(Adapted from a keynote I gave at Lean Digital Summit in Lisbon this month.)
Good help is hard to find. I dread calling the credit card company, the phone company, any service provider, including and maybe especially SaaS companies. I anticipate talking to someone who is poorly trained, under-paid, powerless, and miserable. I anticipate their frustration rubbing off on me. I anticipate arguing to get my needs met. And that’s if I can even get a real human to talk to me. The people standing in the way of good help aren’t the customer support representatives themselves, though. Corporate culture, the bottom line, and rotten support for service roles has ruined how folks get the help they need.
I’m not alone in this. I’m not the only consumer who approaches support defensively, with their hackles up. Before we dig in, I want to tell you about a customer of ours — let’s call her Nancy — who, like me, had low expectations. She wrote to us asking for a lower price (which we didn’t have).
One of our reps, who has been at Basecamp for almost five years, wrote her back to politely tell her that we don’t have any lower plans to offer her.
Here’s what they wrote to Nancy:
Her response back was a little bewildering:
Three words! A sentence fragment! End of transmission. I saw this and recognized something interesting. Nancy was replying as if she were on hold with an automated service: Say ‘Account and billing’ for our accounting department. Say ‘Technical support’ for our technical department. I’ve been greeted by too many of those automated services and have more than once simply repeated the word “Human” until a person got on the phone with me. I swear, it works more quickly! Anyway, I recognized this in Nancy, so I jumped on a call with her. She immediately confirmed my suspicions and told me that she thought that the person who originally responded to her was a robot — and she then read the whole email to me in a robot voice to further her point. She also told me that because she thought she was speaking with a robot, that her three-word response was an attempt to get the robot to understand her. In short, she was speaking the robot’s language. To her, Basecamp was nothing more than beeps, algorithms, and machinery. We were no longer a group of humans with families and hobbies and struggles — we were machines that didn’t deserve even a full thought.
So how did we get here, to this point where our customers assume we are not even human? This was Nancy’s first interaction with us, so she had no context or history with us that would have lead her down this inhuman path — something else, outside of Basecamp, made her believe robots are the general first responders. We all know that capitalism has made the bottom line more important than the people. We need to reject these late capitalist temptations in order to protect our customers, our people. The people are why we’re here, the people pay our salaries, the people use our products. Don’t be fooled into thinking that anything other than people can support your customers.
Nancy, like myself and so many of you, drew from her previous experiences with customer support. So many companies put up some automation, a chatbot, some AI that ends up standing in the way of customer service and support. Nancy, by the time she emailed us, was already fed up with this culture, this treatment. Frankly, I’m fed up with it too. I never want to sit on hold listening to shitty music, pressing menu buttons, entering my account ID. Like Nancy, I want to talk to a human. I want us to get to a place in our industry where I know that when I contact a company, I’ll speak with a well-trained, cared-for human.
Because I live by the Golden Rule, to treat others as I want to be treated, I need to formalize how I want to be treated in order to better help our customers. What do I want? I want to talk to a well-trained, compassionate, and intelligent person when I have an issue. I have never in my life wanted to work out a problem with an ill-informed person. I never want our customers to feel that way about us: either that they cannot get a human to speak with them or that the humans who are speaking to them are simply unhelpful. Place yourself in a compassionate position — how do you want to be treated when you need to contact a company with an issue? What’s your ideal scenario? Start compiling your values so that you know what’s important to you.
Once you’ve figured out how you want a company to treat you, it’s time to look in the mirror. Are you treating your customers the way you want to be treated? Would your friends and family receive decent help from a decent human? Would you rest assured knowing your neighbor would be treated compassionately and timely if they needed help from your company? To put it shortly, are you proud of how your customers are treated? Does your company stand up to your own expectations?
If not, that’s ok. I want to help.
Now that you’re coming to grips with your own values and expectations, it’s time to open up a direct line of communication with your customers. Not an answering service, not an auto-reply, not an automated recording or menu, no bots, no AI. Figure out what you can manage. Email is the best way to gauge this.
