Tales from the Front Lines
“When dealing with customers, especially those that are angry, there are always two tokens on the table. One is the token for it just doesn’t matter. It’s not a big deal. And the other token is it’s the end of the world. We pick one, and the customer picks the other.”—Chase Clemons
Today, Chase Clemons is here. Chase is the Head of Customer Support and is on the front lines every day as he leads the 18-person support team at 37signals.
Listen in as he shares why every customer interaction’s outcome depends on which one of the two tokens the support team chooses, how to keep things Fisher Price easy for better customer understanding, and some of the strategies he has learned over his eleven years at 37signals for providing excellent customer service.
[00:56] - Chase shares his story of providing customer support for 37signals for 11 years.
[01:48] - The two industries Chase thinks everyone needs to work in at some point in their lives to be able to handle ANY situation that life or customers throw at you.
[02:25] - Chase shares what went wrong when the 37signals support team tried to meet a 1-minute benchmark for responding to customers.
[05:25] - What the customer support team learned when they dropped the time requirement.
[05:54] - Chase shares an example of how they got off to a rocky start with a customer, but by offering real people PHONE support, they turned it into a WIN for the team and a new customer.
[09:12] - Is it a BOT or not?
[10:25] - Chase explains the meaning of ‘stop the cap.’
[10:50] - Humans are expensive but also friendly and can actually help other humans.
[11:46] - ‘Training the corporate out of them’ and adopting the Basecamp voice for friendly, concise answers.
[13:12] - How to explain things so they don’t get lost in the translation.
[14:34] - Why the philosophy of Basecamp products is to keep things Fisher-Price easy.
[15:17] - Chase compares customer service mistakes to white river rafting and why everyone is afraid until they ‘flip in the raft.’
[16:54] - The disconnect between what we convey through our text, how people receive it, and why the subsequent response matters the most.
[18:01] - Chase shares the lesson of the two tokens when dealing with customers and why the support team needs to make a big deal out of the problem, so the customer doesn’t have to.
[20:07] - Chase shares his tips for putting everyone on the front lines, including where to start if you want to involve everyone in your company in customer support.
[22:15] - “Interacting with the customers reminds us of who is paying our paychecks.”
[22:51] - The value of having an ‘emergency’ contact page for your customers to make them customers for life.
[25:39] - Want some advice from the 37signals support team on how they would handle a customer support issue? Contact us here.
Links and Resources:
Do you have a question for Jason and David? Leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850
Need advice from the 37signals support team on how they would handle a customer support issue? Email Chase.
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Welcome to Rework, a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Kimberly Rhodes. Last week I chatted with Jason Fried and David Heinermeier Hansson, about 37signals’ philosophy and policy of having every employee spend time on support, interacting directly with customers. To follow up that conversation, I’m joined by someone who is literally on the front lines of customer support every single day. Chase Clemons leads the 18-person support team at 37signals and is here to share some strategies for providing top-notch customer service and things that he’s learned during his 11 years at 37signals. Chase, thanks for being here. Before we dive in to some of your support stories and lessons learned, can we talk about you being at 37signals for 11 years?
Chase (00:48): It feels like ancient, right? It’s like dog years, right? For every internet year you get like four years in real life, right?
Kimberly (00:54): I mean, 11 years is a lot at any company.
Chase (00:56): Yeah. Yeah. And then we tell folks like, oh yeah, Basecamp started way back in like 2004, which is like an eternity ago, right? Right. Um, yeah. So I was, uh, mid twenties on the list for new hires way back in 2011. Support team, my colleague Joan and I like to joke, we were both hired at the same time, so who’s number seven and number eight on the support team depends on which one of us you’re talking to, essentially. Before that though, ironically I was working for a place called Jason’s Deli, which is, if you’ve ever heard of, it’s a fast casual restaurant. I grew up in restaurants.
Kimberly (01:31): Yeah, we have that restaurant here in Dallas where I am.
Chase (01:36): Yeah. Talk about front lines of working with customers. Right? Can’t get more frontline than that.
Kimberly (01:40): I say that everyone should work in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives just to understand how hard it actually is.
