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James Glazebrook at Support Driven Expo Europe 2019

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In April, Basecamp Support team member James Glazebrook gave a talk at Support Driven Expo Europe about Everyone On Support. It’s an all-hands program where Basecamp employees rotate through a day of working in customer service. James noticed the system—while well-intentioned—wasn’t working properly, and set out to fix it. And that, as James himself might say, is pretty metal.

The Full Transcript:

Shaun: [00:00:00] Welcome to a bonus episode of Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:00:06] And I’m Wailin Wong. Today we’re bringing you a talk by James Glazebrook, a member of Basecamp’s Support team. In April, he spoke at Support Driven Expo Europe. Support Driven describes itself as an online community and conference where you can learn from some of the best people in customer Support.

Shaun: [00:00:24] Like James. This is an edited version of his talk on something we do at Basecamp called Everyone on Support.

James: [00:00:32] All right, got it. Yes. If you were around yesterday Kristi from Help Scout gave an awesome talk on All Hands Support, and that was focused on getting buy-in from your management and people at the company to set up an initiative like that at your company.

[00:00:50] Today, I’d like to focus on what we’ve done at Basecamp, which is go—build on a similar foundation, but find other new ways for people outside of Support to help improve things for our customers, our team, and the company as a whole.

[00:01:06] So, six years ago, we set up what most of you might recognize as All Hands Support. For one day a month, each person at the company would take a break from designing, developing, or whatever else they usually do to answer customer emails.

[00:01:22] We figured that if they heard firsthand how people use Basecamp, they’d come away with ideas for how to improve that usage, and they would squash the bugs that get in the way of it. We call this Everyone on Support, EOS for short. Our barrier to entry was quite low. So when we first launched Basecamp, our CEO used to answer all emails himself. So we didn’t really have to get management buy-in. We didn’t have to convince him of the importance of direct customer contact. And we’re a remote company that relies on clear communication, which means that everyone we hire is a good writer already. So we had buy-in and we had a group of people with solid skills that we could build on.

[00:02:13] So we scheduled Support shifts for them all and buddied them up with someone on the Support team to help answer customer questions. We thought that Everyone on Support was something we could just set and forget, but we were wrong.

[00:02:28] When I joined Basecamp a year into the initiative, I sensed some frustration and resentment among the people who we were asking to join us in the queue. It was clear that we weren’t really living up to what we were trying to achieve with Everyone on Support. And I decided to get to the bottom of this by asking some people about it.

[00:02:52] Eron, on Ops, said “I don’t feel very useful when I’m in the queue. I usually just take easy cases that I don’t have to bug people about or spend a ton of time researching.” Jason, a designer, said, “All I ask is that we get to feel busy. I haven’t enjoyed shifts where I haven’t felt useful because there wasn’t enough work to do or the Support team was too aggressive about grabbing everything out of the queue.” And Kris said that he enjoyed Everyone on Support, but sometimes it felt like bring your kid to work day. I try to get through as many tickets as I can, but I never feel like I’m truly useful.

[00:03:35] So it was clear that we weren’t doing something right, but what exactly had gone wrong with Everyone on Support? Well, first we weren’t giving people the kind of Support that they needed. When I joined Basecamp, I got three weeks of in person training, followed by three months of feedback before I was considered ready to answer customer cases all on my own. And at that level doing one shift a month, it would take someone six years to reach that standard. And obviously we were giving people nothing like that kind of level of training. We didn’t really have any organized way to on board them or to give them ongoing Support as they got going.

[00:04:18] And the busier we got, the less Support we were able to offer. So around the time I took this over, we rolled into our busiest time of year and we lost two people on the Support team. And another to parental leave. Each person on my team went from answering 60 emails a day to answering 150 and that meant that we had no time left over to help the people who are joining us on Support. And that’s why Eron was cherry picking the kind of cases he’d seen before, feeling like he wasn’t learning anything, getting really frustrated.

[00:04:57] And around that time, that’s when my team developed an obsession with inbox zero. So even when we hired up and the workload dropped off, we felt compelled to reply to absolutely every email as quickly as possible, which meant that people like Jason were left with nothing to do.

[00:05:16] So after speaking to these folk, I took over scheduling EOS and then I realized that there must be something I could do to make that time more fun and more fruitful. So, I put EOS on pause for a few months and I tried to work out what I could do to fix these problems for these folk. I wanted to answer a few questions. First I was wondering, even if we could Support these people and shield them from the kind of pressures faced by my team, should we be expecting them to do the same kind of work that my Support professionals were doing? What if instead we could ask them to do less of our job and more of their own? What if we could leverage these skills and expertise they already have and turn that into valuable work that would help my company and our customers and my team.

