How Customer Support Can Be a Product Experience

The term “technical support” tends to conjure images of cavernous call centers filled with rows of workers who recite responses as they try to “close cases” and meet daily quotas.

Kip Mitchell, Axure’s Support Manager, believes that there’s another way – one that is good for customers, good for business, and good for support professionals. Since joining Axure in 2012, Kip has renamed Axure’s technical support to “product support” and has made it his mission to scale a high quality support service that functions as an extension of the product rather than a company cost center.

Kip isn’t alone. Many businesses are beginning to re-evaluate their approach to customer service, partly out of a desire to explore alternatives and partly because they strive to differentiate themselves through service.

Support as the Start of a Relationship

Before Kip joined Axure, it was the company’s president and co-founder, Victor Hsu, who managed support for 10 years, frequently diving in to answer questions himself. It wasn’t until Victor met Kip that he felt he could entrust that responsibility to someone else.

“Kip’s vision was that support was part of the product,” Victor explained. “For him, it’s an opportunity to start a two-way conversation with our customer, a way to extend their experience with our software. When you contact Kip’s team, he will assume that it is the beginning of a relationship and not just a quick fix. He’ll spend some time with you.”

When you contact Kip’s team, he will assume that it is the beginning of a relationship and not just a quick fix. He’ll spend some time with you.

Like any good relationship, a key component is understanding the other person and how they see the world. Kip trains his team to try to gauge each case along three dimensions — the customer’s level of expertise with the software, their job function, and what they’re ultimately trying to accomplish. This helps them provide the appropriate amount of information based on the customer.

“You don’t want to be patronizing by starting from square one, but you also don’t want to omit details that might be useful for them,” he said. “To calibrate the tone and present the right amount of information is a real art form. So we try to take some time to re-read their questions and really think about what would be most helpful to this particular person. We don’t always get it right the first time. But when we do, our customers get exactly what they need in a single email response.”

Support as Consultancy

Support is often seen as the equivalent of Fix-It Felix among those who encounter problems with their software. And while that does describe many of the cases that come to Axure, Kip encourages his team to think of them not as problems, but as opportunities to consult and provide training on using Axure RP more effectively.

“The product and the support you get with our software make up the lion’s share of our customers’ experience with Axure,” he said. “We all take that responsibility very seriously.”

The product and the support you get with our software make up the lion’s share of our customers’ experience with Axure. We all take that responsibility very seriously.

Customers will often send their Axure RP files to the Product Support Team, describing the issues they’re having with it and what they want it to do. It’s not unusual for customers to get their files back with the changes they needed, along with step-by-step screenshots of how it was done and suggestions for other methods the same outcome could be achieved.

Kip admits that not all products benefit from this type of intense coaching and consultation. But he believes it’s the right approach for Axure, given the value that customers say they get out of their interactions with his team.

“People are often surprised at how much effort we spend to give them a personalized answer,” Kip said. “For us, it’s hugely gratifying because we’re working against a set of expectations people have about customer support. It’s just really validating when we’re able to show them how support is different here, because we truly believe in this model.”

Creating a Job That People Would Want to Do

Providing this level of support takes a particular type of person. At first glance, the list of job qualifications might seem impossible. The ideal candidate is altruistic, compassionate and empathetic. In addition, they are technically adept, enjoy solving problems, and can write well. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they should really want to do the job.

This is a tall order. But Kip has a few tactics to help him find the right people—and retain them over time. The first is to offer above industry average salaries. After a year at Axure, a support professional typically earns roughly in the 90th percentile of wages for customer service representatives, according to the latest available figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics.

The second, and trickier, part of Kip’s formula is creating a job that people would actually want to do, and not just for the paycheck. This starts by giving his crew the tools they need to answer any question that pops up about Axure RP. The basic training program Kip designed takes two to three months to complete and involves a nonlinear learning path where trainees choose the subjects they want to tackle from a grid reminiscent of a bingo board. Topics run the gamut from license management to adaptive views.

Some companies operate “tiered” or specialized support. They escalate complex queries to more senior staff, or route cases by topic to specialists. While those models have advantages, Kip decided to go the other way so customers could have a more continuous experience. Kip designed the training so that everyone who makes it through the program is able to handle any query that comes through the door. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t have help. The entire company is available to the team when the need arises.

With Axure RP, this model makes sense because a single case can cross over multiple topics and features within the software. For Kip’s team, the opportunity to learn across a wide spectrum adds an element of challenge to the job, preventing them from getting into a rut.

“For the type of talent we’re trying to attract, they will have brains that are going to want to be intellectually challenged and engaged across many different subjects,” Kip said.

During Kip’s three-year tenure, Axure’s support team has had a 10% turnover for the entire period. By comparison, the industry averages 33% turnover a year, or roughly 99% over a three-year period, according to David Filwood of TeleSoft Systems, citing the International Customer Management Institute.

We’re very much post-revenge-of-the-nerds here. We think it can be a highly rewarding job.

“We’re very much post-revenge-of-the-nerds here,” Kip explains. “We think it can be a highly rewarding job. We try to hire people who like what they do, and we give them the tools they need to be experts at their jobs. Our customers sense that. They give us praise, and that leads to more happiness and job satisfaction.”

Scaling and Accountability

This is where a sharp-eyed executive would ask two questions. How does accountability work when there are no metrics? And can a model like this scale?

Axure’s support team functions on qualitative reviews. Managers regularly go over cases with the support team to discuss their solutions. In addition, Kip plans to introduce a rotating position where each member of the team takes a turn conducting peer reviews of case responses.

“It’s a form of self-QA for the team,” Kip said, who got the idea from a tradition among developers of doing peer code reviews. “And it’s a good way to learn by getting exposure to a wide variety of different cases.”

As for scale, Kip says it is a real concern for him.

“To be honest, I don’t know how this is going to scale to double or triple the size”, Kip said. “What’s important—and what personally gives me hope—is that everyone here is committed to treating Product Support as an essential part of the business as we grow. So, come back in a couple of years to see how we do it then. We might not be doing to it the same way, but for sure we’ll be committed to having the same results.”

Recap: A Formula for Support

Hire people who really want to do the job. To filter for people who enjoy answering questions and being helpful, Kip asks candidates to go through a problem solving exercise. Correct responses are good, but equally important is how the candidate approaches the problem.

Empower them to be expert problem solvers. Turn them into a team of problem solvers and product consultants. Through extensive training, give support professionals the tools and knowledge to be experts in their jobs.

Create a positive feedback loop. “When we do a good job, our customers are really good about expressing their appreciation,” Kip said. “That leads to more happiness and job satisfaction, which leads to a desire to do even better.”

See Support as part of the product experience. If your organization recognizes that customer interactions with support are a key part of their overall experience with your products, support can get the investment needed to make those interactions count.

Offer fair pay and benefits. In addition to above industry average salaries, support professionals at Axure also receive benefit packages that include health, dental and vision insurance, as well as matching 401(k). If they’re an important part of the business, treat them like it.