Chase (01:48): There’s, there’s two. I always point to when people ask, right? It’s, you need to work in a restaurant, preferably a fast casual one, but, you know, seated dinner kind of thing works too. And you also need to work retail, preferably during a Black Friday holiday season. Like that is, you’ll come out with thick skin and be able to handle any situation that a customer throws at you if you do those too.
Kimberly (02:09): For sure. Okay, so when you started, you were employee seven or eight in customer support. Now there are 18 people in customer support. I imagine that that growth happened gradually over time, not really all at once. Is that a true statement?
Chase (02:25): So when I was hired, we were doing support, basically U.S. business hours. We promised support would be around from 8:00 AM central to 6:00 PM Central. Some of us would start a little bit earlier, some of us would go a little bit later, but it was strictly Monday through Friday, eight to six, which meant Monday morning was a challenge to say the least. You know, you’ve got all that piling up from the weekend. And then we grew the team slowly and deliberately to start etching our way around the, around the world essentially. So our next hires came from the UK because we wanted to offer a little, little bit earlier in the morning service. Once we had that fleshed out, we went over into, uh, what we call APAC, Asia Pacific, and we hired a couple of folks there to round out the later parts of the day.
(03:10): For a minute there we were chasing reply times. Honestly, you know, our current head of support at the time, and Jason, the rest of us kind of thought that you can never have too quick of a reply from a support team, right? Yeah. That’s like, it’s Amazon’s thing, right? Like they’re gonna promise two day shipping times and then they get down to like one day and you’re like, holy crap. Like this is quicker than me going out to an actual store. Essentially. We took the same philosophy for for a minute there. It was, how quick can we get a reply out cuz faster is gonna be better, right? And so for a minute there we were 24/7 support. And anytime you talk to us, no matter the hour of the day, you would get a reply back from an actual real person within an, uh, within a minute.
Kimberly (03:50): A minute?!
Chase (03:51): Within a minute, right? That what, on the weekends, maybe two or three minutes or, you know, depending on, and who was there and whatever. But yeah, we were consistently across the board below a minute, essentially.
Kimberly (04:03): I mean, that’s really impressive.
It was. And we were happy to hit that one. And when we hit that benchmark, we went, wait, is this actually a good thing?
Kimberly (04:11): Mm-hmm. mm-hmm.
Kimberly (04:37): Oh interesting. Yeah.
Chase (04:39): Um, or they would think that we didn’t fully understand the situation because they would be coming into it going, I’ve never had this happen in Basecamp where we’re going, yeah, we saw what happened last week, we know what’s going on. So it’s all sorts of, the customer facing perception gets a little skewed there. And it’s also really tough on the team. You really have to schedule folks out when you’re like down to who’s taking a lunch? When they’re taking a lunch. How many people do we have off on a certain day? It’s not necessarily like micromanaged, but that pressure from all of us was like, okay, I’m not gonna like do this doctor’s appointment on the day because we’re gonna be short staffed in the morning on that day, so I’ll just push it off to someone sometime else.
Kimberly (05:20): Yeah. Right. Yeah. Yeah. And that doesn’t sound like the kind of work-life balance that we strive for.
Exactly. So we loosened up on ourselves and said, you know what? Like, what if we don’t push for a specific time like that? What, what’s gonna happen? Right. We found that naturally we were still getting back to people within an hour. To this day, we still get back to people within an hour, hour and a half, and customers are still happy. Right. That’s like the biggest change from when I started to, to now it’s like we, we chased that time response, pun intended,
Yeah. That’s like a good learning for sure. Well, I feel like your team is getting, you know, some questions that are just very basic. How do I log in? I need to change my credit card information to more complex things and even, you know, things that we have to investigate more closely that like, is that a bug? Or like, what are they seeing? Um, do you have any examples you can share of maybe some situations where we’ve like turned around a customer experience? You know, I think a lot of times people don’t reach out to support unless they’re like in a bad place.
