All-hands support can be a touchy subject for customer support professionals. When you ask designers and programmers to reply directly to customers’ questions, doesn’t that imply that anyone can do our job?
At Basecamp, we learned the hard way that you shouldn’t expect other people to be able to do the work of your support team. The good news, which I shared at the Support Driven Expo Europe 2019, is that we’ve found new ways to leverage people’s existing skills into valuable work which helps improve things for our customers, our team, and the company as a whole.
If you’d like to learn more, watch my talk, “Everybody helps: the evolution of all-hands support”:
At Basecamp, we’ve been running an initiative called Everyone on Support for nearly five years now. Each person in the company, whether a designer, developer or podcast producer, spends a day every eight weeks or so responding to customer emails. As Emily wrote a few months in, EOS quickly proved its worth: Direct contact with customers gave people a new perspective on our products, first-hand experience of the problems users were facing, and a reminder of what we were all working towards together. Lessons were learned, bugs fixed, and cross-team relationships were strengthened.
And then we got busy. With customer requests climbing, the support team lost some important people, and those that remained developed an unhealthy obsession with “inbox zero”. Our stress was infectious: Folk would turn up to their EOS shifts eager to help and leave deflated because they’d barely made a dent in the email queue. Each of them had a dedicated support team buddy to ask for help, but rather than “bug us” with questions, they’d spend hours down help-page rabbit holes. And on the rare occasions that things were quiet, they got bored because we weren’t leaving them with anything to do.
Something was very wrong, but the support team was too busy to notice. We didn’t have time to check in with each other, much less the people who were joining us for the day. We’d started Everyone on Support with the best intentions of not turning our coworkers into part-time firefighters, but that’s exactly what they became. Month after month, people would show up, grab the kind of requests they’d seen before, respond to as many as they could before their eyes started to swim, and clock off feeling bad because they hadn’t kept pace with the pros.
We hired some wonderful people, and reset our expectations for the support queue. While we took the time to train our new members, we paused EOS for a few months. That meant that we could put our whole focus on training, and take some time to think about how to do all-hands support right. As part of fixing our unhealthy behaviours, we carved out some time for “research and innovation”. I spent that time working out how we could invite our colleagues into the new, healthier space we’d created for ourselves. Here’s what we did, and what we learned.
Clear expectations are everything
Right from the start, we wanted to be clear about what Everyone on Support is. We put together a guide to outline what we expect from our guests and from their buddies on Team OMG (our pet name for the customer support team at Basecamp). A doc called What is EOS? What is EOS NOT? reaffirms our original goals for the scheme and how we’re going to achieve them together. It also reassures folk that they aren’t fodder to paper over cracks in coverage. We’ll work together to ensure their shift will be interesting, useful and fun.
As a bad manager in a previous work life, my initial impulse was to impose a solid structure onto EOS. On their first support shift, each person would respond to X number of login emails, then level up to billing issues, before starting to look at feature requests, and so on. I drew up a detailed syllabus, and asked for help fine-tuning it. Jim pinged me, and we had a great conversation, including the following question:
What does the loosest implementation of this look like? The company as a whole has been moving towards a more structured way of working for a while, but a lot of Getting Real and Rework are about doing less. How can we capture that spirit in EOS? What’s the smallest amount of work we can do to give the most support to the folks doing EOS?
I decided to scrap the syllabus. Using metrics risked the kind of anxiety around speed people had experienced in the past. Being too prescriptive would suggest that there’s only one way to succeed in support. And neither of those things got us closer to our goals for EOS.
I turned my gaze to the work we’d done to onboard the new members of the support team. OMG had done a great job of building a loose framework to support the learning of the newbies, and that felt like a better fit for what we were looking to do with Everyone on Support. I salvaged some bits from the abandoned syllabus, and repurposed them. When EOS would start back up again, everyone would have a collection of resources and some advice on handling common cases.
Basecamp is a company which values independence. The best approach was to give everyone everything they need to succeed, and then get out of their way.
Communication is key
Basecamp’s support team are thoughtful, kind humans. Instead of telling them how to manage their charges, I encouraged them to talk it out, and discover the way that person works best.
