Put Everyone on the Front Lines
What is your method of connecting with your customers? Does your product or service make sense to them, and do you understand how they see it?
Our perception of what is easy and straightforward and what the customer perceives as easy and straightforward can sometimes differ, making it vital for everyone on the team to hear directly from the customers without the ‘muffler.‘
Today, the cofounders of 37signals, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, discuss how 37signals gives everyone on the team an opportunity to engage with their customers from their book, Rework, in the chapter called “Put Everyone On The Front Lines.”
[00:40] - Jason shares why it’s great to ensure everyone can engage with the company’s customers.
[01:47] - David shares why it’s vital to hear from the customer without the muffler occasionally.
[03:54] - Why it’s crucial to have contact with the customers to remember you’re selling to individuals—and it’s rewarding, too.
[05:31] - Ensuring everyone gets their chance on the front lines in front of the customers is one of the most important things you can do.
[06:40] - Applying the productivity and insight enhancement process to your team.
[07:35] - It’s not wasted talent; it’s a motivational, bright spot that pays for itself.
[08:28] - If you think you’re too good to help customers, you’re in the wrong business.
[10:40] - ‘There’s no way you can come away from this experience feeling like it was a waste of time. It’s just it’s impossible. It’s actually incredibly enlightening.’
[11:32] - Being on the front lines helps you remember that we are all human, facing our own things outside of what’s going on with the software.
[12:52] - Everyone means EVERYONE. Founders show up first and lead by example.
[15:14] - David shares why sometimes your authentic voice DOES need to be filtered.
[16:11] - Jason shares that you’re in bad shape whenever you begin to recite the terms of service to a customer.
[18:13] - Why customer support is really marketing.
[19:56] - 600 new email threads daily, tens of thousands of potential ambassadors for your brand = the holy grail of organic growth.
[21:25] - Customer live demos a thing of the future?
[22:25] - Next week, 37signals’ head of customer support will share tips on interacting positively with customers, even when they have problems.
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Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. Hey, I’m your host, Kimberly Rhodes. This week we’re talking about connecting directly with your customers and the importance of everyone in your company doing that on some frequency regardless of their job function. I’m joined by co-founders of 37signals and the authors of the book Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinermeier Hansson, who wrote about this in a chapter of their book called Put Everyone on the Front Lines. You guys, let’s jump right in on this. I know that everyone at 37signals takes a shift in customer support, but before we get into the logistics of how that worked, tell us a little bit about the reasoning for this and why this is something you two advocate for.
Jason (00:40): I can’t remember when we started this, but it was years and years ago. Um, it’s probably initially because we didn’t have enough coverage. I don’t even know if that’s actually true, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we started that way. But we kind of realized that it’s great to make sure everyone has a moment to, hear directly from customers, pick up their language and their frustrations and understand the way we describe things and the way we think things work and what we think might be easy might actually not be so easy and not be so clear. So there’s nothing quite like running into customer language and you go, oh my God. That’s how they describe things and oh, that’s tripping people up. I had no idea. I’d assume that was, that was clear and easy. So I think that that’s a big part of it.
(01:22): And also it’s nice to sort of be responsible for what you build. You know, you can build things and put them out there in the world and then sort of let other people deal with it, you know, cuz nothing’s gonna be just perfectly right. So it’s nice to have to, you know, hear again, hear from people who are using the things that you’re making and, and uh, and feel the frustrations and also feel the praise and all the good stuff too. But there’s nothing quite like, I think being on the front lines from that perspective.
David (01:47): Yeah, I think when you’re working with products, nothing beats the unfiltered frustration of a customer dealing with a bug or dealing with the deficiency or something that they really want. When you have a awesome customer support team, as we do at 37signals, they serve as a muffler, they quiet down that frustration, they will pass on those requests in a much more measured way, which a lot of the time is really nice that you don’t have this sort of super loud, super perhaps frustrated or even passionate customer that’s just like, can you just build this thing? But sometimes you need to hear it without the muffler. And what I’ve found is when I spent some time on, on everyone in support, I always come out of that with just a handful of things. Do you know what? I should just fix that. Like, if that had to go through the official processes that we have for bubbling up feature requests or bug reports and it has to filter through the prioritization process and da da da da da, do you know what?