Chase (06:25): Yeah. It just, so I, I like to tell folks, like, when you’re talking to our team, it’s kinda like talking to the fire department, right? Either something’s on fire and I need help right now. Right? Or you’re like building a building and you wanna make sure like how to prep for that, how to best lay out sprinklers and alarms and all the rest of it. Right. Especially on the support side of things. It’s something’s on fire and we need to put it out right now. And that can be a, a wide range of things. I, we were talking to a customer last week who, you know, he wrote to us and and said, look, Asana is where I’m at right now. They’re just completely blowing me off. Their support isn’t great. Every time I talk to 'em, it’s another bot. I had this thing go wrong and tried to get in touch with them and they just didn’t understand the problem and sent back a bunch of links and please help me essentially, right? Can y’all do anything better at that point? And, uh…
Kimberly (07:15): Challenge excepted!
(07:53): I, I can’t try yet another thing, like please just, can I get on a call? Robert jumped on the call with him a couple of minutes later and we had one of the biggest Basecamp fans after that. Uh, we were able to walk him through exactly how he should set up things, how we should think about this problem. At the end of it, he ended up sending Jason an email saying like, the support was fantastic. He’s, you know, we’ve got a new Basecamp customer out of it. Never even mentioned the rocky start that we knew we had internally, you know? Um, but it was really eye-opening gets thrown around a lot, but I guess that’s the closest word. Right? It was really eye-opening to see a person who talked to two different support teams and had two completely different experiences out of it. And the one that brought 'em over was the one that we brought ourselves on. Real people. Right. Not bots, not send you a bunch of links. Just a, a friend here to help however we can.
Kimberly (08:43): Okay. Chase, you, you brought up something that I guess I didn’t really understand about the bots.
Chase (08:49): They’re everywhere.
Yeah. Help me understand. So in most customer service worlds, I mean, I know there’s some that are super obvious where it’s like, type in what you’re looking for and it’s like very clearly a bot and it’s like they’re not afraid to let you know it’s a bot. Yeah. Are there some that are like hidden bots that we wouldn’t know as a bot
Chase (09:08): Oh yeah. Absolutely. This is
Kimberly (09:10): I’m sounding very naive right this moment.
Chase (09:12): We, uh, so you see it most oftenly with phone trees, right? Call Comcast, call Charter, call your internet company, right? And there’s gonna be an automated voice that comes on, but it’s gonna be one that sounds really close, right? It’s, it’s uncanny valley close. They might even like, oh, you’re calling from this phone number. Is this Kimberly? Is this Chase am I talking to? And we’ll go like, yeah. So it’s, it’s close enough where if you didn’t know it was a bot, you’d be like, oh, this is a real person that’s actually talking to me on the text-based side. We see it too. And text-based bots are getting so much better and better and better, right? You can have a conversation with a bot now and never realize that you’re actually talking to them. They’ll, they might mess a word or two here or there, but it’s, it’s damn close, essentially.
(09:58): Um, we see it people testing us all the time on Basecamp and most notably, Hey, uh, I had a customer yesterday who replied to one of our emails that get sent out when you sign up for a new Hey account. And it was like, Hey, are you real? And I wrote back, yeah, I’m real. Like I’m Chase, you know, like included a smiley face and, and all the rest of it. They wrote back like a day later and I was like, no, seriously stop the cap. First off, I had to look up what stop the cap means because I just…
Kimberly (10:25): I need you to tell me what stop the cap means.
Chase (10:27): Turns out stop the cap means stop lying.
Kimberly (10:31): Huh.
Chase (10:31): And I was like, okay, got it. Uh, and you know, sent a reply back, I was like, yeah, no lies here. This is, this is, you know, Chase. Jillian’s with me. She might answer some of your stuff too. And then it was like, well, how do you prove that you’re actually a human? Do you like, include a picture of yourself with today’s newspaper or something? Right.
Chase (10:50): Um, but yeah, there, there are bots out there that are really close and a lot of our competitors use them in place of real people. Because like, look, let’s be honest, we talked about it on Rework before. Competitors are always looking for ways to, to cut expenses. Humans are very expensive, right? Good ones at the very end of the day. Um, and they’ve got a bunch of investors to make happy. So if you can say we’ve slashed X amount of payroll, then that looks good for their investors on the Basecamp side, on the 37signals side, we go the other route and say, look, there are absolutely no bots in anything that we do here. It is actual people, friendly people that are waiting to help out just like we would help out friends and family.
