Tag: hospitality

Hospitality is a Team Sport

If you’ve been reading my stuff for very long, you’re aware that I think about hospitality a lot.

I use it in broad terms – I think that the work that we call Customer Support, Customer Success, Customer Service, and so on, all fall under this same umbrella.

Before I worked for Automattic I had a successful career in high end coffee – before that I was in grad school and working in restaurants and cafes.

One piece that’s worth keeping in mind, one cornerstone to excellence in hospitality regardless of industry, is that we’re playing a team sport.

Today is my fifth wedding anniversary (Happy Anniversary, Doc!)  – last night we went out to a nice dinner. She had a lobster salad and I had the tuna steak. During our meal, I noticed a waiter serving a large table next to us.

Each of the entrées had toothpicks with different colored foil on the end – some red, some blue, you know the kind. As he turned his back to the table to pick up another diner’s plate, he’d quietly remove the toothpick, leave it on the larger serving tray, and present the entrée to the customer, announcing confidently the entrée, the sides, the special bibs and bobs requested by that particular diner.

If you’ve worked in a restaurant, you know what those toothpicks were – they indicated the done-ness of a steak, or which cheeseburger had the Swiss rather than the cheddar. They were little reminders built into the process to allow the server to present an entirely seamless and apparently perfect experience to the customers without holding all of that information in his head.

(This was a table of maybe twelve diners? Not an easy task to remember every person’s nuanced order)

It was an interesting reminder for me, that a seamless and lovely delivery to a customer, a shiny and outstanding experience, is the result of a whole team of folks working behind the scenes – working to support one another just as much as they’re working to support the customer directly.

(I’ve written some about this here and here.)

This kind of internal hospitality may seem small – a cook leaving reminders of what makes each dish special – but it adds up to a lower effort, higher-level experience for the customer.

It’s easy for us to extend this idea to the work we do in developing software. Think of your internal tooling – are there obvious, visible flags for features or situations where things are different from the usual? How much do you make your colleagues lives easier?

This doesn’t just apply to development teams working with success/support teams, either. If you work in a customer-facing role, whether support or success or whatever, how easy do you make it for others in your company to understand your work? What are the toothpicks that you offer to make their jobs easier? Do you have a standard, easily replicated template for bug reports that includes steps for reproduction, customers effected, and a consistent urgency scale?

(If not; think about making one 🙂 )

The customer experience, especially an excellent customer experience, is the end result of tons of tiny decisions, all stacked on top of one another. It’s only possible to really do the very best for our customers when we first do the very best we can for one another.

Support Folks: Don’t Confuse Your Problems For Your Customers’ Problems

I was talking with my lead, Andrew, about how software companies provide customer support – a standard topic for our conversations.

We ended up on a topic I hadn’t considered much, but it has resonated with me since.

The topic is the important distinction between your customer’s problems and your support team’s problems. 

Or, put another way: the difference between a hard product to use and a hard product to support. 

It’s very easy to ask a member of your support team: “What’s your biggest problem right now?”

They’ll likely reply with some combination of particular features of the product, maybe something to do with billing or receipts, and possibly something about internal communication (which virtually every support team has a 100% legitimate problem with, since virtually no tech companies communicate value well from the support team to the rest of the company).

Especially when we’re leveraging support teams to build more value into the product, the problem is: it’s easy to confuse support’s problem with the customer’s problem.

At the end of the day, the result should be the same: more value for the customer, right? If you solve a problem and it results in better support for your customers or a better product for your customers, well, everybody wins!

The bigger issue is that these two categories of problem have to be solved in different ways.

Consider this: if you’re running a web host, and you ask your support folks to list the biggest problem areas they encounter day to day. The number one reply across the board is “Domains.” 

You might be tempted to direct some UX or Product folks to run through the domain purchase flow, to check on accessibility or mobile friendliness of that particular part of your product – but the right move would be to ask more questions. Specifically:

“Are domains the biggest problem for our customers, or are they the biggest problem for our support team?”

You can see why it is so important to hash out the difference here, yeah?

If customers are struggling to purchase domains, or are struggling to use them correctly, that will take a particular approach – build some better flows, test them, deploy them, circle back to see if things improve.

If support folks are struggling to support domain customers, then you have a whole different job on your hands. Now you need to get into the thick of it – OK, what part of that support process is challenging? Where do you need more information but don’t have it? What tools can we build to make this process easier, faster, more user friendly?