(02:50): A lot of that stuff just won’t happen. It won’t get done. We have too coarsely grained a filter to allow something like that to slip through. But when, when you’ve spoken to a customer directly who had this issue and you go like, do you know what I could fix this? I think there’s probably a 20 minute fix sometimes where you just take care of the issues. They say we don’t need to answer these things. Uh, time and again. That’s really helpful. So getting that sense of, of directness I think is actually in many ways one of my favorite things of, of being in a company that’s so early doesn’t even have a customer support department. I mean Jason did all the customer support for I think two and a half years, maybe even three years until we hired our first customer support person. I think at the end, Jason, you were answering 160 or 170 emails a day and some of those answers were pretty brief, but it was also amazing that that unfiltered flow of opinions, sentiments, what people like, what they don’t like simply went directly into the product making process.
(03:54): This is why startups and early companies are able to be so responsive that it seems like wow, all the right things are changing all at the right time. Yeah. There is no filter, there is no muffler. So you obviously can’t sustain that forever, right? Like one person can’t answer the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of daily emails that we get. And even if they could, that person wouldn’t be also making all the product decisions. But you can simulate this with this notion of everyone in support and you can distribute it to programmers, to designers, to operators, to marketing people and give them a taste and put them in that connection. I think that’s absolutely crucial to not forget that you’re selling to humans and humans are sometimes frustrated and they want weird things and they want all this kind of stuff. And you need to know that. You need to know you’re not selling to a persona. You’re not selling to sort of just an aggregation. You’re also selling to individuals and it’s just also rewarding, you answered the right question and someone writes back. Oh yeah, that was just what I was looking for. Oh, I didn’t even know you had that feature. Oh, I didn’t really realize that that feature you had, you could use it like that. You just go like, this is pretty good. This is why we make stuff.
Kimberly (05:11): Yeah, it’s kind of a nice like feedback loop too when you’re, you know, down in the trenches and then you actually get to see the final result. So let me ask you guys this logistically, um, I would imagine that there’s people who are listening who are like, well, I can’t take my programmers off of programming or I can’t take my designers off of designing in order to do this. It’s like, why should they make that time?
Well, I, I mean I think you can, it’s the
David (06:40): I’d say exactly looking at it as a benefit, not a cost. This is not a, this is not a cost center. This is a productivity and insight enhancement process that you are applying to your team. And also, even though we perhaps at one time looked at this in some moments that’s helping provide coverage, I think actually that was where it came from. It came from summer hours. So we work four days a week in the summer and at the time in particular, we had the support team staffed such that, do you know what? Most people had to be working five day weeks to provide the full coverage that we needed. So when we suddenly took a day away, we needed someone else to fill in the gap and that someone else became the rest of the company. But for us now, the main benefit is not like we need to do this, it is that we want to do this.
(07:35): So it’s not like, oh, I’m paying a designer, a programmer, all this money to do it. I’m quote unquote wasting their time or their talents on this stuff. No, you’re giving them the privilege and the motivational boost that comes from speaking directly to customers. And I think that’s one of those things that’s often very much overlooked when people talk about, oh well programmers and designers are expensive. Yes, that’s true. But the main thing governing how quickly they can go and how efficiently they can work is often motivation. You can fall down into these slumps. And if your weeks are full of just dreadful meetings upon meetings, upon meetings, do you know what actually talking to a customer is a bright spot in the day in comparison. And that kind of direct injection into the motivational engine will pay for itself several times over. At least that’s what I felt.
(08:28): So many times I’ve been on every, uh, EOS is what we call it, Everyone On A S upport. So I’ve been on EOS I’ve gotten this injection and suddenly I have capacity to do all sorts of stuff that doesn’t actually otherwise fit into my program that wasn’t scheduled and so forth just because I’m motivated to do something about it. So this is all much more malleable. Don’t think of it as a cost center, don’t think of it as like, oh, I’m using someone who’s paid quote unquote too much. Cause I think this is the other thing too, um, at a lot of companies, customer support, um, isn’t, I don’t even know how to phrase it properly, like seen as an entry level position is often one of the lower paid position in a company and there can develop this sense that like the rest of the company’s too good to do this.
(09:15): In my opinion, that’s absolutely toxic. If you ever think you’re too good to help customers, to answer customers to listen to customers, you’re in the wrong damn business if you’re selling services or products and you can’t be bothered to deal with that. So I think EOS this notion of exposing everyone to it helps break that down, helps provide people with the appreciation of what folks on customer support would deal with every day. I mean, sometimes I’ll do a full EOS and I’m exhausted at the end of the day, I might have answered 40, 50 or 60 emails if I’ve really just gone flat out and I should know everything, right? Like I’ve literally been here for 20 years. It should not require me a whole lot of time to figure. And it’s still exhausting. It just gives you such an immense appreciation for the kind of work and the competence it takes to be a good listener, a patient responder. Like I often have to stop myself for the first reply I want to send to a customer who shows up with the attitude of someone who’s frustrated, right? And I just realized that like, wow, that takes a tremendous amount of sort of personal fortitude to just go like, I hear your frustration, I hear your pain. Let me talk you down two notches and then I can help you from there.
