. And when you’re onboarding new junior talent, how is it that you allow them to learn with the easy questions that customers have when the chatbot can handle those for you now, and make sure they get to that next level so they can begin to contribute towards the human element?

The appropriate experience

Niamh: You’ve mentioned, in the past, the importance of customer segmentation when you’re aiming for a more tailored customer experience. Could you dive deeper into the appropriate experience approach and provide some insights on how customer service leaders can balance the needs of different customer segments, especially with limited resources?

Camille: Yeah, absolutely. The appropriate experience approach comes from Lincoln Murphy, a customer success pioneer. Traditionally, we’ve thought about it as whoever pays us the most money, gets the most attention. But sometimes, you have people who pay a lot of money, who have a marquee name as a brand, as a customer, or someone you emblazon on your homepage, but their team doesn’t need the hand-holding. When I worked at Humio, and then we were acquired by CrowdStrike, we had customers at a very large financial organization. And those customers, in some ways, could run circles around our customer care team. They’d just been using the product for so long. They found little tricks and tips and would teach them back to us. So, in terms of the amount of time they needed with us, when they did want to be with us, it was more just to nerd out about the product and where it was going.

“When you’re thinking about the appropriate experience, who actually needs this amount of attention?”

A colleague who was at Looker talked a lot about this idea of graduating those customers into the community. And I love that idea. They can be in a community. At Humio, we had a Slack, for example. And those customers would be almost deputized community support and help people in jams. And then, if they couldn’t figure it out, the person they were trying to help would come to support. I love the idea of that.

When you’re thinking about the appropriate experience, who actually needs this amount of attention? In a lot of organizations, particularly earlier-stage startups, the feeling is, “If we don’t talk to big-name Customer X every week, when they churn one day, it’ll have been our fault because we didn’t keep babysitting them”. But there’s got to be a way to leverage the product, particularly in SaaS, to keep an eye on what they’re doing and then be responsive.

This is where automation also helps. You can see people in areas where they’re getting a lot of errors and issues and proactively say, “Hey, we noticed you keep having an issue in this area. Could we grab half an hour with you to walk you through either the problem you’re having or a better approach to this?” That sort of thing, rather than just that steady drumbeat of “every week we meet to babysit.”

I think that’s also born out of customer success being a newer space than account management. A lot of organizations are looking at customer success as a rebranding of account management, which it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to onboard customers, keep them happy, keep growing those accounts, and make sure they are achieving their own stated goals with the use of your product. Not just, “Are you okay? Are you happy? Do you want to buy more things?” If they haven’t achieved what they were hoping to achieve, it becomes a pushy sales conversation. I always make it clear – as a customer care leader, I’m not interested in that. As a customer care leader, if our product is not the right product for the customer, I want to be able to come from a place of integrity and strength and tell that customer this isn’t the right fit for them. I know it’s not a popular thing to say. I’ve been admonished from saying that kind of thing, but I think it’s really important for your personal brand as a customer care leader and for the overall organization because people appreciate that kind of integrity.

“I’ve always encouraged my team to do periodic check-ins. And it’s a relationship like any other relationship. ‘Is this going well for you? Do you still like this?'”

When I’m thinking about segmentation, I’m thinking about who needs to be onboarded. What kind of onboarding do they need for the goals they’re looking to accomplish and the challenges they have? Which team is going to need a little bit more hand-holding or engagement versus the customers where it just clicks for them?

I’ve always encouraged my team to do periodic check-ins. And it’s a relationship like any other relationship. “Is this going well for you? Do you still like this? Is biweekly, monthly, or quarterly good for you, or are you feeling like you’d rather reach out when you need us?” I think people appreciate that. They’re so busy. Your product is probably one in a suite of products they’re using, and you are one of a myriad of support or success people reaching out to them every day, every week. So, being sensitive to that and saying, “Hey, I know you have a job to do. We’ve talked about what your goals are for this quarter, and talking to me is not always in league with getting that done.” I’m talking to you. My manager’s happy. You had a smile on your face on the Zoom call, but that’s 30 minutes you could’ve used to do something else.

It’s critical to think about what’s appropriate there. If people are interested, they can look up Lincoln Murphy. He’s got an excellent podcast where he talks about this every week. It’s bite-sized and really useful. And he’s really passionate about this idea of appropriate experience. It’s hard to get by because dollars equating importance is kind of what makes business move forward. But it’s not always the right fit, and it won’t always yield the outcomes you’re looking for.

A data-driven approach to feedback

Niamh: In your experience, how can customer service, customer success, or customer experience agents effectively translate customer feedback and needs into actionable requirements for product development teams?

