37signals Podcast transcript

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Support at 37signals

[intro music]
Matthew Linderman: In this episode of the 37signals Podcast, we're going to talk to two members of our support team.
Kiran Max Weber: I'm Kiran Max Weber. I'm a support manager.
Sarah Hatter: I'm Sarah Hatter. I'm senior support person.
Matthew: It should be noted that Michael Berger, the other member of the support team, was actually out of town when we taped this conversation, so he was unable to participate.

To start off with, I asked the support team about the number of requests they handle every day.

Sarah: I think, right now, we're averaging around 175 original tickets a day, and each of those gets between two and three responses to us. So, we're individually sending over 100 emails every single day to customers. It's pretty high.
Matthew: What's the turnaround time, in general, for support requests?
Sarah: Between the hours of eight and five Central Standard Time, when we do the most work, our average turnaround time is 48 minutes for a ticket to be opened and closed, which is awesome. But we also don't work 24 hours, and we don't really work on the weekends too much, so there's a little bit to be desired in that area.
Matthew: And what's the rotation like between who's on and who's off? How does that work? Is there always someone on during business hours?
Kiran: Yeah. So Sarah starts around 7:00 in the morning Central time. She'll go through sort of a first pass of our tickets, getting rid of spam and taking care of the immediate issues, any kind of login issues or can't-access-an-account kind of issue. And then she'll sort of triage those emails out to Michael and I. Michael starts around, I don't know, 8:30, 9:00, and I'm on around 8:00 or so.
Sarah: We call it triage because it's much like the show "M.A.S.H." where, all of a sudden, the wounded are coming in. [laughs] We need to get them on the helicopters. But that's kind of how we determine the level of priority for what we reply to, because some things are way more urgent than others.
Matthew: And what are the pros and cons of doing an email-only support operation?
Kiran: Hmm.
Sarah: Hmm. [laughs]
Kiran: Let's see.
Sarah: Well. I'm a big believer that email support can be done very well and very effectively. The pros are that customers have written documentation that they can always refer back to. You can't have that when you're on a phone, you're furiously kind of writing down names and notes and what to do.

Secondly, we also have great documentation online, like our help sections and our tours, and we can send people those links that they can go through on their own time. If you're on the phone with someone, you can't spell out a link to them. It's very difficult to do.

Finally, we think that people sometimes get a little panicky on the phone. When they have an issue, regardless of how minor it is, they want to pick up the phone. They want to call someone. They want to just kind of vent. And doing email support helps us give them really direct instructions that they can take with them, that they can send to their team. And there isn't someone waiting on hold.

There isn't a million phone rings, that we have to worry about getting them off the phone as quickly as possible to take another call. We're allowed this kind of time with them that is very helpful to resolving issues.

Kiran: And that could also be a con, too. And I don't know if this is generational or what, but a lot of people will want phone support. So we're trying to give, really, clear and concise help to our customers. And even the shortest response, sometimes people don't want to read through, and they just want to go back to that sort of comfortable, traditional way of support, which is phone. So it can work both ways. That's definitely a con of email-only.
Sarah: Right. And there's always going to be people that just don't want to do business with you unless you offer phone support, which is very limiting, I think, in their regard. They're cutting themselves out of a lot of opportunities with companies that may not be able to offer support.

It's kind of a struggle for us to reach those people very effectively through our first, initial contact with them, so they know that this can work, that we can actually do it very well, and they can really be happy and get their issue resolved over email. Surprises a lot of people.

Matthew: And Kiran, you're fresh to the team. Where did you come from?
Kiran: So yeah, fresh to the team. I think this will be my third week here.
Sarah: Yeah, week three.
Kiran: Week three, yes.
Sarah: Really dropped into the fire there... [laughs]
Kiran: Yeah. Quick background. I went to school at Northeastern in Boston, did graphic design. Started out working for my father doing some pre-press work in the screen-printing industry. Went on to AIGA, did some project management there. Left to go to Apple, worked at Soho in New York City, and then the Fifth Avenue store, as a Mac Genius, and then lead Mac Genius.