Kimberly (11:27): Okay. So on that note, we’ve um, recorded a previous episode about our kind of style of writing and trying to sound like yourself and sound like humans. Kind of tell me about that, cuz I know especially when you’re doing everyone on support, everyone in the entire company is kind of learning that, that style, um I’m, I’m assuming that’s intentional. Tell me a little bit about that.
It’s intentional for all of our new hires, and on, uh, everyone on support, we tell people that we’re gonna train the corporate out of them
(12:38): That’s my end goal. It’s not someone who’s been involved in tech a bunch. It’s not somebody who knows how to open up console or to ping an IP address or anything. Right? It’s somebody who needs a friendly and concise answer so that they can get back to what is really important and that’s their business. Right? Nobody writes into support because they’re like, oh, I, I don’t have anything else to do. I’m gonna write to them. It’s no, I need help and we wanna get you that help as quick as we can and get you back on your way. And that starts with just writing like you’re talking to a friend or, or family member. That’s, that’s the biggest piece of advice I always give when, when new folks start.
Well, it’s funny because I thought I was a fairly tech savvy person until I started working for a tech company. But I’ve had experience before as a consumer where I’ve written in to a technical organization. I can think of one, my website in particular, my web post I have a question about. And the language I get back is like, I, I need you to explain it to me like I’m five years old. Like, these are words that are over my head. I need you to treat me like I’m a child.
Chase (14:02): And that should just be our, our default. It should be, you know, this is just a friend who’s helping to explain it as cleanly and simplistically as we possibly can.
Awesome. Okay. So on that note, are there things, especially when you’re, you know, broadly training everyone in the organization on how to respond and how to do that support function that you tell people not to do? I mean, we’ve talked about the language, you know, you don’t wanna sound corporate, but are there any other, like no-nos in customer support?
Yeah. Um, I think I told you these on your first day
Kimberly (14:32): Ooh, remind me.
You know, right. One of our, one of the philosophies or mantras, whatever you wanna call it when it comes to Basecamp the product and building products, is to keep things Fisher Price easy. Right? Same thing comes to with our writing. Don’t overcomplicate, don’t overthink things. I think that’s the first thing that new people do is they’ll come in and be like, you know, know we’re gonna turn this mole hill into a mountain essentially and really go deep and explain this and everything else. And it’s like, n no, you can, you can cut out a bunch of your reply and just go with a couple of sentences that are clean and easy to read. That will do just fine. Don’t overthink it. Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t, don’t be afraid to make a mistake
Um, uh, when my wife and I were, uh, out in Utah, we did this whitewater rafting thing. Um, it was mostly a gentle ride that day because the, the river wasn’t up. So we were talking to our, our guide a lot, and he was a guy that had been there, been doing this for like 10, 15 years or something like that. He was training a couple of new people on that same, river run that day. And so, you know, he was sharing what that experience was like, and he said, uh, you know, the funniest thing is that all the new folks are afraid and completely afraid of flipping a raft because when you flip a raft, like your, you know, your customers are going in the water and now it’s your job to like flip the raft back and then get them outta the water into the raft again and everything else. And he said, everybody that I’ve worked with flips a raft at some point. And they’re so nervous up until that moment,
Chase (16:15): And he’s like, that’s the only way we’ve gotten them over it. Like, they’re, they’re like, you’ve gotta get them to flip a raft at least once and then they’re gonna be a lot better on the other side. The same thing with us. Like, we’re not pushing people into making a mistake, but you’ve got, you’re gonna make a mistake. So just get over that fear. Like, don’t worry about it happening, it’s gonna happen.
Yeah. Right. Well, and I also think there’s something to be said for like, you might just have someone who’s angry.
Chase (16:54): People have feelings. Right. Especially, I don’t know what it is. Um, there’s something about text that, that written communication can convey so much and be used by people in the completely wrong way. Right? Um, if that person had been sitting in front of us at that moment, they would’ve been a lot nicer. Like, there’s, there’s something about that disconnect looking onto a, an email especially and replying to it that people just forget there’s other people on the other side. Uh, and you hadn’t even done anything wrong. I know that day, like the answer was right.
