8 Things We Learnt From The Secret Sauce Interviews In 2014

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We launched the Secret Sauce series in September of last year in an attempt to find out what makes our favorite customer support reps tick. We wanted to divine all their secrets, figure out their aces, and break down how they managed to get their customers raving about their brand no matter where they go. Three months and fifteen interviews into the series, we’re still figuring out that special, secret ingredient but we’ve learnt a lot of things along the way. Some are surprising, some fairly well known, others you wouldn’t guess at in a million years!

Who would have thought that teachers make great support reps, that four million customers can be supported by just a team of two, and that email still rules the roost? Here are some more interesting takeaways:

1. Quality over Quantity

And nothing proves this better than Trello where a team of two support a user base of about four million. Normally, we’d call this a recipe for disaster but Trello’s ever-growing popularity puts all our doubts to rest. Looks like it doesn’t matter how big your support team is, as long as they’re equipped with the right tools. All you really need to worry about is how supportive (sorry for the pun!) your reps are being to your customers. However, as Brian Cervino himself admits it, it does make sense to have enough people to hold the fort down even if someone unexpectedly goes down with a nasty case of the flu.

2. Location, location, location

More than half the companies we featured have distributed support teams. In some cases, the entire team is distributed. It pays best to let your support reps work in whatever environment they’re most comfortable in, because no one’s denying that customer support is one of the really frustrating jobs (if not the most) ever. Allowing your reps to work from anywhere, be it in the bathroom, in a restaurant, on a beach in Hawaii or even on top of Mt. Everest (for the really crazy or greatly peace-loving ones) and providing them with the right tools, will probably be one of the best things you do for your customers.

3. Email still rules

It is a little surprising to find out that email is still the most preferred means of user communication. For years, people have been foreseeing the demise of email but it’s still going strong as evidenced by the large number of emails most of our interviewees get on a daily basis. In consequence, allowing your unread messages to grow like ivy is not advisable. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore social media in favor of email; the traction a tweet can get you is still unreal (read JetBlue, Jimmy John’s and Morton’s Steakhouse).

4. In the Beginning…

When we sat down to do this compilation, we were amazed to discover that amongst the people we interviewed, there were a startling number of former teachers, a librarian, a backpacker and a zen master. None of them intended to end up in customer support – in fact, they possess a myriad range of fields of interest and degrees. The point being: it doesn’t matter where you started off or what you were doing, anyone who is empathetic, immensely patient, who possesses good communication skills, has a sense of humor and problem-solving skills, can work wonders in customer support. Wait! Why does that job description sound so familiar?


Nota bene to teachers: Anytime you get tired of filling young heads with some interesting stuff, fire up your resumes! This is evidently your piece of cake.

5. Default to honesty

Brian Cervino, Twitter

The one edict that was, is, and will always be true, more so when it comes to customer support. Whether it’s a query regarding security vulnerabilities, feature requests, or your salaries, transparency rules. Letting your customers know that they’ve been heard and being upfront is the best possible way to keep them on board. Not to mention that being willing to apologize and shoulder the blame (even if it’s not your fault) can go a long way in calming an aggravated customer.

A couple of reps even went so far as to say that they would recommend competitors who might provide what is lacking at their end, showing that they care more about the customer’s happiness than their own profits.

Chase Clemons

Which brings us to our next point…

6. Numbers Don’t Matter As Much

Mathew Patterson

Customer happiness is unanimously the most important metric to all the support reps we interviewed. As Mathew Patterson put it, the answer to “Did we help this customer kick ass?” is the only one that matters. Lightweight satisfaction surveys (the ones that finish it off in a “Good”, “Bad” or “Okay”) are top of the order as opposed to the ones that require a rating on everything from the website layout to the support rep’s command over the use of idioms. As it turns out, while your customers love telling you how helpful you were, they’ll only take so much! It’s not like they’re support reps.

7. All hands on deck

We also realized that another common element is the practice of having everyone in the company do a support stint every now and then. This is actually a part of the work culture at most startups which is awesome because, without any contact with your customer base, it’s easy for your developers and product managers to lose sight of what matters most to your customers. Even the most optimized code is useless if it doesn’t make a customer’s life infinitely easier. Not to mention that it jumpstarts the entire support process; Nick Sayers, at Moz, told us of how an engineer doing support was able to fix a bug on the spot which the support teams had been reporting for a few months! Win-win for all, we say.

8. Be human

The yellow brick road to customer happiness is paved not by at-the-speed-of-light responses or quick resolutions; warmth and geniality are unquestionably the qualities that make sure your customers stay madly in love with you. A friendly, funny interaction remains with your customer much longer than your actual advice. And you never know! You might just make a friend in the most unexpected place. Evercontact’s Brad recounted how some of their customers helped him handle sleepless nights with his newborn!

Micah Bennett

That’s not all. We look forward to a whole new year of stories, insights, and strategies from customer support agents and community managers all over the world. Stay tuned to our blog for more.

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  • Stephen Durbin

    Customer support jobs are frustrating because businesses put too little thought into process design and customer journey mapping. If your support staff cannot fix a problem swiftly and competently… it is management’s fault. They are firefighting other people’s shortcomings. Postmortem the problem. Fix it in an iterative design process. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.