Then went on to a local company here in Chicago, called Forget Computers, doing support for Mac-based design companies, which is pretty much everyone. Then came over here to 37signals. My first introduction to the product was Basecamp in 2004 at AIGA, to manage those products.

Matthew: And how does, say, doing support in the real world at an Apple store compare to providing support to 37signals customers?
Kiran: I think I repeat myself too many times and share too many stores about my experiences at Apple, but I use pretty much what they taught us every day. They spend as much time sort of marketing internally, or training internally, as they do externally, in terms of their brand. So they were really good in teaching a lot about expectations and giving feedback, both to customers and to employees, and that sort of thing.

So I use it every day, even though I'm not working with a physical machine or working with someone in front of me. But the things I've learned there definitely carry over to an email-only support. Same for web-based software.

Matthew: And having come freshly to the support team here, where are you hoping to take things, or where do you see room for growth or improvement, or how can we build a stronger support department?
Kiran: Well, I think a lot of people look at 37signals, first of all, for sort of the business part of things, whether or not that's the right term, the design aspect, as well as, obviously, the programming aspect, from David. So we really want to take support to be that next, sort of fourth pillar of 37signals.

We want it to be, I think, a support group known for web-based software, and just support in general, sort of customer advocacy, that people really can look at as a model industry, just like Zappos and Disney, those sort of companies.

Sarah: Absolutely.
Kiran: And I'm sure Sarah could talk about that a bit more.
Sarah: Absolutely. That's our goal. Our goal is we really feel like we are very well-known for our aesthetic, as far as our product design. And obviously, just the way that the company is run is a model to many companies.

There's a great market out there for people who need inspiration in little things, and one of those things is customer support. There's no customer-support school that you can go to [laughs] when you start your web-based product, or when you build an iPhone app, or when you create an add-on that people are using on their Macs. There's nothing that trains you and teaches you how to respond to a volume of customer complaints, how to respond to feedback or feature requests.

And so we have a great experience in that. The number of emails we [laughs] float back and forth with our customers is in the hundreds of thousands, over the past five years. And four of those years, I've been doing it. So I've come back from that with a lot of experience. This is stuff people need to know.

Matthew: So let's say we were starting a customer support school. What do you think we would teach people? What do you think people out there need to know?
Sarah: What do I think they need to know. Well, I think they need to know how to respond to upset people, confused people, and how to talk to them in their own language and without being technical and without being sort of, what's the word, abrasive in the technicality of their language.

I also think that people need to have a better understanding of parameters when it comes to the customer support that you offer.

So I had a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who started this web company and he sent me an email and he was saying "I just started this program and I'm not sure what I should do with it. I get customer emails all the time and I'm answering them all the time, and I'm answering them at six p.m., and then I get an email at 10 o'clock."

We used to do that at 37signals. When I started, we had an email address posted on a website for people to write us and email us if they had trouble. And we were getting emails all day long.

There was no parameter of we answer questions from this time to this time, and we need this information from you and this is very important when you write us so that we can get back to you with a resolution. And people need to learn that they can't just plaster an email address on a contact page and expect that that's going to be, that people are going to contact them, that they're actually going to pursue help, that they're actually going to get a resolution from it. So that's probably the number one thing.

And then learning how to respond very clearly and articulately and calmly when people are rude and upset and angry.