Chase (17:26): You know. Uh, that’s, that’s the funny thing. Um, and it’s how we respond when those customers do bring all that energy that really sets us apart from, from other teams, right. It’s really easy to dismiss a customer at that point and be like, like I gave you the right answer. You’re just mad go away. Right?
Oh no, I like, took it very person personally.
Chase (17:45): Yeah. And I, I think we, man, that was been a minute minute, but I think we, did we talk about the tokens when that happened? I
Kimberly (17:52): Don’t thinks, I dunno. I don’t think so. Maybe I remember you told me like, don’t respond right now. Like give it a minute. Like just give him a pause.
Chase (18:01): Yeah. Give him a minute. Give him a pause, take a breath. Because we say things in the heat of a moment that on both sides. Right. Ask customers and talking to customers. We need to just take a breath. It’s okay. Um, the thing I like to tell folks is, and I stole it from Jason, who I think stole it from some Apple exec or something like that. Uh, whenever we’re dealing with customers, especially ones that are angry, there’s two tokens on the table. One is the token for, it just doesn’t matter. It’s not a big deal. And the other token is it’s the end of the world. It’s a B.F.D. it’s a big deal, right? We get to pick one and the customer gets to pick one.
Kimberly (18:35): Yes, is that? That might be in Rework, maybe.
Chase (18:37): Rework. It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. One of those. Yes.
Kimberly (18:40): Right? Yes.
Yeah. The one that we pick the customers getting the other one. So if we come out and we’re are like, look, this is not a big deal. Right? Like, you got the right answer, it’s not a big deal. Like, move along sir. Please
Kimberly (18:54): Right.
Whereas if we grab that one from the table first, then everything gets a lot easier. Uh, Jason uses the example of staying in a hotel. So if you’re in a hotel, doesn’t matter what price you paid for, right? One star, five star, doesn’t matter if you’re staying in a hotel and the air conditioner goes out, you call the front desk and they go, oh yeah, we know about that. We’re gonna get it fixed. Like, maintenance is coming next week. Right. It’s no big deal.
(19:36): If I can’t get your room moved, I’m gonna get you over to another hotel and an equivalent or better room. Oh, by the way, while I’m fixing this, can I send up some ice cream? Like I know it’s a little hot. Can I get you some ice cream? Right. So like, it is a big deal for us. We’re gonna make it right. Then the the person on the other end has no other token left other than Oh, oh, oh. Okay. Thanks. Like yeah, I, I appreciate you doing this. Right? Same thing with us and the angry customers, um, that, that person that you had that day, like they offered up two tokens and we’re gonna make a big deal out of it so that they can’t essentially.
Kimberly (20:07): So Chase, we talked about with Jason and David, this concept of Everyone on Support and getting every employee to interact directly with customers. I know that when that happens, you’re involved in that process. So for someone who’s listening, maybe a small business owner who’s like, ooh, that is a good idea. I should do that with my company. Are there any tips that you might have to share of how you actually get that to happen? Not only, you know, from a training perspective, but getting the time to do it, training them on doing it, how to make it logistically work?
Chase (20:36): Yeah. I think a lot of people when they hear this idea, their first instinct is to go out and say, everyone’s gonna do this right now. Mm-hmm. Right? We’re all gonna do it. It’s gonna be great. And then that first person has a bad experience and the second person has a bad experience. And quickly the whole thing is like, why did we try this? It just doesn’t work for us, right? So don’t go out and try to do a whole thing right now. Go out, find one person, somebody that is, uh, here leaning on my restaurant experience right now, like somebody that’s back of house that typically doesn’t interact with customers. Find one person that you think would be really good and say, hey, we’re gonna try this. Do you, would you try this with me? Like, we’re, we’re gonna figure it out as we go.