Kimberly (10:33): Did you guys ever have pushback from people who are like, yeah, it’s not something I wanna do, or has it always just been a positive thing at the company?
I feel like there’s been a couple cases, but again, over the, you know, multiple decades we’ve been in business, I remember there was some resistance at some point. Um, and it was this sort of beneath me kind of feeling that someone and, and it was just, it, it was so wrong
(11:32): Just do it. Just do it. And, and this is part of your job and this is part of your learning process and part of your honing in on on what we all need to be doing as a company. And it’s a requirement. There’s a lot of things we don’t like to do sometimes at work, but turns out that this is actually one of the most valuable things you think you might not like. But actually probably in the end you’ll really appreciate. The other thing I would say is it also gives you a deeper appreciation just for the, the people who do the job every day. Cuz it is a hard job, incredibly hard job to be on the front lines when the public is, is, you know, on the other side of that line. Because the thing to keep in mind is that the public, well let’s just, any person, um, they have a life outside of this software product obviously.
(12:13): And so when they come to you and if they’re upset and they’re angry, you know, it’s may not be because of your product that something else happened in their day or they’re used to getting really crappy service from somebody else. And so they bring all that history and legacy and baggage to this one interaction that you might be interacting with. It’s just good to be on the receiving end of that and to remember that this is actually a really hard job. People have to deal with this all the time. And they’re not just dealing specifically with issues with your product, but they’re, they’re living a life and they’re bringing their history to it. And just remember that there’s people who have to sort of handle this all day long, I think gives you much deeper appreciation for that role and, uh, that that’s a good thing to have in an organization.
I think what really helps bring this into an organization too is that when we say everyone in support, we mean everyone including Jason or I, including executives, it goes all the way up the line. It’s not some sort of middle thing. No, no, it’s everyone that everyone stands to benefit from this. And then you set an example, right? I think it’s always easier to ask someone to do something they might be a little hesitant to do if you are going first, right? Like if, if you want to, to lead everyone into this and like, hey, this is just something we do, you show up first and you show that you’re willing to do the work yourself as well. Um, so I think setting that example is, um, is really important. And I think what I get out of it too is I get a mirror and I get, in fact, usually when I do this, I get embarrassed about myself because I will remember some interaction that I had with another company where I was the fucking asshole
(13:59): Like, why doesn’t it work? Um, just this kind of as though there’s no one on the other side like writing as though the recipient of that message actually is responsible for the thing in the first place. I mean, I, the irony here being whenever a customer reaches either the Jason or I, I mean we are literally responsible, but most of the time when you reach customer support and you’re complaining about something, it’s not their fault. They’re here to help you on something they often did not, uh, did not make. So that mirror, I find is, is very, um, good for your introspection. And then at least for a couple of weeks after that, I always have to double check in my mind if I reach out to another company and go like, do you know what I, I should be a little nicer here, I should be a little kinder than perhaps our gut instinct is to be when we’re like, I paid for this, it should just work. It should just be perfect yet, do you know what? That’s just not life. Life is not perfect. It doesn’t always work and it doesn’t mean people aren’t trying and so forth.
Kimberly (14:55): Well, and we talked on a previous episode about the importance of sounding like yourself like in writing and I think this exercise of putting everyone on the front lines and having to directly communicate like helps with that style and getting that language and tone that you want for your company to project to customers.
Yes. And I think sometimes that’s almost too much of a good thing. I mean, I remember reading some Jason’s responses to customers back in the day when he was doing everything and probably like on email 120 that day, like the responses would be someone would write in, oh, I’d really like if the feature could do, could you add this thing, Jason, reply one word back, no
Yeah. There’s also the
We’re like, terms of service are very clear. Whenever you recite the terms of service to a customer,
David (17:25): And that’s the kind of stuff that the muffler prevents you from hearing because you are not hearing yourself type out the policy back to a customer and experiencing what that feels like. Customer support inside of your organization might be telling you, you know what? Customers are not liking this. What you hear is customers are not liking this. You’re not hearing the anger in the tone that’s getting muffled. You’re not hearing, “You assholes. I paid by this by an accident. I was just one day too late. I don’t have the money for this.” You, you don’t hear all the texture and when you don’t hear all the texture, it’s so much easier just to be a hard ass. It’s so much easier just to be, think you’re taking a principled stand rather than when you hear the nitty gritty feedback of it, you go like, do you know what, this is just not, not reasonable.