I suggested that each EOS day start with a discussion about what our guest supporter wanted to do, and end with a catch-up about how it went:
Your job is to help ensure that your buddy has fun, learns something new and feels good about their shift. Creating the experience that best works for them is going to come down to good communication.
A two-way street
Team OMG is full of good listeners (it’s our job!), and we’re as interested in learning from our coworkers as we are in teaching them. When updating our buddies list, I tried to pair people along shared lines of interest. Time zones made this tricky, but I’ve managed to connect support folk interested in research and product development with specialists in data and design, and the two-way insights have started to flow.
One size does not fit all
When training new OMG team members, we recognise that everyone learns and works in their own way. That’s something we’ve built into our approach to Everyone on Support: for some people, we pick emails that will be of interest and provide hints as to the answers; for others, we leave them to it, and stand by in case they have any questions.
Once someone’s comfortable with email support, it’s up to them how they spend their time with us. If something fits in a single day, and is going to benefit our customers, then it’s a good use of a support shift. People on EOS have squashed bugs, launched customer research projects, improved our internal tooling, leveled-up our external documentation… and that’s just the start!
Everyone on Support is a work in progress, but it feels like we’re going in the right direction. For six months now, we’ve been running a much more chill, cheerful — and constructive — version of EOS. I’m going to keep steering it with a light touch, and check in with people, to see how they feel about where we’re headed. Basecamp’s approach to all-hands support aligns with our values and how we choose to work as a company — so you may not be able to apply everything here to your own initiatives. We didn’t get it right on our first try, and we’ll make more mistakes in the future. It’s worth it.
Do you offer all-hands support? How does your approach differ to ours? Or are you thinking about rolling out something similar in your organisation? And what concerns or challenges are holding you back?
Before I worked on Basecamp’s support team, I freelanced as a writer and editor. One of my less glamorous gigs was contributing to a textbook teaching non-native speakers how to write business emails in English. Language stuff aside, I’d be researching emoji or “netiquette” or how tone rarely transmits over text, and catch myself thinking, “doesn’t everyone already know this?”
Now that I respond to emails all day, I can safely say: no, a lot of people don’t know how to write a good electronic message. Because they weren’t taught how. Folks who would never call themselves writers are thrown into a world in which most communication is done through text, and, in many cases, their livelihoods depend on it. Unfortunately, unlike my limited readership, most people aren’t handed a textbook when they sit down to craft emails.
That’s where we come in! Basecamp’s support staff write hundreds of emails a day, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. At the time of writing, 93 of our last 100 customers were happy with our replies, saying things like “easy to follow”, “quick, simple and to the point”, and “the perfect response”. So I thought I’d take some time to share what we’ve learned about writing clear, efficient, effective emails.
Before I begin, let me say that we appreciate all of your emails, because they mean that you are using our product and either want our help using it better, or want to help us out, by giving us a heads-up about a possible bug or improvement. We treasure in particular messages from non-native speakers, whose English is almost certainly better than our Spanish, German or Chinese. Please keep sending us emails, and if you would like to get really good at writing them, follow these tips.
“Dear Sir/Madam” is how we used to begin communications, back when we had to scratch our messages on dead trees with pointy sticks filled with liquidised vegetables. Back when being formal mattered. Back when we believed there were only two genders, and that it was important to assign a person to one or the other.
That was then, and this is now. Now we say “Hey!” or “Hi”. Or, “How’s it going wonderful Basecamp helper unicorns?”. Imagine you aren’t Writing An Important Letter, but walking up to a stranger and introducing yourself — only you’re blindfolded and can’t see what kind of body the person inhabits. Actually, that sounds kind of scary — forget that. Just be friendly, be informal, be cool.
DON’T USE ALL CAPS
You would think that everyone would know this by now. YOU WOULD THINK THAT.
Get to the point!
Everyone on my team reads upwards of 100 emails a day, more like triple that if you count the ones we scan to see if they’re spam, out-of-office replies or something else that doesn’t need our full attention. So please, get to the point. As quickly as you can.
