Heap is an analytics library and SaaS product that captures user interactions on the web and mobile and analyzes them. Rather than instrumenting tracking code manually for each event, Heap automatically captures data like page views, clicks, and form submissions. It can map semantic meaning to the raw data and analyze the same sans any prior planning. When I interviewed John Clover for our secret sauce series, he described his support team as a ‘solutions engineering team’, which was intriguing in itself and piqued my interest.
From sharing his reason behind this coinage, to how they implement support in various situations, we left no stone unturned in our discussions. Here’s the detailed interview where he talks about solutions engineers, proactive support, product documentation and everything that comes along with it.
Head of Solutions Engineering at Heap
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you arrived at Heap.
I changed my career on an average of about every 3 or 4 years. Initially, I worked at a dial-up Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the 90s and then at RedHat. Then, I got my degree in physics, studied solar astrophysics and did research on space weather and comets. I kind of dropped down on my way into my Ph.D., which is when I joined Quora. I started there with community operations and ran a team of volunteer moderators who were in charge of content quality on the site. I also helped write a bunch of enforcement policies and capped off my career at Quora by helping them automate extensively.
I started looking for my next opportunity when Heap opened its first non-engineer role — customer success lead. Having a support background as well as a community background, getting back to a small company and working from the ground up was very appealing to me. Hence, I joined and started the customer success team at Heap.
Why do you call your support team ‘Solutions Engineers’?
That’s a good question. We weren’t actually called this way when I joined Heap. We had the title customer success lead which didn’t quite match with what the customer-facing team was doing. They handled Tier 3 support, which consisted of the more nitty-gritty customer problems.
So, as an alternative, we had the name support engineer followed by product specialist. But both the support engineer and product specialist titles didn’t quite capture the magnitude of the scope of operations. Support engineer implied more engineering than customer facing, and product specialist seemed more entry level. As a result, the title of solutions engineer fit what we were looking for more so than the others.
So, how do you deal with Tier 1 questions and who answers them?
The Tier 1 questions are also answered by our solutions engineers, instead of someone who just copies and pastes the answers in the portal. We treat Tier 1 support as Tier 3 support and that differentiates Heap from other companies. We see this as an opportunity to educate our customers and improve their customer experience.
If a customer repeats a simple question, I like to have smart people answer those questions and then figure out how to improve the product, documentation or training so that these customers don’t need to come to us with simple questions. In my opinion, if the customer couldn’t find the answer to something really basic without emailing you, it means you’re doing something wrong.
Tell us one instance when you received a lot of these basic questions that actually made you go and fix the problem.
We have a product called Heap Connect which takes Heap data and syncs it with Amazon Redshift once every day. Some of our customers would email us to ask when the sync was scheduled to end, so they can resume their analysis. We kept getting this question repeatedly, as the sync wouldn’t complete consistently every day since it depended on how big the customer’s data sets were, how many customers were syncing at the exact same time and so on.
So instead of answering this question day in and day out, we set up an email that said “Hey! Your sync is a bit late. We’ll let you know if there’s a persistent problem that you need to be aware of”. The customer received this mail if he/she wasn’t synced within the hour. We would also send them another email once the sync was completed. It was one of those repeated customer questions that we could automate because it didn’t need any hand-holding.
How different is your customer success team from your solutions engineering team, and what does the customer success team do? Do they regularly have a dedicated look around and hold the relationship with those accounts?
Our customer success team is made up of both account managers and solutions engineers. The difference between an account manager and solutions engineer is the way they carry revenue. Account managers are responsible for churn and renewals, and hold relationships with dedicated accounts, whereas we solutions engineers help the customer success folks with their technical questions irrespective of any disadvantages. It doesn’t really matter whether or not this is revenue based because we prioritize things based on renewal or churn. But in terms of work, the solutions engineering team is not like the revenue sharing side of the business. So the solutions team reports directly to the product team and CEO while the account managers report to sales. That’s why we have this distinction in Heap.
How many support questions do you receive on an average per week?
It varies, but it’s usually around 150.
What kind of questions do you typically get from your customers every day?
We get broad and different questions but the typical ones are about implementation and data interpretation.
What are the situations when you proactively reach out to your customers?
There are a few situations we checked upon to help people become more active in Heap. Whenever someone gave us a low Net Promoter Score (NPS), we reached out to them and asked how we can do better. Later on, we also asked those who gave us a high NPS, why they liked Heap.