If you scroll down, there’s a text box below this that you can fill out to send us an email that goes directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. We also show you roughly how long it’ll take for us to respond to you. On a normal day, we answer 100% of emails within an hour of receiving them. 90% of those, however, are answered within 30 minutes.
That quickness, that attention, didn’t happen overnight. It was an iterative process that took about a year or two. We kept adjusting our methodology, each time failing a little better. When I started at Basecamp, we had four people answering emails. We all lived in the same timezone and worked roughly the same hours. At 8am on a Monday morning in Chicago, we’d have 600+ emails waiting for us. We rarely answered an email on the day it was received. Now, we have fifteen people stationed from West Coast US to East Coast Australia. We answer emails 24/7, save holidays and company meetups, with folks working roughly 9am-5pm five days per week. No one works in a call center. We train and support our own employees. We are connected to each other through Basecamp. Our team is the face of Basecamp.
I’m showing you this so that you can see how easy it is to talk to someone at Basecamp. We’re not hiding behind a device or a bot that’s trying to convince you that we care. We actually do care. We really do care. We know that our customers want to talk to us. They don’t want to wait on hold or have some AI device convince them that their problem is simpler than it really is. They want our expertise, our consult. When I call our customers, they aren’t asking me Yes Or No questions — they are giving me their stories, their narratives. They want me to understand their daily workflows and needs so that I can consult and problem-solve with them. I want to help our customers succeed — hell, it’s in my own best interest that our customers succeed not just at using our product but at their business so that they can continue to pay us to use our product. Part of helping them succeed is hearing their stories. When people can speak their truths aloud, then they are better able to process those truths. That means that when we give our customers the opportunity to speak to us, to tell us their stories, then they understand their workflows better. If you understand your truths and workflows better, then you can do better work. When you employ a bot or use an automated service, you’re sending the message that you’re too good to talk to your customers yourself, that they don’t deserve your time or patience or thoughts. Your customers want to talk to you, and you should want to talk to them.
Let me show you just a glimpse of the feedback we get at Basecamp after we have conversations with our customers.
So, you see that our customers (who aren’t different than yours) want to talk to a real human. A real human! They want to have a real conversation with another person. It’s not just that they are happy that they got to talk to another human — it’s that they are surprised that they did. Like Nancy, they assumed we were robots. Why? Because so many companies have failed them, treated them like a burden so that they learned robots are now being employed to help customers. This happy surprise that our customers get after realizing our humanity isn’t exactly a good thing, it’s not exactly flattering. The bar is so low that all we have to do is be a real human. What we’re doing at Basecamp isn’t ingenious. We’re simply understanding our own capacity for answering emails (60–75 per person per day) and doing that in our own voices. We’re simply allowing a team of people to have human conversations with our customers. It’s sad to me that our fellow humans expect so little from us. We only have ourselves to blame!
Check out this hilarious clip from the latest season of Bojack Horseman, in which one character is struggling through her day and needs help from a customer support rep. Diane is carrying a lot of emotional baggage with her and needs a human touch, someone who can empathize and alleviate some of that burden. She’s instead met with a robot.
It’s funny and we laugh (it’s dystopian but honestly not all that absurd), but this is a daily reality for so many people who simply need a human conversation, someone to guide them through a difficulty (even if that difficulty seems frivolous to us). A harsh reality played out here is that, too often, service providers like this are not trained to actually help a person in need.
It’s not just that a human conversation is what our customers want and deserve. Our relationship to our customers should be more symbiotic — we need just as much from them as they need from us. Sure, our needs are different, but think about how we know to grow our product, where the holes are. At Basecamp, we talk to our customers. We interview them. We listen to their feature requests, their rants, their raves. We don’t simply look at data and clicks (we do that, too!), but we also have real conversations with real people. Real humans!
It may seem cheaper to employ chatbots and automation, and that’s because it is. It’s not a good thing when cheap is synonymous with flimsy. You’re sacrificing intel, product knowledge, connection, and culture. It’s not worth the sacrifice. Your human support team connects daily with your customers, your customers who not only carry with them the money you need to stay in business but also the knowledge of how to improve your product.