Say what you need up front (right after your friendly salutation!), before getting into the specifics. Try to let the reader know: here’s what the issue is, here’s what I want you to do about it, and here’s all the info you need to get it done. We all wish we had time to read epic tales sewn through with plot twists and colourful characterisation, but we don’t. Keep it moving, people!
Paragraphs are your friend
There is nothing more disheartening than opening an email to see a dense block of unbroken text. OK, there are far more disheartening things, like war, famine and injustice, but we’re talking about email here. And sometimes email will screw with you, removing all the formatting and mashing your carefully-chosen words into a single stream of consciousness. You can’t always control the output, but you can be mindful about what you put in — and aim for it to be as legible as possible.
Use paragraphs. Even better, make every paragraph a single sentence, each of which makes one discrete point.
That’s how I write most of my emails now, because this way they’re most easily understood.
I’m doing it right now — doesn’t it look nice?
Writing this way forces you to consider everything you’re setting down.
Think about the person on the other end, the person who has to read this, and ask yourself:
Could this section be clearer or more concise?
Should that part come before or after this part?
Do I need to include this at all?
Try to avoid this:
And aim for this instead:
Don’t tell us it’s urgent
You know how we feel about “ASAP”. If you’re writing to Basecamp support, we’ll get back to you in a matter of minutes, because we want to keep you happy and productive. And anyone else you contact will be working to their own set of priorities. If you’re up against a specific deadline, or you need this thing dealt with before you can do that other thing, by all means say so. But words like “immediately”, “URGENT” or (ew) “ASAP” aren’t going to speed things up.
So far, so prescriptive. But writing is always personal. It’s your voice, and we want to hear from you. So forget everything you were taught in Business English 101 (but remember everything you learned here 😉) and drop us a note from a living, breathing actual human. Ask us to “take care of” something, rather than “actioning” it, and we’ll respond in kind — with the real words that real people use. And probably an emoji or two. 👍
Attach photos of your pets!
This is special advice for when you email Basecamp. Your CEO or divorce lawyer may not appreciate an attachment of your dog in a Halloween outfit — unless they’re really cool. But, no matter what size or shape of animal you have, we want to see it! There are times when you need to be strictly business, and there are times when you need to sign off your correspondence with this:
Happy emailing — we look forward to hearing from you 🙂
When I’m at work, I’m my best self. I’m positive, patient, helpful, curious and considerate. I tap seemingly bottomless reserves of empathy, and drip, drip, drip kindness out to customers and colleagues. I’m resourceful and flexible, bending over backwards to solve people’s problems. I take pride in exceeding their expectations. I listen to criticism, but try not to take it to heart, and I show up ready to make a difference to someone’s life, day after day after day.
But when I close my laptop, something changes. By the time I’m done working, I’ve usually had enough of other people. The last thing I want is to be around other humans, listening to their problems, responding to their requests. I forget to call my mum. I miss my friends’ events. I complain about going to buy ice cream for my wife — something I actually love to do — because I don’t want to be asked for. One. More. Thing. I open Twitter and get into fights with trolls, then turn around and troll others. In my downtime, I’m antisocial and cynical; I’m lazy, sloppy and thoughtless.
What if it doesn’t have to be this way? What if the me who makes customers happy all day could continue to spread cheer through his private life? If switching off from work didn’t have to mean switching off the parts of my personality I’m tired of exercising — all the nice parts. What are the things I practise in customer support that could make me better at supporting humans in general, and myself in particular?
I have a plan for being my best self, even when I’m not being paid to do so, when I’m not being monitored and given feedback. You know, when I’m “just” living my life. Here’s what I’m going to practise — and what I’m going to listen to, to get me in the mood:
Just do it
If a customer writes me an email, I respond in a matter of minutes. If they want to talk on the phone, I’ll call them as soon as I can. My goal is to resolve their problem as quickly as possible, with the bare minimum of back-and-forth. But if someone calls my personal phone, there’s little chance I’ll pick up; zero chance if I don’t recognise the number. I hardly ever listen to my voice messages, let alone return those calls. I don’t pick up my mail, and it’s returned to sender. In my office there’s a patch of wallpaper I’ve been waiting for months to strip. Well no more. Whatever needs to be done, I’m going to… just do it.
