Engineering customer service at WordPress.com

Andrew Spittle lives in downtown Portland and rarely sees the team of 100 he leads.

His team at Automattic, makers of WordPress.com among other products, is distributed all across the world. 

Even with the team so spread out, Andrew's strategy for customer service centres on culture.

In the job posting for Happiness Engineer, Automattic says, "Our goal is to build relationships based on trust which result in happy, passionate, loyal customers and colleagues through listening to their needs and guiding them to the fullest use of the products we offer."

Happiness Engineers talk to thousands of customers every week through live chat and email.  In this video and the extended conversation below, Andrew talks about how WordPress achieves great results and how your team can learn from their experience.

Like most Happiness Engineers, Andrew works primarily from home. I met him there to ask what makes his team a success.

Happiness Engineers

Laure: Could you describe what a Happiness Engineer does?

Andrew: A Happiness Engineer's day can be a collection of things. The core is interacting with our customers. Right now, we do that across live chat, community forums, and then private email, as well.

The bulk of the day is spent talking back and forth with customers. Then it's also a collection of things like documentation or testing new features, because we don't do any beta releases or anything on WordPress.com. Things are just made available internally for Automatticians at the company. It's on us to test, give feedback, and report bugs before something ships.

Then post launch, a Happiness Engineer also does a little bit of qualitative customer feedback. We always get long public forum threads whenever we change something. It's partly going back through those and picking out the highlights or the commonalities, and communicating those back to product teams.

Laure: How did the Happiness Engineer position evolve at Automattic? Where did it come from?

Andrew: I think the title, "Happiness Engineer," was [Automattic CEO] Matt's idea. "Customer support" is a bland title, when really, the idea is to engineer a sense of happiness in your customers, because if they're happy using WordPress.com, then they're going to come back more often. They're going to tell their friends about it and be evangelists for you.

Early on in WordPress's history, there was just one guy named Mark Riley, who was a very, very prolific contributor to the open source forums. He would help people set up WordPress installations at a time when doing so was a little more labor intensive than it is now. The web hosting options weren't as mature and everything. He was doing that for the open source community, and then Automattic hired him to do it for WordPress.com customers.

Then it grew and evolved to where it is now, with really the growth accelerating over probably the last two to three years. When I joined in 2010, we were a team of about eight people, and now we're nearly 100 Happiness Engineers spread across the company.

Laure: What's the goal of a Happiness Engineer or the collective Happiness Engineers?

Andrew: The goal of a Happiness Engineer is in the name: to engineer happiness. It's really just to be responsive to our customers, to help them with whatever they need. A lot of times, that's an educational role, so questions like, "How do I do this with the product?"

It's being the middle person who translates between how the product works and how the customer might expect the product to work, and really focused on what the customer's goal is. What do they want to get out of using WordPress.com or any one of the other products we offer?

Training

Laure: How do you help the Happiness Engineers deliver that goal? Can you talk about how a new hire becomes a good Happiness Engineer?

Andrew:We train people in a couple ways. We have a standard hiring process, with a little bit of a twist at the end. We get applications, we interview, but the interviews are all done through text. From the get-go, we're looking to assess how they can communicate through text, because that's going to be key to how they both interact within the company and then how they support customers, too, since it's all text-based support.

After the interviews, we do a trial contract period with people, which is a four- to six-week period. We really give them all the tools. From those four to six weeks, they get basically a crash course in how we handle customer support. Based on their success in that contract period, we then choose to hire people full-time, or say, "Not right now, but maybe come back again later."

Then once they join the company, there are tons of resources in place, nothing super formal. We do a lot of short-term rotations across teams. If someone's interested in what our Terms of Service support looks like, they might go and work with that team for two or three weeks, get some first-hand experience with what that looks like, and then go back to their regular full-time team.

Laure:Is training, for you, primarily working with the existing team, or are there other kinds of resources?

Andrew: Working with existing people is definitely first and foremost. We have a saying inside the company that 'communication is oxygen.' One of the best ways to build those ties, since we all work from home, is to just consistently be talking with one another. We're definitely people-focused in terms of training.

There are a ton of resources, too, inside the company. We have an internal field guide that documents things that are a pain to work with or that have hidden "gotchas" or things like that. Things like domains in DNS documentation or how do you set up root-level A-records.

Outside of that, we also have the wealth of all the information from the internal blogs that we use to communicate as a company. Every support team, every product team, every area of interest has an internal blog. We run a WordPress theme called P2, and those archives are open to everyone. When you join, you have full access. We have a internal search engine powered by Elasticsearch. You can filter by a time range, the site it was posted on, or access historical conversations that address the issue that you're dealing with.

Laure: Do you have a way to teach people about best practices in terms of the customer service itself, like how to deal with angry customers, or other soft skills? Is that part of the training?