These are questions that good support organizations need to ask themselves, too.

Too frequently we fall into the easy answer, to blame the edge cases, to throw our hands in the air as though our customers are mysterious beings with whom we have nothing in common.

What if the problem isn’t on the customer’s end? What if you struggle to support some part of your product because your tools aren’t good enough? The problem is not always with the customer, it’s not always with the product. Sometimes our own processes and approaches are what’s causing friction.

Next time you say to yourself, “Ugh, classic problem x with customers/our product” – take a minute, step back, and ask yourself: what’s the real problem here?

Customer Support is the Last Mile for SaaS Companies

Working as a Team Lead for one of the Happiness teams at Automattic has been a great opportunity for me to learn a lot about the Software as a Service ecosystem.

I’ve been thinking and talking about hospitality and its outsized value for software companies for a while now (here’s a talk I gave in 2014 on the topic) – there are a lot of ways that support is undervalued in a general way by software companies, but folks working in the SaaS sector especially are losing out on a ton of potential value by underutilizing their support staff.

There are lots of places where we as an industry could improve here, from recognizing the import of support in the classic Build – Measure – Learn cycle to admitting that UX research is essentially Hospitality 2.0.

I’ve made it pretty clear (I hope) that my position on software, and even really maybe all products everywhere, should Just Work. Having to contact support staff, or dig through documentation, or try to figure out which Stack Overflow commenter is the closest one to correct, isn’t something an end user should have to do. That’s really it. Full stop.

However, like you, I live in the real world, and I recognize that compromises have to be made – products have to do more than one thing, and deadlines and inefficiencies and sometimes simply economic necessity means that not everything we touch can be a perfectly tailored, intuitive non-interface.

Someday. Someday.

WordPress.com is a SaaS business. Our customers are largely non-technical, and our product is fairly complex, although powerful. There is certainly a learning curve, and while we provide some educational materials, a great many of our customers, especially new customers, lean on our support system to help them gain momentum in the right direction.

We’re not alone in this – many SaaS businesses, especially ones that offer many features and powerful suites of tools, share that learning curve. You can very likely think of two or three services that you use yourself that took some time to really figure out – imagine if someone less tech savvy than you were trying to figure out that product? Where would they head?

Note here that I’m talking specifically about SaaS companies who are by and large dealing with the public – B2B SaaS companies have their own tangled web of complicated issues that I am by and large unqualified to comment on.

For companies like WordPress.com, businesses that sell to the general public and have a not-insignificant learning curve, your support staff represents the last mile service for your company’s created value.

This idea of Last Mile service comes from (ugh) telecoms – Wikipedia Link , more context appropriate Investopedia explanation – the TLDR is that the last connection in the telecom chain tends to be disproportionately challenging and/or expensive, but it remains the crucial link between the end customer and the massive network of energy or information or water or whatever.

Imagine you were running a massive telecommunications company, and you had a geographically enormous physical network in place, fiber stretched coast to coast, fully prepared to bring high speed internet to the people. This is a massive, massive amount of value. Imagine that you are, for one reason or another, unable to connect that last mile, to make that switch between your vault of value and the customer who would absolutely love to buy it from you. That’s a last mile problem.

For many would-be customers of SaaS products, that final connection, that link between an enthusiastic customer and your stored value, is your support staff. When they are able to work effectively, a good support team can multiply the value of the product, because not only are they solving individual customer problems, they’re flipping the switch for that customer, creating that last mile connection that otherwise would never have existed, leaving a customer disconnected from the value that you can offer them.

Complicated, powerful products can bring value to customers in a way that punches way, way above their weight – folks who have never heard of HTML are building multi page responsive websites right now on WordPress.com. Think about that.

The issue is, if you’re selling to the public, some percent of them need a hand flipping that last mile switch – if you can’t or won’t provide that service for them, you’ll be missing out on a whole cohort of potential enthusiastic customers, because the fact is, so, so many companies today do not bother to invest in their support staff to the extent that maximizes the last mile service.