You’re gonna wake up and work hard at it You’re gonna wake up and stop giving up You’re gonna wake up and just do it
It’s easy to forget that, on the other side of that phone call, email or tweet, is another person, made up of flesh and blood, and faults and feelings. Good support pros keep in mind, and occasionally remind their customers, that we’re all human here, doing the best we can in sometimes frustrating situations. I’m going to try to speak to people online with the same courtesy and respect that I would if we were face-to-face. Even if I disagree with them, no one deserves to be disrespected, demonised or dehumanised. We’re all human, after all.
I’m only human, I do what I can I’m just a man, I do what I can Don’t put your blame on me
My team practices something called noncomplementary behaviour. That’s a Psych 101 term (beautifully illustrated by this Invisibilia podcast) for meeting anger and frustration with politeness and positivity, leading the conversation in a more constructive direction. Don’t feed the trolls; have a cup of coffee with them. Some people can’t be helped, but others will benefit from a little listening, understanding and empathy. I’m going to be the disarming, charming(!) person Basecamp expects me to be, and make life more bearable for everyone, myself included.
The killer in me is the killer in you My love I send this smile over to you
Let it go
In life, especially online, it pays to pick your battles. We waste so much time and energy fighting with people whose beliefs we have no hope of changing — and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. While supporting customers, I’m empowered to help them and address their concerns, but there is a fair amount of frustration and criticism I let wash over me. Outside of work, I’m practically powerless, and vulnerable to stronger and more personal attacks. I’m going to stop taking it personally, make a positive difference wherever I can, and let everything else go.
Let it go, let it go Turn away and slam the door I don’t care what they’re going to say Let the storm rage on The cold never bothered me anyway
At Basecamp, we take self-care very seriously. We’ve invested in health benefits for employees; we’ve created a Basecamp for that. Over the years, I’ve become better at caring for myself, and worse at caring for others. With all the terrible things happening in the world, it’s easy to feel hopeless, and my way of coping has been to detach, and exist in a state of blissful ignorance. But part of my job is to empathise with people, to care about what they care about, and by doing so, help make their lives a little better. I’m going to invest myself more in others, in their passion and their pain, and see if I can inject a tiny bit more love into the world.
I know you’ve been hurt by someone else I can tell by the way you carry yourself But if you let me, here’s what I’ll do I’ll take care of you
I’m going to try and break down the (otherwise healthy) separation between my work and my life, and let the good habits filter through. I’ll hold onto that positive attitude past 6pm, and see what else I can apply it to. It’s going to take work and thought, practice and commitment. But it’s going to help me live my best life. Why not join me, and let me know how it works out?
If you’ve read this and thought, “I do that anyway”, then you might be perfect for Basecamp’s support team. We’re hiring someone in the US to help care for our customers, and resolve their problems with a considered response and a smile😀. If this sounds like you, then apply to join one of the world’s best customer support teams here.
As technology evolves, and companies wake up to the possibility of remote collaboration, more and more people are trying out coworking. Progressive as ever, we at Basecamp have written about “working alone in a crowd”, in an office you aren’t responsible for. And we’ve put our pennies where our pens are, offering our staff a stipend to help with renting a desk somewhere.
I came to this realisation during a recent trip to Manchester, England, where I helped train the new support person who’ll soon take over my weekend shifts. Rather than making Jayne, who lives near London, fly halfway around the world to our Chicago base and learn new names, new systems and new stupid in-jokes while struggling with time-zone delirium, we thought it would be more humane to pop her on a train instead — which, in the UK, is sometimes quicker and less stressful than a transatlantic flight. Instead, we got team lead Kristin to fly in from Oregon and meet us in our temporary home, a shared office called Workplace.
Workplace was perfect for our needs. We were given our own meeting room, with a quaint mock front door we could shut when we needed our privacy. We had comfortable chairs, high-speed wifi and other essentials like a steady flow of drip coffee and as many biscuits as we could eat. At first, we enjoyed the buzz of other people getting down to business around us, while we actually had face-to-face conversations and got to know each other IRL. But, by the end of week two, that room started to feel like a carpeted cell.