(21:12): There’s gonna be some bumps, but can you help me figure this out? Can you help me try it? You might get a couple of nos, but somebody in the back of the house that’s gonna say yes and you’re gonna take that person, you’re gonna bring 'em up to the front and you’re gonna say, I’m gonna be by you the whole first day. Right. I’m gonna be right there. So as we’re working through this and figuring this out, you’re gonna have somebody to lean on. You’re gonna have somebody to ask questions to. I’m gonna be right by your side as we do this. And then you as the owner is gonna use that first person’s experience to build out the second person and the third person and the fourth person. So we’re not gonna do this whole big program right off the bat. It’s one person at a time. One day at a time. One shift at a time. That’s the the thing, when I talk to people who try this, that’s the number one mistake they make. It’s, we’re gonna keep things simple. We’re gonna keep it fisher price easy and just start with one person.
Kimberly (21:58): That’s great advice. I know when I did it, my, it was my first week, I think it was like, yeah, Wednesday of my first week of work, which I, it was kind of nice because, you know, you’re getting acclimated and figuring out the systems. It’s not like you’re being pulled away from any other project that you’re working on. And it’s kind of a nice jumpstart into the company, I thought.
Chase (22:15): Yeah, everybody in your team is gonna be better if they’re interacting with customers, especially that first week. One, it’s gonna remind them why they’re doing this. Right? The customers are the ones paying our paycheck. Like, thanks Jason and David. Y’all sign the checks, but you get the money from our customers.
Kimberly (22:27): Right, right.
Chase (22:28): Uh, and and second, it’s, it’s a good tour of, it’s a good entryway. Right? It’s a good launching point. It’s a good entrance into why the company is there, why you’re doing what you’re gonna do. And when you’re frontline like that, it kind of makes working backup house easier cuz you know why you’re doing what you’re doing there.
Kimberly (22:45): That’s great. Well, um, Chase, any other stories you wanna share before we wrap it up today?
One of the things that we were doing, we wanted to try was if, if a customer’s having like a flat out emergency, how can they get in touch with us the quickest, right? How will we know when something is vitally important that we do need to get back to them in a minute or two instead of our usual like hour? Right. So we just put it on the website, put it on the form. Like if you’re having an emergency tick this box comes over on our side, we get a big red flag that says this person’s having an emergency, what happens now? I was really skeptical in the beginning of that cuz I thought that would get abused
Kimberly (24:24): It’s gonna be ok!
Yeah. Don’t worry about it. Right. Um, so we got everything restored. She was so just so kind and gracious about all of it. Uh, turns out it was also her first week
Kimberly (24:34): Oh.
Chase (24:35): Um, so, you know, we sent her a just a small little gift package and a, a thank you card and I was just like, Hey, like so glad that we got to meet even under the circumstances. Hope you have a wonderful first couple of weeks here in your job, yada yada. Um, she sent me an email later and was like this, I mean, Basecamp customer for life at that point. It doesn’t matter if she stays with that company or goes somewhere else. Yeah. She is enthusiastic about us, our team, our product, Basecamp customer for life. Um, so yeah, it’s, it’s one of those…
Kimberly (25:03): In the big scheme of things, it seems like, well it wasn’t really that big of a deal. Like what she did wasn’t that big of a deal. It was just like an undue button basically. But to her, she was like, this is a catastrophic situation that you were able to fix.
Chase (25:16): Like catastrophic, she’s gonna look bad. Right, right. First week she’s gonna look bad, which is never what you want in your first week or anything like that. From our side it was, oh yeah, we can, we can fix this real quick. Don’t worry.
Kimberly (25:26): That’s awesome. Well, Chase, thanks for being here and sharing all your wisdom after so many years and, um, I know there’s people listening who are like, yeah, I should be doing this. So you’re setting a good example. So thank you for that.
Chase (25:39): Of course. And this is one of those we always tell folks too, like, yes, you can write to our support team for problems or just, if you’re wondering how we would handle stuff, so yeah, if you’re in that situation, then you’re just like, Hey, how would, how would 37signals handle it? Just email us. We’re more than happy to chat.
Kimberly (25:55): I mean, I love that. So giving. Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37signals.com/podcast. We’re also on Twitter at Rework podcast. And as always, if you have a specific question about a better way to work and run your business for either Jason, David, or Chase, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 and we just might answer your question on an upcoming show. Chase, you’ll have to come back. If someone has a question for you.
Chase (26:24): Oh, count me in.