From The Experts: AUTOMATTIC’S Andrew Spittle ON WordPress and the art of customer happiness

Automattic is one of those rare companies that defies all established rules of starting a business, and is wildly successful because of it. The masterminds behind do not have an office, they have employees across the globe who meet up annually in various parts of the world; they do not have customer support agents, they have “happiness engineers”; they do not communicate in-person or via email, but through a WordPress theme; and no matter what position you take with them, each and every employee starts out as a happiness engineer. WordPress now owns about 26% of the Internet, and it’s not that surprising. We sat down with veteran Happiness Engineer, Andrew Spittle, to chat about how Automattic manages a remote global support team, and what customer service means to the company whose goal it is to take over the Internet.

HS: At Automattic I’ve read that you guys don’t use email for internal communication. Why?

That’s right, we don’t use email for any internal communication. Instead we use a real-time WordPress theme called P2. Each division, team, and project area in the company has its own P2. And they’re all part of a network so you can easily crosspost between related sites. Posts are tagged, archived, and indexed through an in-house search tool.

These P2s are public to everyone in the company. From the moment you join Automattic you can access every site and find archives going back years before you joined. That transparency is beneficial for us as we need everyone to have the same level of access to information. Email is a very opaque communication tool. Only those on the thread get to read the information. And looping someone in mid-conversation is always a pain. P2s assume transparency from the start and allow any Automattician to follow and take part in what’s happening across any area of the company. If you want to know more, Matt wrote a bit about how P2 changed Automattic.

“A successful future for support is one where we see every conversation as an opportunity. An opportunity to better serve a customer and to better inform our product.”

HS: How do you implement communication between support and other teams — particularly in terms of communicating product iteration needs?

The key for us is that communication between teams happens fluidly. You don’t need to escalate something to a team lead or product manager in order to bring it to the attention of a product team. Everyone has access to product team P2s, bug trackers, and more. Healthy communication, in that sense, is the oxygen for an effective work day.

HS: In terms of mediums, where do you think customer service is heading? Chatbots? Live agent chat? Self-service? IVR?

The future isn’t any one of those media. The future I see is one where companies become better at having meaningful conversations with their customers, no matter the tool.

“Email is a very opaque communication tool. Only those on the thread get to read the information.”

That means getting past thinking of support as granular tickets and responses. Each response is part of your long-term conversation and relationship with that customer. And that’s true whether it’s over live chat, a chat bot, or anything else.

A successful future for support is one where we see every conversation as an opportunity. An opportunity to better serve a customer and to better inform our product. We can grow and improve toward that, independent of a particular trend in support media.

HS: You’ve said, “We need to be comfortable measuring ourselves.” What do you measure? How do you tie your team’s metrics and goals to those of other teams and of the company in general?

We measure just about everything with support. For our core metric is live chat coverage. We aim for 24/5 right now and measure that on a minute-by-minute basis. We also look at email response times and customer satisfaction ratings.

On an individual basis we also keep track of how many interactions someone does (live chats, email replies, forum posts) and what the customer satisfaction of those are.

One key thing for us with metrics is that every stat is available to every team member. Team leads don’t have access to any stats that team members themselves lack.

We have a lot to improve for the latter part of your question, tying these metrics to company goals. Part of this is that we still see ourselves needing to improve in order to reach the basics of what customers expect. With those basics in place we’d look at additional work that could tie directly into product changes and ambitions.

HS: Support has historically been seen as a cost-center. Do you think this is changing? Why is it changing?

It’s changing bit-by-bit but the predominant norm is still that of a cost-center. You can still see the mindset of a cost-center in the way most support software prices the product. They price software on a per-agent basis, which means there’s a very real cost beyond salary to a company hiring a new support team member.

Seth Godin wrote a great post last year about this, saying the key is to know what your company needs from support. Does it see an opportunity to add value to how customers use your product? If not then fighting the cost-center perception at that specific company may be a losing battle. There’s no single definition of great support. Support, at its core, acts in service of the overall company.

On the whole, though, the cost-center mindset is deeply rooted and not changing fast enough. Even some large companies that tout the primacy of the customer experience turn around and treat their support teams terribly (low hourly pay, poor benefits, no career paths). If you believe support is about creating value for customers then you need to back it up by creating value for your support employees.

HS: How has Automattic enabled you to build a successful support team? What advice would you give to other companies trying to build their own support team?

The most important thing has been how we start every new hire at the company with 3 weeks of work in support. From our CFO to our head of HR to every designer and developer, they’ve all started their full-time work at Automattic with the Happiness team. And every team spends one full-time week a year working in support.

That means every employee at the company understands a bit about what our support teams do. And they have first-hand experience being on the receiving end of customer questions. There’s something powerful about product teams knowing what it’s like to get a live chat that starts with, “Hi, why did you change this feature? The old way was perfect and this new thing sucks!” That builds incredible empathy with support across the company.

“If you believe support is about creating value for customers then you need to back it up by creating value for your support employees.”

The advice I’d give to companies is to let your support team stand on its own. Make it its own division of the company. Seek to remove barriers between support and company leadership. And only set the course for a product with someone from support present. Too often companies approach support as an afterthought. They hire a third party to provide it, make it a part of sales, or tell support about product changes only after they’ve shipped. And, finally, if you believe in the notion of support as a career then you must work to provide your support team the same level of recognition and career development that you provide for the product team. Your support team contributes to the health and success of your company; treat them as such.

HS: What do you think of live chat vs phone support vs. email?

It’s very difficult to carry on more than one phone conversation at a time; it’s very straightforward to do so with live chat. Additionally, for many products, live chat gives your customers an opportunity to start and finish an interaction. They’re not firing off an email into the void and hoping they get a meaningful answer back.

Too many companies focus on more “cost-effective” things like email-only support while ignoring the real costs to customers. On the surface, email is very efficient and effective. But there are a ton of customers you’ll reply to and never hear back from. If you’re not factoring that into the cost evaluation then you’re missing an opportunity to better serve your customers.

There isn’t a static answer to what’s best and most cost-effective for a company. The starting point for that should be asking your customers. What do they expect from your company? What medium of support are they most inclined to use? And what medium will create the most value for them and for your company? Focusing solely on the cost or efficiency of your support tool is misguided.

HS: From what I understand, you’re managing a team that’s spread out across different countries. How do you manage this?

That’s right; we’re a distributed company so everyone works wherever they live. Most folks work at home, though some work out of an office space or co-working desks they rent. In support we have people on every continent but Antarctica and actively hire worldwide.

“Too many companies focus on more “cost-effective” things like email-only support while ignoring the real costs to customers.”

The key to managing this is to find motivated people who are passionate about helping customers and then get out of their way. If you hire and train people effectively they know how to do their job well; you don’t need to manage and approve their work. Every support team member has the same access to tools, stats, and internal documentation. Our goal is for anyone working in an area to be able to answer any question. We don’t tier support or require escalation paths for complex questions. The distributed nature of our team would collapse if we required approval for things like refunds or getting permission from managers.

When you’re working with people across the world, guidelines that encourage individual judgement and communication within the team are more effective than policies.

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