Why? Because that’s just not how I like to work. Training is one thing, meetups are another, but in my daily working life, I much prefer to be in my own home office. Desk sharing does nothing for my work, the way in which I approach it, or how I wrap my life around it. Since I stopped coworking, I’ve never been happier or more productive. It’s been better for:
Here’s how my day-to-day goes: I listen to loud music and reply to emails. I look for answers, troubleshoot problems and pitch solutions. I teach an online class at the same time every week, and, at random, field requests for phone calls. When it’s quiet, I write. I have my colleagues at hand when I want their help, and complete solitude when I need it. And when I’m done for the day, I’m done. No part of this is enhanced by having other people around, working on their own stuff. Coworking spaces are wonderful places to collaborate, socialise and escape home life — but none of those are things I need.
Almost everyone in my team, maybe even the whole company, falls at the introverted end of the spectrum. We work remotely, connected but alone, and exercise our empathy muscles until they ache. During a busy day, I interact with more than a hundred people over email, Twitter, phone and online chat, most of them complete strangers. After that, I want one of two things: hangs with friends, with whom I can be my true, unfiltered self, or time to myself, cooking, reading or playing records. The last thing I need is more casual acquaintances with which to make small talk or awkward eye contact.
Truth be told, the only company I really need is my wife and “daughter”, a beautiful four-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to a French Bulldog. Zoë is a photographer who sometimes shoots on location, sometimes in our home studio, spending the rest of her days retouching images at the desk next to mine. That means I get time with my favourite person, practising our karaoke jams and squealing at photos of other bullies (don’t tell Olive!), but also time to focus on me. Going to a coworking space would mean being away from my fuzzy family, a trade-off I never want to make.
My weird habits
Everyone knows that you should have regular breaks during your working day, time away from that screen. But not everybody spends that downtime doing pull-ups on their bathroom door. Sure, there are a few “active collaborative workspaces” where such activity would be encouraged, but, outside of those broworking spaces, anyone doing push-ups between the desks will be cause for concern. Other weird habits I’m better off keeping at home: mid-morning showers; preferring to listen to podcasts rather than other people; staring at my dog while she sleeps.
A quick poll of my fellow Basecampers revealed that having no commute is their favourite thing about working from home, and the biggest block against considering coworking. I’m lucky in that the space I ran was down one flight of stairs from our apartment (which brought its own problems!), and any new shared office would be a short bike ride away. But, for me, an office door is enough separation between my work and life, and I’d rather spend my journey time walking the dog. Did I mention I have a dog?
If this doesn’t describe you, by all means — consider coworking. Everyone is different and each person works differently. Maybe your job is isolating and you’re craving human interaction. Perhaps your projects would benefit from an outsider’s ideas or their complementary skills. You might not have space at home to dedicate to an office, or the desire to own a printer-scanner-fax. Or you just want to get out of the house more.
If you’re looking for a new way to work remotely, coworking could be the answer. But you might have to search long and hard for a space that suits you, and you might have to sign-up for some trial months. And when you’ve found the right fit, you’re going to have to make it work for you. Whether you end up in a shared space or your own home office, focus on making each day a healthy, productive time.
With Basecamp 3, remote collaboration has never been easier. We’re spread all over the world, working together across every time zone, and we built this tool to help you do the same.
I’m writing this on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Here in beautiful Berlin, most of my friends are enjoying a lazy start to the day, having returned from the club, bar or all-night pop-up kombucha stand just a few hours ago. Maybe some brunch, they’re thinking, followed by a stroll along the canal. Do they have everything they need for a barbecue? Or is this one of those curl-up-in-the-duvet-with-delivery-pizza kind of days?
Not for me, it’s not. I haven’t had one of those weekends in a while. I’ve been supporting Basecamp’s customers from 9am to 6pm Central European Time, every Saturday and Sunday — give or take — for two and a half years now. While everyone around me slowly stirs to life, I’ve been at my desk for four hours and, after lunch, I’ll have another four to go. And you know what? I’m happy to be here.
Working on the weekend isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, much less working every weekend. When I was being hired, everyone I spoke to would double-check, “are you really sure you’re fine with a Saturday-Wednesday schedule?” Each time, I would reassure them: it won’t make much difference to me. I came to Basecamp from a world of freelancing that has little respect for working hours, and I expected to find a better quality of life sticking to set shifts, no matter when they fell (I was right).
