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What I Learned at Support Driven's Customer Support Conference This Fall

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SupConf, the self-described "best support conference," took place in Atlanta last month, and it was, indeed, truly excellent.

I really agree with the superlative description, and I learned a ton about remote work, knowledge bases, proactive support, and the Support Driven community.

I was honored to have been able to kick things off with a talk about scaling your customer support team from zero to 250+ employees. Read on to learn more about trends in the customer support space, the Support Driven community, and my strategies for scaling a customer support team.

What I Learned at SupConf's Fall 2017 Customer Support Conference

1) Remote Work

The Prevalence of Remote Work in Customer Support

About 80% of people at the conference had worked -- or currently work -- remotely. It shouldn't be a surprise that customer support professionals are on the cutting-edge of modern work styles and relationships, but the degree to which remote work featured was more than I expected. Any company that's not leaning into remote career opportunities and pushing their own boundaries here is far, far behind the industry curve.

How to Manage Remote Customer Support Teams

From a management perspective, remote team success is about time, effort, and self-driven engagement. I found Katharine McCarthy's tips for remote work among the most actionable of the conference for us at HubSpot, as we've just started HubSpot's remote support team this year and are looking forward to leading the way for HubSpot's remote work effort globally.

2) Proactive Customer Support

"Proactive customer support" was a big buzzphrase at SupConf, but it turns out it means different things to customer support organizations at companies in different stages of growth.

Proactive Support for Early Stage Companies

At this stage, customer support reps are bogged down in the never-ending queue of support tickets. To them, "proactive support" represents a far-away dream that goes like this: If only we could use our amazing support people to get ahead of these tickets, the quality of life on our team would be better. 

Sometimes they had more specific ideas, other times not, but there is a massive desire for more proactive support. Personally, I think this is a place where machine-learning technology, artificial intelligence, and bots could be of big help in the future -- because these companies don't really have resourcing to execute on their dream, but automation technology could expand their bandwidth and capabilities.

Proactive Support for Later-Stage Companies

At this stage, customer support folks referred to something specific when talking about "proactive support." They were talking about customer onboarding, customer success, and account management -- other customer team functions beyond just the core, reactive support.

These companies had managed to grow their support organizations and created specific teams for "proactive support" -- like customer success teams.

3) Knowledge Bases

Nora West of Guru hosted a panel with Jacob Touchette (Shopify) and Stephanie Westbrook (Wrike) all about knowledge bases. My learnings here fell into two groups:

How to Encourage Adoption and Visibility

These are key when getting a knowledge base up and running. Ensuring that the knowledge base is bookmarked and available to reps at all times, referring internal users -- like salespeople and new support reps -- back to the knowledge base, and ensuring support can trust the content by keeping it constantly updated are key parts of that. Anything knowledge base owners can do to make easy the proliferation and apparentness of trusted content are useful to knowledge base adoption and sharing in the early days.

Creating Knowledge of Record

The other side of knowledge base adoption is making it the official knowledge of record at your company and within your customer support organization. "Killing the undernet" was a phrase Jacob used that I loved -- the "undernet" is the informal and unintentionally walled-off bits of knowledge that teams document and share in private that can create trust, visibility, and content issues over time. Jacob was passionate about finding and assimilating these into a shared, public resource -- like a knowledge base.

4) The Support Driven Community

This was my first in-person exposure to the Support Driven community. I've been in the Slack group for years, but it's totally different in person. And let me tell you: This community is really special.

Every single person I met was generous, thoughtful, curious, and caring. After just 36 hours in person with this gang, I'd happily go out on a limb to help Support Driven folks with anything they need. They're good people -- learn more about them here.

What I Shared at SupConf's Fall 2017 Customer Support Conference

At my morning keynote, I talked about a subject that (I hope) had something for everybody in it: how to scale a customer support team from 0 to 250 employees or more. It's a topic I've written about before -- but in a live discussion with other customer support pros, it benefited from the perspectives of different support and company organizations, too.

How to Scale Your Customer Support Team

Early Stage (5-20 Employees)

I opened the talk with a tale of failure and vulnerability -- about how HubSpot's customer support team crumbled once we really hit hyper-growth and didn't have a customer support infrastructure or organization that supported it. It seemed like other early stage folks in the audience could relate to the chaotic, "world is on fire" vision of this era of a company's growth.

Mid-Stage (20-100 Employees)

The conversation about being more "deliberate" at this stage of growth struck a chord with a lot of people. If you're building a customer support organization at a mid-stage company, you should be starting to pick your channels, decide what you measure, and be proactive in communicating those to your customers and your company. The biggest thing companies of this size struggle with is specialization, and how to provide "proactive support" to their customers. 

Growth Stage (100-250 Employees)

With other people at companies in this stage, we mixed it up by talking about team culture, models, and the pressures of rapid growth. It was exciting to hear that most folks were solidifying their hiring profile and optimistically focusing on what was next in their growth trajectory.

My message of moving from "survival" to "leadership" landed well emotionally, but like others I've spoken to, I haven't nailed how exactly to do this, tactically. It's tough to shift perspectives from treading water to staying ahead of the wave of customer support tickets and cases to focus on more proactive support.

But one of the most important pieces of advice I can give at this stage of your customer support organization's growth is to not put process over people -- and to make sure your team's culture fosters employee empowerment to solve for the customer and doesn't allow for your team's isolation from the rest of your company. Institute regular conversations and meetings with other departments so the voice of the customer is never lost as your team -- and the larger company -- grow.

Scale-Up (250+ Employees)

I received a ton of questions following my talk on hiring customer support leadership, how to structure your organization at this scale, and more.

The bulk of the questions felt like they was from people who were coming out of the "growth" stage and starting to really scale up. One of the challenges of having a focused conversation about this stage is that there is so much going on -- like sharing knowledge and best practices, customer support hiring, processes and systems, and more.

But some of the main themes customer support teams at scale-up organizations should be talking about and implementing include instituting permanent fixes to common customer complaints, offering multiple channels so customers can seek help when they want it (and how they want it), and building out your team to focus on proactive customer success to help customers solve one-off problems and solve for bigger-picture strategy.

If you want to check out my full SupConf presentation, check it out below, and connect with me on Twitter to keep the conversation going.

A version of this blog post originally appeared on my blog.

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