Matthew: Want a phone number to call.
Sarah: Exactly. You've got to understand that they're not angry at you and your product. They're not angry at some inanimate thing. They're angry because a series of events are happening and this is all kind of spiraling into this "I can't make a to do list."
Matthew: I think people are also conditioned by support in a lot of other areas of life that unless you're angry, you're not going to get help.
Sarah: Very much so.
Matthew: Be a squeaky wheel.
Kiran Max Weber: We were just discussing that with the Highrise app. Someone was asking a certain question, and we concluded that people that are, I don't want to say, brought up in a corporate environment. But their experience is that they get a computer assigned to them, they can't touch anything and if they break something they sort of broke something they need to call IT. Where this new generation of both products and support, is just download the app, it's free, install it on you phone, and then try it out.
Sarah: We have a situation every single day where someone writes us an email essentially kicking down our doors -"I'm angry. This is terrible. You're a horrible company. This is broken." And we reply to them within minutes, and we say "I'm really sorry you're having trouble. Here's what you can do to fix it." And they write back to us and they're surprised.
Kiran: 48 minutes.
Sarah: Number one that we wrote them back. People always comment on the speed. And they always kind of are just shocked, that we got it right, and it's done, and here's the answer.

It doesn't happen all the time. I wish it did. There are some issues that we need more detail for, we can't make a resolution for. It's funny to see how many people come at us very aggressively. Because like you're saying they're conditioned to having to deal with AT&T support, or call a phone bank, and get someone in India, or whatever experience they've had. They think they really have to shake their fist to get a good answer. We hope that people can learn that our reputation is you're going to get a good answer regardless of how you treat us.

Matthew: Right.
Kiran: I think 37signals is a company, and this might be the wrong word, holistic. But I think that if we continue to build our products the way we've been building them, sort of simple but powerful. If we continue, and Sarah and I and Michael are going to work on this, making our documentation rich with clear concise writing and imagery, and then sort of that last line of defense of really prompt and personal responses, that's definitely going to lead support.
Sarah: Absolutely.
Matthew: And what are the tools you guys are using? I know you started off on Gmail originally, and then moved up to Zendesk ...
Sarah: We had to stop using Gmail, because we were probably the only people in history who filled up an entire Gmail account, and had to start a new one. We actually used all of our space in our Gmail account over four years.

Now we're actually using a real support tool, made for people who do this job called Zendesk. And it's a fun tool, it's made by a Rails shop, and they're good people. And we all use obviously Apple computers, and we use Campfire exclusively during the day to communicate.

Which is also how we handle issues with our programmer. Because we do have a programmer who has elected to be on call and support for two months, or three months, at a time. And they work with us on the issues that we present to them instead of having us just kind of flag down anyone who is available to take something.

Kiran: Right, so if something comes in and it's sort of definitely broken, we can just sort of hand it off to them and they'll look into it right away. We'll get a resolution as quickly as possible.
Sarah: Right.
Matthew: Let's talk about for people seeking support, what advice would you give them? Tips for how to get good responses or good answers?
Sarah: Give us details, details, details.
Kiran: Really clear questions. Sort of like instead of "I can't walk, " say like "My shoe is untied."


Sarah: A lot of "Can't login, " that's all it says. The entire thing is "Can't login, ' And we have to do a lot of this digging for information. And we understand that there's, a threshold where people are kind of like, all they want is a resolution.

All they want is for you to fix the problem. We get that, that's what we're here for. Unfortunately, we sometimes have to get more information from people. So maybe, understanding that when we're asking for details it's for a really specific reason. We really need it. It's very important.

Kiran: Right. Or it's sort of technical, or geeky, or haven't been in this industry around computers a lot. So, it doesn't dawn on them maybe, or they don't understand just to do that, that that'll help them get an answer really quickly.
Matthew: And that is something that's evolved over time where it was just an email at first, then there was a form asking specific questions.
Sarah: Now it's a form, right.
Matthew: Now it's evolved to being more specific, to try to make that back and forth. It seems like that's a pain point for you guys, when there's a lot of back and forth up front even if you decipher the problem?
Sarah: Well it's a pain point for us because it's a pain point for our customer. I mean no one wants to spend six, seven emails back and forth with someone who is asking you for more details and you're like "Ahh, " like Cathy the cartoon character pulling her hair out. People don't want to do that. And for us, we understand that people don't want to do that. So that's where we're aggravated when we have to do that. But sometimes you can't avoid it, and that's the sucky part.
Kiran: It's frustrating because maybe the answer is even in that first reply, but they don't even expect that. So they expect it to go back and forth a lot, or they don't think it can be resolve that quick.
Sarah: Right, exactly.
Kiran: And then the sixth reply, it actually was an answer or just a modification of that answer.
Sarah: One thing I would suggest is if you're ever going to write a support person and they write you back and you think it's not the right answer, probably avoid saying something to them like "I don't think you understand what I'm saying."