Andrew: Part of the training deals with the soft skills of customer support. A lot of times, customers aren't so much angry as they are impatient, especially on live chat. They might throw five questions at once. We have a group of Happiness Engineers called Live Chat Academy that focuses on the soft skills of support, how to phrase things to keep a conversation progressing, or how to deal with antagonistic customers.

Beyond that, the one thing we do is just really preach the value of using your own judgment, because ultimately, we're all customers to hundreds and hundreds of businesses. We know what a good customer experience feels like. Some of it is just convincing Engineers, "No, we trust you to use your own judgment. If they're outside of the refund policy and you feel like they should get a refund, just give them the refund."

We're breaking the habits and assumptions that people have from past customer support jobs. A lot of times, people in support roles are told, "There's no policy on that." Then they might do an action and be like, "Oh, but there is this hidden policy we didn't tell you about." We have to convince people that when we say, "Use your best judgment in interactions," we mean use your best judgment in interactions.

Laure: Practically speaking, we were talking earlier about just managing the load of support. How do you teach people how to deal with the support load?

Andrew: We handle the load of support in a few different ways. Part of it comes from just the overall work environment. For the most part, we don't dictate people's schedules. We have certain coverage hours for some areas of support that we've promised to customers we're available in, but the scheduling is done ad hoc. It's not like your manager gives you your schedule for the week.

Part of it's oriented toward allowing people to work when they're most comfortable working, which I think goes a long way toward addressing burnout issues related to volume. Most people are much more burnt out by heavy volume if they're working at 2 or 3am than they might be if they're working at 2 or 3pm.

Then, another part of it is also just encouraging people to find their own boundaries and their own workflows, whether that's using a tool like TextExpander or using the built-in snippets in Alfred. It's like, "Use what works for you. If you can handle three live chats simultaneously, that's great. Just focus on improving from where you are currently. It's not about you being able to handle three and somebody else being able to handle five. What matters is that you're both looking at how to progress and improve your skills."

Talking to customers

Laure: How important is responsiveness and the connection that you make with customers?

Andrew: Responsiveness in support is super crucial to us. There's the saying in education that there are no silver bullets except smaller class sizes and more time with teachers. I think support's the same way. Ultimately, if the same answer is delivered faster, somebody's going to be more appreciative of it. You can deliver the same answer, but if it's a difference between one hour and 12 hours, there's going to be some level of fall-off where you just lost those customers, because they don't want to bother waiting 12 hours or two days.

Responsiveness to me is the minimum level of quality for customer support, because ultimately, these people have already gone out of their way to give us time to use the product. They've then gone out of their way from doing that to contact us and ask for help.

There are two obligations on us to fulfill, there. We have an obligation to get back to them as fast as we possibly can, and an obligation to help them continue using the product. I really see those things as inseparable. You can't really have top-quality customer support if it's not responsive and fast replies, or even synchronous, like live chat.

Laure: What is the reason that you guys don't use phone support?

Andrew: We don't use much phone support for a few reasons. Basically, the way we handle phone support right now is if our business team is working with a user on live chat, and it's just like they've sunk 30 minutes trying to explain something, and it's not getting across, they'll offer to have somebody from the team reach out to the customer and call them, and set up a time for that to happen.

We shy away from just having a phone number posted that anybody can call is for a few reasons. First, we're helping people with a web product. There are all these things about the web that are not really conducive to phone support. How do we tell somebody to go to a URL? In live chat, we can just push them straight to that page or give them the URL to click. In phone support, it'd be like, "Okay. You see the blue box that says this? No, no, the other one, in the top left. Oh, right. Okay, click it. No, no, no. Go back." It'd be a mess. It wouldn't be a very good experience, I feel, for using a web product.

There are some things that would be well-suited to phone support, like transactional things, refunds, potential cases of credit card fraud, things like that, where we probably would help customers more if we had phone support. On the other hand, we're also asking all of our Happiness Engineers to work from home. Accepting phone calls within your home is a very disruptive experience. If you have family around, it's going to influence everyone in the home.

It also brings a certain level of stress into the home that I'm not necessarily sure is a productive experience for someone who's looking to provide customer support. When you're providing support and you're working from home, you don't necessarily also want to be thinking the phone could ring at any time, because that's going to carry over outside of your work day, too. You're just going to have that gut instinct of, "The phone might ring, and I might have a customer call me." That's why we don't use phone support primarily.

Laure: Do you think that customers are happier when they get responses immediately?

Andrew: In terms of customer expectations with responsiveness, we've done a little bit of looking at the data of the surveys that do come back. We found a marginal benefit to faster response times, but when you start talking about the difference between an hour or two versus 12, I think it's going to be a huge difference than between 12 and 24.