The insidious thing about this problem is that it can manifest itself in many different forms. It might be especially high first-day churn rates. It might be that a cohort of your customers massively underuse your product’s features (because they don’t really understand them, because the last mile isn’t connected), and as such they’re dissatisfied, and go dark. It might be that folks who DO contact support, but only once, tend to churn at a higher rate (that would indicate that your support staff may need to read closer, empathize rather than grind out emails as fast as possible.)

Only you can identify if your product’s learning curve is leaving people out in the cold, denying them access to the full value of your product.

If you think that’s a potential place for improvement (and it almost certainly is), you should take a long look at the way your customers are able to access support. Is it easy to find? Are operators thoughtful and thorough, rather than perfunctory and severe? Imagine you were deeply confused by a step in your signup and activation flow – can you get help right away?

Considering the metaphor of the last mile can be really helpful in improving your customers’ access to your company’s value – think about it, and get out there and flip some switches!

SupConf Now Accepting Speaker Applications



If you work in hospitality on the internet, or even really UX of any flavor, you should know about Support Driven – it’s a blog, it’s a podcast, it’s a Slack group!

And now, the fine folks at Support Driven (including my dear friends Andrea and Andrew) are organizing an all-new conference, with a really interesting take on the speaker submission and development process. If you work with customers, as a support person or as a data person or really in any form, you should look into this conference – especially if you have something to say!

Talks are only 15 minutes long and are focused on actionable results – do you have a lesson or story that could enrich the experience of other folks in customer-facing roles? You should absolutely submit a talk!


The Customer Comes Last

The Customer Comes Last

I left off a Post a while back with this:

I would argue that not only is there more to hospitality than your customer facing efforts, I would also argue that, of the people to whom you want to offer outstanding hospitality and service, your customers should be the last in line. But that’s a topic for another time.

You can read the rest of that Post, “Internal and External Hospitality,” here.

Let’s talk about serving your customers last – what I mean, what my argument is, and why there are are least two groups who should come before your customers in terms of hospitality.

If you haven’t been following my blog closely (I totally understand), let me catch you up on a two of the concepts I’ve been writing about:

Service and hospitality are different things – service is what happens when a customer interacts directly with someone who works for your company. Hospitality is the umbrella category for everything else that you and your company do to impact the way your customer feels about your company. The guy at the front desk at a hotel is providing service. A dirty elevator is detracting from the hospitality.

Internal and External Hospitality – Hospitality isn’t just something you provide for your customers – your internal culture, the way things work at your company, can also be seen through the lens of hospitality. External is what your customers see, internal is what your colleagues see.

Let me start with my conclusion – then we can work backwards.

In terms of hospitality, the best way to create value for your customers is to rank others above them.

I’m clearly taking aim at the old yarn ‘The Customer is always right,’ or ‘The Customer comes first,’ or one of a hundred other clichés. That’s nonsense. It’s the product of simple thinking, and in an ironic twist, your customers are actually worse off if you fail to rank some other folks ahead of them in your thinking.

Broadly, there are three cohorts in our equation – you and your colleagues, your company’s vendors, and your customers. This order is intentional – I would argue that is also the order that you should think about serving (and providing hospitality to) these groups.

There has been so much written about company culture, why it’s important, why is has to be attended to intentionally – we can very easily see the difference between a good culture and a bad one using our lens of hospitality, right? Working in a place where employees care for one another, support one another, and work to help one another is clearly more hospitable and a better place to work than the opposite.

Providing hospitality internally, to your colleagues, does not always cause tension with providing hospitality or service to your vendors or customers – but when it does, you should always, always put your colleagues first. If you have built a great team, of motivated, well-intentioned individuals, maintaining that positive culture internally is far more important than pleasing a single customer. In fact, sometimes it’s necessary to fire a customer to maintain that internal hospitality. The rest of your customers will be better off, enjoying the fruits of a happy, supportive workplace where employees aren’t afraid that missteps with customers will cost them their jobs.

Providing hospitality to your vendors – especially in a tech or food service environment – is absolutely more important than to individual customers. Yes, the guy delivering your produce should be given preferential treatment. Yes, the folks who keep your servers maintained should have their emails read first. They literally keep the lights on. Maintaining those personal and business relationships is key to ensuring a steady flow of resources that you can then turn into customer value.

If your end goal is to delight your customers, to create the most value for them and to instill in them loyalty and pride, you cannot put them first. You have to put them last – and in doing so, you’ll improve their lives far more than if you place them above your colleagues and your vendors.