Because we really do understand what people are saying off the bat, and if we don't we'll ask. So I think that's like what Kiran is saying. People glaze over the information we've given them because they just assume that it's not right, or that we didn't listen ,or we responded too quickly for that to be the right answer.

Kiran: They're just conditioned to not getting the right answer or getting slow support.
Sarah: Overall, we have a really fantastic set of customers. And I think a lot of people who do email based support would be very envious of the kind of customers we have, because they're overall very kind. They're very loyal. They love our products. They want to tell us it.

And if they're reporting something to us that's broken, it's because they really like our products and they want it to work. If they have a feature request idea, it's because they want to keep using our products. I mean, that's hard to find, in the majority. So ...

Matthew: Now, 37signals is a company that's noted, in a way, for saying, "No, " to feature requests.
Sarah: Yeah.
Matthew: How do you take a philosophy like that and spin it or let people know that it's not coming from a negative place. But in order to make products that are, hopefully, going to be simple to use and easy for people and ... ?
Kiran: A lot of it's honesty.
Sarah: A lot of it is honesty. We used to be bad at that. We do have a reputation that some people expect us to say, "No, " by default, which we do.

But for years, we were kind of shelling out these stock answers when people would write us feature requests that were just, ridiculous or out of the blue or left-field. Or some that were really valid and maybe we could really do it. The thing is we were just saying, "No, " we were just saying, "No, " because we wanted to keep constraints on our development.

And we would reply to the people, "Thanks for the feedback on the ... . Love, Sarah." Or, "Great idea! Your friend, 37signals."

It just became so repetitive. And kind of decided like we really should be listening to these. We really should be taking these into account. From there, having that standpoint of let's decide to really be honest with people, and really say, if we're going to look into this, we're going to look into this and then take it to someone and really look into it. Not just tell the customer were doing that.

If we're not going to look into it, we tell them, "Thanks for the idea, but ..." We construct a way of saying like ...

Kiran: We're not going to put Gantt charts in Basecamp.
Sarah: [laughs] Right. We're never going to put canned charts in Basecamp. We explain that the majority of our customers aren't going to find that same usefulness that you do. So, right now we're going to pass. Or we say something like ...
Matthew: How do people respond to that?
Sarah: Very rarely do people actually ever respond when we say, "No." The people who are really passionate, though, about their feature requests, are power users: people who are using Basecamp for 80 projects. People who have been using it for four years. So, for them, it's hard, because you don't want to say no to them. They're loyal customers.
Kiran: They have a relationship with the product--
Sarah: Yeah.
Matthew: --that they use every day.
Sarah: They've got great ideas and, yeah, it could really work, but if we said yes to everything, it would just not be Basecamp.

And it's also hard when people are ... we find a lot of people come from these backgrounds where they're using SharePoint or they're using any other internal system. They moved to Basecamp, because it's different. But then they ask you for the features that were in the products that they just left. So we have to identify that for them and explain that this is what makes Basecamp different is that it doesn't have "X". This is why Highrise is not Salesforce, because it doesn't do "X." That is telling for people. I think they understand a little bit more where our stance is after getting an email like that.