We haven't dug up the data to look at that yet. It's just a gut feeling. Ultimately, even if customer feedback with responsiveness is constant between one-hour and 12-hour response times, you're then exceeding the expectations if you get back to them in one hour. There might not be a measurable difference, but they will remember if you get back to them faster.

Laure: How do you use Olark?

Andrew: We use Olark for all of our live chat. Originally, it was chosen, I think, just because it was so simple to get started. At the time we had maybe 12 or 13 Happiness Engineers, and we wanted to experiment with providing live chat support around custom CSS. We would only load live chat at the custom CSS screen to help people customize their site.

I think it was primarily chosen because it was like, "Oh, this looks cool, and it's just a JavaScript embed we can drop in. Okay, let's do that." Then from there, it's evolved. We just set up about 12 different groups within one account, and we route customers all between them. It's actually matured into a pretty good solution for us.

One of the things that I find most valuable about Olark as compared to my other live chat experiences, is so often, you use chat to contact a company, and you end up with a separate popup window. Whereas Olark, what we're able to do is really bring support into the product. You're no longer asking a customer to reconcile what's in their email with what the product is showing, or to switch between tabs or windows, which is a fairly mentally taxing process.

It's something in tech we take for granted. We all have a dozen windows open on our screen. For a lot of customers, especially for a mass product like WordPress.com, it's really mentally difficult to be able to switch between windows quickly, and then read what the support rep is saying in the chat, and switch back to your browser window with the product. Whereas what Olark allows us to do is bring support natively into the product, so somebody can ask a question in a little popup that stays within the same window. They can see right within that window what they need to go click on, or even the operator can push them directly to the page if they're having trouble getting there.

I think most of our customers would not even have any idea we use Olark. They would just think of live chat as, "Oh, it's that little bubble I can click on and get support," which is a cool habit to build. You just know that if you're in your WordPress dashboard, you'll get support, which is neat.

The business benefit is that it's easy for the customer to use, because it's right within the product. The biggest benefit to live chat from my personal perspective is that every day is a fresh slate.

If you're doing email, you start every day with the responses that came in overnight to what you handled the day before. You have this trailing interaction, where you're never in one interaction resolving everything with the person. It's a really abstract sense of helping someone. Whereas, with live chat, they're in your face. If they're stuck or if they think you're talking a foreign language, it's going to be really apparent to you, which is a very intense feeling to have. It also means that the highs of helping someone are really apparent.

At the end of the day, you can close your laptop and step away from work, and know that when you sign on to live chat the next morning, you're just going to get maybe some repeat customers, but it's all going to be new issues, and issues that you're going to resolve by and large within that one chat. You can always walk away with a greater sense of accomplishment, because you helped 30, 40, 50 people. It wasn't that you sent 30 or 40 replies. You helped resolve 30 or 40 issues that people were running into.

Laure: What's been the most memorable feedback that you've gotten from customers?

Andrew: There are two that I got that stick out. One was helping a lady in Australia with something over email. She had tons and tons of questions. At the end, she basically went out of her way to send a chocolate care package of Tim Tams to our office in San Francisco. We have this picture of our office manager with this armful of Tim Tams in an office chair with this look of, "Look how much I get to eat." It was a cool way of sharing some of the happiness experience across the company.

Then the other experience for me personally that stands out is talking with a customer, and ultimately, the issue they were running into was not something we could fix. They were going to have to go contact their domain registrar. When we broke this news to them, they said, "Oh. I don't want to go contact my domain registrar, because they don't have Happiness Engineers. They have Gestapos of Grief."

Other people on the team have been sent chocolates. One person helped a customer, and then the customer said, "Oh, that's great. Thanks. Now can you tell me a joke?" She was like, "Okay. What's a duck's favorite food? Quackers." Then the customer was like, "Alright. That's a good joke. Here's a bobcat," and sent a picture of a domestic cat with a Photoshopped bob haircut on it. Little things like that just stand out from over the years.

Laure: Are there metrics that are involved in the way WordPress.com defines customer service or good customer service?

Andrew: We tend to think of ourselves as data-informed rather than data-driven. Customer service has so many qualitative aspects that can't be measured. The things that we do look at are fast response times and high levels of customer feedback, because we send some "How would you rate the support you received," surveys after every interaction. We have stats for all that stuff that's open to everyone in the company.

Then intermittently, we set some sort of quarterly or half-year goals for everyone. Right now, we're really focused on bringing live chat to be available 24/7 for all customers and bringing response times in asynchronous stuff, like email forms, things like that, below five hours. Those are metrics that ebb and flow. There's no static definition or central definition of, "This is what great customer support is and forever will be."

About Laure Parsons

Laure is the Chief Storyteller at Olark. She drinks decaf like a badass.