(18:13): I mean, the number of times I felt like going through that process, trying to answer something myself or getting looped in on a customer support exchange where you just go like, um, this, I I would not like hearing this back myself. We gotta find a different way of doing this because ultimately what are we doing here? Right? Why is customer support here? We’re here to help customers have a good time, have a reasonable time, have a reasonable time to even a stretch to the point where we’re like, eh, I don’t know if that’s reasonable, but if they see it that way, that is marketing. This is the other thing, we have another chapter. Everything is marketing, but customer support is really marketing. That is the person representing your brand right now in front of a customer. How they present, how they talk, and the policies that they’re able to flex or not flex? Huge.
(19:08): There’s this wonderful study on how a customer feels about, uh, an establishment. I think it was done with hotels and the study essentially went like, if someone goes to a hotel and they have no problems at all, they’ll feel like, yeah, that, that was good. If they go to that hotel, they have a problem. But the problem is taking care of really nicely. They feel better about that hotel than the people who never had any problems at all. So every single time a customer comes to us and reaches out to customer support, it’s an opportunity for us to leave them with the impression that we are even better than they thought we were. You came to us with a problem, you came to us with an exception, you came to us with an ask of something and we just went that step further and now you’re like, man, those 37signals that Basecamp.
(19:56): Oh that’s really great. I should tell A, B, C and D about it. Right? Versus of course, if you have that shitty interaction, either because the language was wrong or in more cases the policy was wrong, you’re gonna be like, “Those fuckers. I’m gonna tell, I am gonna make sure that like whoever hears that, those are not folks you should do business with.” Right? And when you think about those interactions, I mean, we talked to, I forget what the current number is, 600 exchanges, 600 email threads are started every day or something like that. That is an enormous number of people. You have this opportunity with every day times 365 times 10 years. That is tens of thousands of potential ambassadors for your brand. I mean, one of the things we’ve often talked about is how little explicit marketing we’ve done over the years. And we so often talk about the, again, I freaking hate this term, but content marketing, like what we’re doing right now, um, that that’s a key part of it. But just as much we should be talking about the customer service that we do and how, how quick it is, how human it is, how flexible it is, how above and beyond it is and what kind of mark that leaves on your brand and your ability to have the holy grail of business, which is organic growth and how we are a company of 20 years that’s essentially built entirely on organic growth.
Kimberly (21:25): I love that. Well, on the customer success side, we’re pushing for not only everyone on support, but everyone on success making the team. Sit in on demos. Because you know, Ashley’s doing these live demos, walking people through the product, I think that’s just as impactful as people who have problems, to be honest. Like how they get started. I’m making my pitch here on the podcast for it.
Jason (21:47): No, it’s huge. It’s huge. It’s just, you know, there’s nothing quite like just watching someone use something that you made and just cringing at like, oh my God, I thought this was easy or I thought this was clear. I thought they’d figured this out and it’s not their fault. It’s like, shouldn’t this be easy? Yeah. In fact, yesterday I was showing someone, uh, Basecamp and they’d made this project and the project was structured properly and everything and they were sort of using it, right? But they were like, in my estimation, they, this should have been like four or five separate projects, but they had this like one massive project and I could see how they were getting stuck because the idea that you should maybe make multiple projects for this wasn’t clear. It’s not really, it’s hard to know where the line is and you can just see someone getting caught up in, in something and you’re like, this is how I would do it. But how would they know to do that? How are they ever gonna know to do that? That’s just something you kinda learn over, over the years and so you sort of cringe go, oh, how could we make that easier? We should have made this easier. Or now I feel bad that they’re stuck in the spot. So anyway, there’s nothing quite like first person experience.
Kimberly (22:52): I love that. Well, we’re gonna wrap that up, but if you’re wondering what it’s actually like working in the trenches of customer support and wanna learn some tips for connecting with customers positively even when they’re writing with problems you don’t wanna miss next week’s episode. I’ll be joined by the head of customer support at 37signals and he’s gonna take me through some real examples, interactions his team have had and share some advice on how to provide top-notch customer service. I’m really excited about it. We’re giving Jason and David a break, but I hope that you’ll join me for next week’s episode. Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37 signals.com/podcast. And as always, if you have a specific question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 and we just might answer your question on an upcoming show.