Camille: This is something I’m also really passionate about. At my last company, there was a Slack channel where they would drop every bit of feedback they got from customers on phone calls and emails. It was reams and volumes of notes and links to Gong phone calls, but no depth. No depth in terms of how much revenue it represented or how many times they’ve heard this particular thing. At every organization I work with, I push for a data-driven approach. Don’t Slack the product team for every little complaint. As your organization grows, the amount of requests and feedback you’re going to receive is just going to grow and grow.

“Our job as a customer team is to move beyond anecdotes and start to get into the data”

It’s never going to be a day where everybody’s like, “Alright, closing time. We’ve fulfilled all the feature requests.” As a matter of fact, I have a board above my desk. And one of the things I printed out is a grid from your website. At the top, it says, “It’s hard to do,” “It’s easy to do,” and then, “Customers want it,” and “Customers don’t want it.” I always love to show that to teams and say, “Hey, there are loads of things. Customers want lots of things. It’s up to product to determine, based on a lot of input from sales, from the market, and from the customer team. And also our overall vision for what we want to achieve as a product and company. All those ingredients go into determining how our product changes. Our job as a customer team is to move beyond anecdotes and start to get into the data. And of course, as we talk about AI, when you have volumes of data, it’s really helpful to leverage a tool like TheLoops or another tool that can start aggregating so you can know which things customers bring up the most or pull in the data from the CRM to see how much revenue that represents.

Talk amongst yourselves in the organization, in the GTM team, if you have one, in the product team, and identify the areas where you want to place the bet. But I think it definitely starts from the customer team taking a higher-level view. And you know what? I love to hire people and work with people who are passionate and care about customers and want them to have a great experience with the product, but I think you can show that face to the customer and then end the Zoom call, connect with your team, and say, “What’s really important here from the company’s perspective?”

“It’s a hard conversation to have, but it’s important to keep that focus and alignment on delivering a great experience to the people you are trying to target”

You can always find language to communicate to the customer, “Hey, we can’t do that right now.” “You’re really important to us.” “Can you talk to us more about why this is a blocker?” And, “Will this workaround work for you?” But you can lose yourself so quickly in the product experience if you’re like, “Let’s fulfill every ticket that a customer brings in.” The sooner customer care people are dissuaded from the idea that we’re here to fulfill the wishes of the people who use our product, the faster you can start to have a conversation about what really makes sense. How can we be a partner to product and engineering in delivering the most amount of value for the most amount of people? Not for everyone, but the most amount of value for the most amount of people. And the right people, too, which product can help you understand, “Here’s who we actually are building this for.”

That goes back to what I was saying before. Sometimes, it’s not the right product for certain people at a certain time. It’s a hard conversation to have, but it’s important to keep that focus and alignment on delivering a great experience to the people you are trying to target.

Niamh: It speaks to the number of hats customer care teams have to wear and the number of skills they have to juggle.

Camille: Keep a close relationship with product – not necessarily talking and slacking every day, but understanding what’s really important to them and having them understand what’s really important to you. That relationship is so critical. When I consider working at a new company, I always like to have a good conversation with the product leader there to understand what their priorities are and determine whether we can work well together.

Fractional ventures

Niamh: To take it back to you, what’s on the horizon for 2024? Do you have any big plans or projects coming up?

“I am keen to keep having conversations with founders and early-stage companies about the critical ingredients to grow into a big company with a world-class customer experience”

Camille: I’m still exploring this fractional space I talked about before. At my last company, I acutely felt like I was too senior of a customer leader for the needs of that organization, but I did have something to contribute. I want to continue to explore the ways in which I can be of value to startups. I love that space. It’s a nimble and super fun space. I think getting or delivering a great customer experience really starts at the inception of the company. So, I am keen to keep having conversations with founders and early-stage companies about the critical ingredients to grow into a big company with a world-class customer experience.

Niamh: Great. And lastly, where can everyone go to keep up with you and your work?

Camille: That’s my website. I have a tab at the top. It’s called CX Thoughts if you want to read what I’m thinking about. I’ve written recently about AI, and I’ve written a three-part piece about what it looks like from the customer care perspective when your team gets acquired or acquires another company. I had a great conversation with a bunch of my peers recently, and the amount of feedback and thoughts couldn’t fit in one blog post, so I turned it into three. So, if your company’s in the process of being acquired or acquiring, or if you’re just curious, I thought it was a great conversation. You can contact me and we can chat. I’m always game to talk to other customer care nerds or budding customer care nerds.

Niamh: Fantastic. I’m sure our listeners will be excited to check that out. And thank you so much for joining me today.

Camille: Thank you.

Niamh: I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Camille E. Acey. And that’s it for today. Join us again next week for more Inside Intercom.

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