Matthew: How often are you using canned responses versus typing to each individual that's responding?
Sarah: We don't use canned responses very much. We use Text Expander, which is a tool that ... It's like Microsoft Word macro keyboard shortcut or something.
Matthew: Right.
Sarah: We use them as the base of our emails that we write. Our email signatures are that. Or, I say something all day long, "Here's detailed instructions from our Help Section." Like that. That's a shortcut.
Kiran: Yeah, so it's sort of like little snippets that I'll sort of pepper a personalized response to people.
Sarah: Right. But we very rarely write something that's just a script, script, send.
Matthew: Every single issue and request is read and parsed and-
Sarah: Right.
Kiran: --and responded to.
Sarah: Unless we have 80 people responding to something that's down, some downtime that we're aware of, we send them a very static like, "Check our help section, " or "Check our status page or Twitter." So, we can very quickly reply to people. Because if something goes wrong, the floodgates open with emails. You can't be sitting there constructing a personal email to every single person in the course of two minutes, but...
Matthew: And what's the relationship between Support and Answers--the customer forums that we have for people to get responses? Are you ever pointing people to there? Do you feel like it's a helpful thing--
Sarah: Yes! It is!
Matthew: --like a supplemental tool?
Sarah: It is.
Kiran: One example is that a construction company will write us and say, "How could I run my construction company, my engineering company? Do you guys have any other customers that do similar things?" And we can pull up something that was on the product blog and then also have them hook up with other customers on Answers to see if people have very specific--
Sarah: Right.
Kiran: --or similar use cases.
Sarah: Our customer forums are meant to be a place where customers-
Kiran: Exactly, yeah.
Sarah: --can communicate to each another, not just to us and not just asking us questions.

We don't typically go to Answers first, because for us the first priority is people emailing us for support. But we always have a staff member checking Answers and directing them to support, if they post something that obviously needs to be a support request.

I think in the future, Answers will evolve a bit more to be more customer to customer. Right now, I don't know if it's at that place right now. It is a great resource for customers to be in there reading stuff and connecting with other people. We just have to encourage them to do that more.

Matthew: How about from the outside world? Are there any support stories that you have from your lives of times when you've experienced really great customer support or terrible customer support and it had an impact on you?
Sarah: I think I really think that I was destined to do this job because of my terrible customer experiences for my entire life. I am an absolute magnet for the worst experiences that anyone could have in life and they are all a blur. But I really think that it's all just destiny for me to learn how to do this job better.
Kiran: Yeah. I agree with Sarah. My first job that I wanted to do was to be an ambulance driver and pick up dead people off the ground and fix them. So ...
Sarah: [laughs]
Kiran: I always had--
Sarah: That's close to what you do now.
Matthew: Yeah. So, I always had some sort of path to doing this sort of customer advocacy. We just want the support group here. When people come to 37signals, because they want a really fast product, because they really want a reliable product, because they want to engage in stuff like "REWORK, " we want them also to come here, because they know that the support is really great.
Sarah: Right. Absolutely.
Kiran: Just like you're going to go buy an Apple product because of AppleCare. You're going to go to Mercedes, because of some sort of agreement they have.
Sarah: Right.
Kiran: Or whatnot. Or go to Disney, because of the experience. We want that to be a deciding factor almost, if there aren't enough already.
Sarah: Absolutely.
Kiran: Ah, to pick a product.
Sarah: I think we both are so involved in this that we do have our own inspirations in the support world. Disney is a big one of mine. I'm a big Disney person. Their customer service and the way that they handle customer anything is amazingly detailed. I find that that's so lacking in the normal world out there. When you have an issue with Amazon, or AT&T, or whomever, you don't get the attention to detail that you get.

But that came because Disney spent years and years cultivating this support service atmosphere. They've written books on it. It's a huge thing. Zappos is the same way. They cultivated this culture of service. It's rare to find that. Those are probably my top two, I think, inspirations in the support world.


Matthew: And that'll wrap it up for this edition of the Podcast. Thanks for listening.

As always, you can go to to find related links for the episodes and transcripts and an archive of all the previous episodes. We'll see you next time.


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