[00:06:10] So what I did to answer these questions is I spoke to people in the Support team and out of it. And I uncovered examples of real life work they’d done to help our customers that took place outside of the Support queue. I teamed up with Kris, the designer you saw earlier and we collaborated on a kind of farm-to-table product pitch. So, we picked his requested feature. We spoke to customers to get to the why behind the what they were asking for. We scoped out the smallest viable solution. And then we presented that to the team. And I dug into our training resources for new Support hires and came up with documentation of my own, which was tailored towards the unique position that people found themselves in when they were on EOS.

[00:06:59] So when I relaunched EOS 18 months ago, I wanted to reset our expectations and set some clear ideas for what we were hoping to achieve around the initiative. And the first thing I did was write an intro guide, which really helps people to understand why we were getting involved in the initiative in the first place.

[00:07:22] Here’s what it told people. You are here to help our customers and this is your chance to talk with them on a regular basis. You’ll get a buddy on the Support team and together you’ll find out how our customers use Basecamp, the problems that they run into and the questions that they have. Along the way, you’ll squash bugs, find ways to improve our product, and come up with interesting new ideas. As well as this, Everyone on Support helps us to prepare for anything. During an emergency you should be able to help respond to customers and we’re giving you a safe place to practice those skills. Also, you’re going to learn about all of our products and help us to Support them until the end of the Internet.

[00:08:11] And for people on the Support team, this is a chance to build a bond and a working relationship with you. Above all, Everyone on Support is a valuable reminder about why we’re all here to help our customers. Without them, the company, its products, and our jobs wouldn’t exist.

[00:08:34] And as well as explaining why we were asking people to do EOS, the doc explained, gave some idea about how we were planning to achieve those things. First, we were giving people freedom, the freedom to join us in the queue without the weight of expectations that my team carries around and the freedom to stay out of the queue if there’s something they’d rather work on. They should feel empowered to decide how to spend their time and where to devote the skills that they were hired to flex.

[00:09:03] And we’re going to communicate with them to make sure that they have something helpful to work on and everything they need to get going. And we’re making it safe for them to speak up if they feel like they aren’t getting what they should be out of the initiative. So that’s the theory behind Everyone on Support and here’s how it works in practice.

[00:09:22] So, for the first two shifts, people still answer emails. We do that so that our buddies can make sure that they have all the tools they need to reply to a customer and that they know how to use them. They will also make sure that they are striking the right tone in their emails, connecting with people as a human and being as helpful as possible.

[00:09:47] And they’ll make sure that they can help someone get logged in, which is a baseline requirement for everyone at the company. But after those two shifts, it’s really up to people how they spend their time. They can do any work they want as long as that work, helps our customers or helps the Support team to help them, and can be scoped to a single working day or broken down into a series of day long chunks.

[00:10:11] Talking about the expectations I outlined earlier. The first thing that we did, that we noticed, is that we generated customer insights. We’ve found out how people use Basecamp and we learned from that how we could help improve that usage. At Basecamp, we have this feature called Automatic Check-Ins. And you can… we use that to share what we’ve been working on every day. And we noticed that people used to, after their EOS shifts, they used to talk about how little work they’d done and how bad that was making them feel. But now we’ve seen a change in that. We’ve seen that people talk about how much they’ve learned while on Everyone on Support, and they focus on the quality of those customer interactions rather than the quantity.

[00:10:58] A couple of examples from our heads of product.

[00:11:02] So this is Jason our CEO. He said he spent the day focused on feature requests. It’s always fun to hear from customers, hearing what’s on their minds. He got some good ideas about groups and user roles. Ryan, Product Strategy. Hearing from people who haven’t yet bought is helpful for working out what we could explain better on the marketing side, but those kinds of insights would be useless if we didn’t do something with them. In 2018, we saw 30 improvements to our products and other things that would help our customers out. So that included stuff like squashed bugs, new and improved products, pitches and explorations, and improved tooling for my Support team as well.