So if customers want to talk to humans and if customers have product knowledge to glean, why are we seeing so many companies employ these automations and bots? One of the reasons is simply that we’re a society that’s obsessed with technology and profit and the intersections therein. Maybe we should all reread Frankenstein?! But I also think that a more compelling reason is that support teams, in general, are not treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. That creates a culture of apathy and causes high turnover rates. Turnover frustrates managers and hiring committees: Why won’t people stay? This job is too draining. Let’s get bots who don’t complain and can’t leave. Apathy frustrates your customers who will find another service provider who can support them genuinely. I can tell you from experience that it’s not the work itself that makes people leave; it’s not the work itself that creates apathy — it’s the culture.
I’ve been supporting Basecamp customers for over seven years. Three others on my team have been supporting Basecamp customers for over seven years. Several others have been doing this for nearly five years. Collectively, our team has been supporting Basecamp customers for 64 years. It’s rare when someone leaves. So, I’ll repeat myself: it’s not the work itself that creates high churn and apathy in support positions; it’s how the employees are treated.
We all need to start placing higher value on the team that works directly with our customers. That means finding people who are preternatural helpers, first and foremost. What are preternatural helpers? People who enjoy problem solving with others. People who want to cull all sorts of knowledge for themselves and others. People who run to a problem instead of away from it.
Our team is made up of librarians, educators, personal assistants, fraud specialists, and IT professionals. All of these kinds of helpers, in order to succeed in this field, must be strong writers. You need a team of people who can communicate effectively in any form — that means that their written word must be passionate and strong. You need to hire people who can devise a way to gently say no, to kindly show a user how to accomplish a simple task without making them feel stupid. You need to hire people who are capable of handling difficult conversations with grace and candor. You need to hire people who can translate customer conversations into new product features or even new products themselves. Writers can do this because they can conjure these tones and emotions in strangers. Writers can identify, organize, and synthesize information for your customers to understand easily.
It’s a red flag to me when I receive bad support. The red flag is always for the company itself. It’s rarely the fault of the person trying to help me. Rather, these situations show me that the management, the company at-large abandoned this person. It’s a systemic failure, not a personal one, due to poor training, poor wages, no stake in the company (cultural or financial), no trust or autonomy. It’s honestly so easy to remedy.
Once you find the right folks (those polymath writers haha), you need to write and maintain effective and thoughtful training documentation that sets your new hires up for success. You need to constantly support your team. That looks different for each person you hire, so you need to get to know each person individually. Employees deserve regular reviews, regular feedback, opportunity to share their feedback, 1–1s, team chats. You need to listen to your team to know where you’ve failed so that you can atone and reconfigure. Let them guide you as much as you guide them. Your support team deserves competitive wages that can support them in a career — support work is not a stepping stone to another career; it’s its own career. They deserve retirement security, paid time off, childcare, healthcare. I could go on. If you want to treat your customers well, then you have to start treating your support staff well. If you value your customers, then you better value the folks who talk to your customers. Otherwise, you’re setting your customers up to fail and waving that red flag.
Once your team is comfortable and confident, you need to start giving them time away from the queue to process all the information customers gave them, to maintain documentation, to teach and interview customers, to learn new processes, to advance their skills.
Each support representative should have their own project for which they are responsible. On our team, each person spends one full day each week on working on Research & Innovation, a kind of Personal Development. They write help documentation, programming documentation, teach classes, interview customers, write blog posts, do social media engagement, learn programming, etc. I don’t decide what each person works on — I help them come to their own decision. This management style gives them a sense of ownership and dedication, a stake in a team so that there would be a true gap, perhaps even a systemic failure, if they left. Your support staff should not feel expendable. Help them feel essential by trusting them with their own passion project. Let your team show you better methodologies, better processes. Let them suggest protocol. Give them ownership in their work.
Try to remember that you started this process. You shifted the culture. You hired the right people, you trained them effectively. Now trust them. If you don’t trust them, then you took a wrong turn. People will soar when given the freedom. They will be grateful and hard-working, dedicated and loyal. They will challenge your company and make it a better place to work. I can’t say the same for robots.