Now I’m the one doing the double-checking. My team’s undergone a bit of a reshuffle, and I’m moving across to cover weekdays. We’ve already found an awesome replacement for my shifts, and in doing so, we asked again and again: are you willing to work weekends indefinitely, and do you have any idea what that really means? I only gave my thumbs-up to candidates who could convince me that they understood how hard working those shifts might be — and that they could still see the upside.
What upside, exactly? Anyone who’s had to clock in outside of regular office hours knows it can be a bummer, and everyone else can easily imagine the drawbacks. But until you’ve done those shifts for an extended amount of time, you may not realise that many of the all-too-apparent negatives are actually super-secret positives. Here’s how to turn your Sunday smiles upside down, and make the most of your weird work schedule:
Reap unexpected rewards Basecamp isn’t just a business tool — it can help anyone organise whatever they need to get done. The weekend is when the professionals put down their tools, and everyone else tries to get their personal projects off the ground. Every now and then, I speak to someone who doesn’t really understand computers, for whom the cloud is a mystery, and who has set aside their Sunday to get their heads around “this Basecamp thing”. People like this can be a challenge to work with, but getting them up and running is especially rewarding.
Turn isolation into independence Curiosity is a requirement at Basecamp — we expect everyone to work out the solution to whatever problem they face (and, of course, to ask for help when they’re stuck). However, when everyone else is online, it’s easy to get lazy, and rely on more experienced support staff, and the people who built Basecamp, for answers. On the weekend, I don’t have this luxury. Outside of emergencies, any answers that our customers need are going to come from me. I’ve learned more, and helped more people, by hunting down my own answers than I have by tapping others on the shoulder.
Bond with your fellow weekend warriors Basecamp literally wrote the book on remote working, and one of its important lessons is “Thou shalt overlap”. When you’re about to spend the next six hours on your lonesome, you learn to make the most of the 60 short minutes you have with your fellow weekend workers. When I jump online to say hi to Sylvia, who’s been running things from Hong Kong, the Campfire chat room soon fills up with dad jokes (mine), dog photos (also mine), squeals of delight (hers) and music recommendations of varying tastefulness (both!). Of course, we’ll still overlap a few times a week, but when we do, we won’t be anywhere near as desperate for human contact. Boo, this one’s for you.
Maximise your quiet time As soon as Sylvia logs off, things really quiet down. On a typical Saturday or Sunday, I respond to half as many support emails as I do on a weekday, and far fewer tweets and phone calls. This gives me time to do less urgent, but no less important, things like pitching new features, updating our internal documentation, organising my replacement’s training — and writing blog posts like this one.
Make the most of your✌🏽weekends✌🏽 My most cherished quiet time comes after I clock out on Wednesday evening. Because Basecamp believes that Work Can Wait, I’m left to enjoy this downtime free from distractions, except in the case of emergencies like a bowl of noodles Sylvia really needs me to see. When everyone else is at work, I can choose from my pick of machines at the gym, set a leisurely pace at my local brunch spot, get a whole row to myself at the cinema, or do the weekly shop while the aisles are empty. Best of all, as the people around me are gearing up for the weekend, I’m getting ready to return to work. Which is when I tell myself…
Remember: you have the best excuse ever “I’m so sorry I can’t come to your vernissage-slash-electro-swing-party in that disused sewer pipe — I have to work in the morning. Maybe next time!”
Of course, I’m happy to be getting my “real” weekends back. But I’m glad I got to experience what it’s like to support different kinds of customers, at different times, with different needs.
As for my weekend warriors, hold strong! Make the most of the quiet moments, in and out of work. Take the extra time to hold your customers’ hands and lead them across their own personal obstacles. And support each other — be that rare ray of sunshine in your colleague’s working weekend. Wherever the weekday work takes me, I’ll be here for you!*
*Except on Saturday mornings, when I’ll be having a nice lie-in.
Basecamp 3 can help you organise whatever you’re working on, whenever you choose to work on it. Check it out now at basecamp.com.