[00:11:57] A good example of this is some work that Zach, an iOS developer, did. So, recently, Appstore guidelines forced us to remove references to trial sign up from our app. We started to get complaints from people who downloaded it and then had no idea what to do next. Zach, noticed this and he wanted to do something to help. In a single Support shift he framed the problem. He asked for my team’s help. He dug into customer conversations, for insights, and then he pitched and deployed a solution. And as well as improving the UI, to make it clear what people should do if they had the app, but they had not set up a Basecamp account, he set up a system to track signup issues. Which meant that he could assess the changes he’d made and also look out for future improvements to make in a upcoming Support shifts.

[00:12:54] Changes like this are really important because they show how, with Everyone on Support, we going beyond j within answering customers’ immediate questions and we’re moving into lightening their load and the long term by fixing, clarifying, and improving the things that they bringing to our attention. As well as that, Everyone on Support has helped us to prepare for emergencies.

[00:13:18] Last November, we experienced our worst code red in about a decade. During that time, hundreds of thousands of people weren’t able to write to our app and they wanted to know when they’d be able to get back to work. While I was helping to coordinate our response, I headed to our emergency chat channel and I saw this message from Tom.

[00:13:41] “I’ve been replying to people in Help Scout. I hope that’s been helpful.” Tom is a developer on the product side, so he has no responsibility for fixing problems like this or replying to customers. But because of Everyone on Support, he understands what my team does and he feels empowered to jump in and start helping without having to be asked. And it wasn’t just Tom. We found that other designers and developers were replying to customers and even our founders.

[00:14:12] As well as all this, Everyone on Support has proved to be a really good training tool. So it’s a good way for new hires to learn about Basecamp. To get their head around our primary product, and also to get a reminder of all of the other products we promise to Support until the end of the Internet.

[00:14:31] Matthew’s one of our newer hires and he said, “ I had a great time buddying up with James and figuring out some interesting puzzles. Today I learned quite a bit more about Basecamp 2 and Basecamp Classic.” “Matthew’s, my buddy and with him on Ops and me on Support, we wouldn’t overlap unless something was going wrong. Yeah. So, Everyone on Support has given us a chance to build a bond and a working relationship more quickly than it would have without it. And it’s the one place we have at Basecamp, the one formal area we have where we get to learn about each other’s jobs and how they fit together and how that collective work serves to help our customers.”

[00:15:15] Flora, when she did her first shift, she said, “It was great to see how many people use Basecamp and really care about it. I was impressed by how much they take the time to explain what they’d like Basecamp to have and the whole experience made me appreciate the work that the Support team does even more.”

[00:15:34] So. We’re in the privileged position of not having a public roadmap or any outside investors or stakeholders to answer to. But that doesn’t mean that we’re beholden to no one. It means that we only answer to our customers. By opening up a direct channel with them. Everyone on Support has helped us to close the gap between what our customers hope for the product and what we have planned for it. And as well as that it’s had other great lasting effects on the culture.

[00:16:05] Here’s a phrase that I really love from our Head of Security. He says that, “EOS has helped Everyone on Support infect the rest of the company like a merciless empathy virus, which is pretty metal, but it’s also true.” And while he really means is that Everyone on Support is a place where we practice our company and our Support values. So our company values are generosity, being fair, straightforward, and independent. And those intersect with the Support values of being human, empowered, and responsive. And it’s the one place where everyone is encouraged to embody those skills and to really live them. So as a bonus, we’re living our values through Everyone on Support.

[00:16:54] So that’s how I took Everyone on Support into a much healthier, happier, more productive place. Then it was at two years ago. Throughout all of this, I’ve learned the importance of a few things.

[00:17:07] Dedicated resource. So you need one or more person to take control of an initiative like this. You want to set clear goals. Don’t ask people to do the same work as your Support team, but make it clear what you do expect of them. And why. Also, give people the freedom to do the kind of work that they’re interested in and good at. Celebrate wins. So, I regularly share positive customer feedback and work that’s come out of EOS. And I summarize that in larger updates that we call Heartbeats. And the first of these contained contributions from literally everyone at the company.

[00:17:47] So if you track results and you share and you celebrate those achievements, it’s going to give people confidence in All Hands Support. Make sure that what you do aligns with the values of your company and of your Support team. And above all, listen. This is the only way that I could work out that something was wrong with Everyone on Support and how to fix it. On that note, thanks for listening to me.

[00:18:12] [Applause.]

Wailin: [00:18:14] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner, and me, Wailin Wong. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art. To learn more about Support Driven and sign up for their newsletter, you can visit their website They’re also on Twitter @SupportDriven.