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Self-Improvement

What I Learned Doing Customer Support Exclusively For a Week

When I joined Buffer a few months ago, I figured my best chance to add value to the team would be to use my background in statistics, data and growth.

But I recently had¬†the opportunity to drop what I was working on¬†and spend one of the final weeks of my Buffer boot camp solely¬†on customer support for an entire week. It wasn’t a mandatory assignment; more a proposed journey to a different side of the company that could give me a new perspective of¬†Buffer as a product and organization.

Because Buffer has no managers, it was up to me to ask for advice and choose the option that made me the happiest and provided the most value to my teammates.

I decided to jump feet-first into customer support—here’s what I learned.

customer support week

Customer support is rewarding

Yesterday I was discussing my week working in customer happiness with my friend Patrik. I asked him if he thought I should continue focusing on support or jump back into my data and growth task forces.He responded with this simple question:

“How has the change affected your happiness levels?”

The question alone says a lot about Buffer’s values, but, reflecting on the past week, it’s easy for me to see that doing customer support has felt really good!

At Buffer we use the phrase “delivering happiness” a lot, and that’s because it describes what we’re trying to do to a T!

Every one of the support emails and tweets I see the Happiness Heroes send out is full of positivity, empathy, and useful information, and customers really seem to appreciate that. It feels good to be able to solve problems for them, and it’s an added bonus if you can brighten their day a little at the same time. :)

You learn quickly about the product

During my first couple of days, I had to ask a lot of questions and was generally slow to answer support tickets, especially compared to the Heroes who can answer over 100 tickets a day! And they even left the easier tickets for me!

Answering support emails isn’t easy. You have to learn the nuances of the product and be able to solve¬†many¬†customers’ problems for them—there just isn’t much room for error when trying to help someone whose expectations are perhaps not being met.

The result of all this discussion around the basic features of the product is a much improved understanding of how customers interact with the product, especially when they’re just starting out.

Empathy creates a different perspective

It feels good to be able to help someone out with a problem, and it feels bad when you can’t.

When I was working on analyses dealing with user behavior in the aggregate, I was separated from the individuals whose experiences I was hoping to improve.

When chatting with individuals in email threads, I got an exciting new vantage point and realized that there is so much to be learned from just talking to people. I was really able to empathize with the users more. I felt heir pain when they were stuck as well as their excitement when we figured something out.

It makes working on Buffer so much more fun knowing the customers who stand to benefit from each improvement. It also helps to keep the individual users in mind when doing exploratory data analysis, as I can always ask myself if this exploration will one day make Lisa’s/Karen’s/John’s/Sophie’s job easier.

It’s been refreshing to be able to empathize more with the users, and that’s a big reason why doing customer support is so rewarding.

Getting to know the whole team

Before I started doing customer support, I didn’t get as many opportunities to interact with the Happiness team as I would have liked—instead, I spent most of my¬†time talking to engineers and product people. Getting to work with the Happiness Heroes has been a real treat, and I’m so grateful to the whole team for letting me enjoy this experience with them.

Feeling the love and positivity of the Heroes has been a HUGE bonus. Every Hero has been more than willing¬†to help with even the silly questions, and they’re so energetic and fun! So many GIFs!

On top of that, they’re absolutely inspirational in the way they work. Not only are they incredibly quick and efficient, but the way they write with such positivity and understanding is really something to behold.

I plan to keep going

Focusing on customer support is extremely rewarding, as you have a chance to solve problems for users directly. You learn so much more about the product than you otherwise would have, and get to experience the customer journey through the eyes of a new user

There’s a great article on Medium about why every new employee should do customer support, and I’m in complete agreement.

I’m excited to get back to working on data analyses and exciting new products, but I will always be happy that I took time to get to know the customers. I plan on devoting some time every week, if not every day, to deliver happiness to our customers. It just feels right.

Have you ever spent time in customer support even if it’s outside your core area of expertise? How did it go for you? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!

  • James Timberlake

    Great article and I”m glad you got some new perspective from your time working with customers. I wish every company would do something similar.

    Every job I’ve ever had I’ve dedicated some, if not most, of my time to direct customer engagement/support. It is a great way to gain not only the perspective you mention but also keeps you focused on the real world use of your product. Every person that has ever worked under me has had to do customer service on a regular basis as a normal part of their development. While it is easy to see how this can help product people develop better, it is also essential for sales people as well. Not only does it help them to better understand their customers pain points, it also gives them insight into when the customers are not getting the value they expected. This really is set by sales, in may cases, and it is important to tell potential customer both where your service/product can bring value to them and also where it won’t.

  • I’m glad you have the freedom to explore Julian!

    The Happiness Heroes do an awesome job of supporting users but do they do any kind of reporting or data gathering on people’s problems? I’d bet you could make some useful changes to the product with data provided from customer support. Support data like that could bridge the gap between Happiness Heroes and Engineering for the benefit of everyone.

    Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing!

    • Tyler: I dig your idea about using data re: people’s day-to-day issues and troubleshooting to potentially bridge any gaps. It could be interesting to see frequency, etc. of particular problems or miscommunications that could be cleared up with further examples or documentation.

  • Right on, Julian! I first got picked up to be a Product Manager because I understood the customer. I talked to them at shows, answered support emails, talked to our support staff, and shadowed them during onboarding and support calls.

    After I started working in Product that time with the customer only increased. I felt I couldn’t continue to do a great job unless I stayed in touch with the person buying our software.

    That should extend to every position in the company. Keep at it.

  • Robert Boyd

    Fantastic post Julian, thanks for sharing your unique perspective on supporting customers. Also great to hear you’ve joined the Buffer team!

    Much like Justin L., I started off providing customer support before moving into more product and business-focused roles at my company. Your throughts on using the experience of supporting customers to better understand and relate to users really resonated with me. It reminds me of the concept of user stories in agile product development – I feel like great product managers would do well to have a very personal understanding of user stories, and providing hands-on support certainly contributes to that.

    Looking forward to seeing more posts from you here!

  • Interesting post, Julian. I like that you got to interact with more of the team that you wouldn’t normally on your day-to-day and also that it gave you renewed focus on connecting the data with clients’ experiences.

    Years and years ago, my first job as a teenager was at Disneyland. That definitely planted the seed of empathy and connection within the ol’ noggin for every job following.

  • Great post Julian.

    Organisations sometimes focuse solely on quantitative feedback when trying to understand customers. It is much easier to hide between dashboards and reports.

    Qualitative feedback is also very important and often forgotten.

    We are rational and emotional beings.

    Sometimes, simply listening to what your customers are saying is the most important task.

    Louis

  • That sounds like it was a great experience for you Julian. I had a similar experience. When I worked in Public Relations for a large museum, they put up an Info(at)Museumname(dot)org email on the home page. I was designated to I handl the email complaints & questions it generated. The museum & garden was large and diverse in what it covered. I answered those I could and forwarded & followed up on those I couldn’t. It really helped me to understand our customers better and helped me do my PR job better. When an interdepartmental team worked together to redesign the website, I was able to give input on what questions got asked most often, so we made sure to address them in the site design, or at least on the FAQ page.

    I also used to eat lunch in the cafeteria several times a week with the front desk staff. One, they were a fun group. Two, I would hear about the issues they were having and the questions people were asking them. Often I had the answer that they could pass on the next time, or I could pass an needed fix back to the website team, or I was able to clarify things for them – like why there was no children’s price in the newest brochure (the price would be changing soon, and we didn’t want to have brochures that had old prices) – which should of course have been discussed with front line staff BEFORE our division made the decision and printed the large print run of the brochures (to save $) – but this was the old days when the boss handed down the decisions and when departments rarely talked with each other.

  • I’ve been with my current employer for about nine years and started out in customer support. I did that for about four years. You are right that customer support is rewarding, but I’ve learned that customer support is only as rewarding as the support your employer gives you to support the customers. And that’s why I think Buffer is so cool. I think as consumers we all have had several customer support experiences – good and bad – and I think Buffer provides the best customer support. I’ve never had a bad experience with Buffer, even when being turned down for a job, and I think that speaks to the culture of Buffer than anything else.

  • Chris Keller

    I think it’s an amazing opportunity to check out other functions, specifically customer support. If you’re in the business of developing features/products for your customer, it’s sooooo important to be in tune with not only what they want moving forward, but how they are currently interacting/using your product.

  • Tavi Hirst

    I have had a very similar experience, Julian, and I agree. Customer support is so much more rewarding that you expect! I was brought on to do a completely different role, but I have ended up running the support service of a fast-growing edtech brand, and it has been brilliant. You gain an amazing amount from working directly with end users, hearing their problems and their success stories. It is problem solving at its most brutal – all of the challenges of communication alongside technical issues. It would be great for more people to experience this!

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