When we started looking into how they used Heap, most of the people who gave us very high scores were not really using Heap extensively. They were looking at very basic reports and had a really simple dashboard. And so one of the ideas we had, that haven’t actually implemented yet, is to proactively reach out to these users and say, “Hey looks like you’re enjoying these dashboards. Have you looked into X Y or another slightly more comprehensive view of the same dashboard?” Also, if the user ran a report with no customizations, we would be mailing them in a day or two saying, “Hey looks like you have been looking at some of our reports. How about trying out X or why don’t you join one of Heap’s one-on-one sessions?”
I would really like to encourage Heap users to explore their data, play with it and find new things, rather than just looking at it passively. Here’s where proactively reaching out is a huge opportunity for us to recognize the pattern of our customers who are really using Heap, and apply that to automate some of the advanced education.
What’s the secret sauce to customer support in Heap?
Given my technical background, I turned customer support into solutions engineering. We wanted to set a pretty high standard and drove our team towards looking for technical people willing to do hard work. I don’t think I like the idea of seeing support as a kind of a cost center where the team just farms out as much as it can to help.
I believe that setting the base for a successful team that’s rooted in technical expertise is essential. Our customers need to know how to use the product they’re going to be successful with and there’s only so many smart people who want to answer emails and engage in technical support. I’ve explicitly tried to hire people who see the solutions engineering role as something that makes them an expert at Heap and help our customers become successful as well.
So, how is hiring for these people different? You’re looking for a more technical role and how do you test for those skills and empathy?
Empathy still plays a huge factor in every customer interaction. A solutions engineer represents the entirety of the company and so they are not going to do well if they don’t treat the customer like royalty. When I interview for this role, I present a series of challenges to the potential candidate until they get to a place where there’s no way they can answer that question. I’m not trying to trick people. The point is, one day the customer is going to ask them a question that they don’t have an answer to. It’s easy to become frustrated and say something that’s not true.
So when they hit a wall, I ask them to tell me as much as they can about the problem, and their understanding of it. This helps me understand how they were approaching the problem, and which direction they were trying to take. If I get a lot of questions, I help them get to the answer they actually need. And they have to use the right language to ask me the right question. I mainly look for people’s ability to confront a problem that is not easy to solve and still come out of it feeling really positive.
How does your team handle difficult questions from the customers?
We have a style guide that helps our team write accurate and helpful emails to our customers. We make sure that we are comprehensive and we don’t make the customers repeat themselves. We incentivize them to have the right answers during difficult situations and go the extra mile.
If the customer has a question that’s ambiguous, my team goes out of the way to try and answer it. They make sure to say, “Hey so this was your concern, and we hope our answer helped. Here are some other possible options. But let me know if that’s not what you were looking for, and we’ll try to get a better picture and give you a solution asap.”
Are there any changes you may implement within your team?
Even after we reduce the volume of simple queries, I still want to make sure that people with simple questions have a really good resource. Within the last six months, we have started doing a bit of specialization on the team where we have a few different roles that focus on specific customer needs, including customer education (training), and documentation.
How did you and your team work on establishing the product documentation?
I had a theory that if our documentation was good, people viewing it would have higher retention, and wouldn’t contact the support team. So, I did an advanced retention report in Heap between those who contacted support after looking at the documentation and those who didn’t.
But, people who contacted our solutions team ended up with almost a 13% higher retention over time than people who didn’t. This told me that our documentation was probably in need of some work, but our solutions team was on the right track. So it guided us towards making some changes, wherein we have now hired someone to focus purely on documentation.
What are the tools currently being used by your support team?
– Helpdesk software
– Nice Reply
– Alfred (for automation)
– Chrome Debug Tools
What metrics do you measure to make sure that your customers are reasonably happy with your solutions team?
The main thing we are doing right now is just Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) score and NPS. In the email we have the ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ icons, just to get raw feedback on support. We included a similar ranking system in our documentation as well. We are also trying to come up with a score for emails. Apart from this, we also care about the overall average response time but only if it becomes really high. It’s just to keep an eye on it as a secondary effect. For me, it’s really more about the quality of the support.
What’s your opinion about artificial intelligence (AI), and do you have any AI enabled features?
AI is over my head. I’d call it computer automation for mathematicians, but it’s obviously much more than that. We don’t currently have any AI enabled features, but we’re not going to be left behind. Automating insights into customer behavior is a future we want to be part of.
What have your experiences at Heap taught you?
In order to convince people to become our users, understanding their motivation behind their work is important. Heap helped me understand how to make the product itself more sticky. For example, if we have an interactive reporting option inside Heap, it may re-engage the customer more than the report that is emailed every once in a while.
What type of comet is your favorite?
My favorite comet is Comet Humason. It was famous in the 1960s as it became visible to observers on Earth despite being near the orbit of Jupiter. Most comets get bright when they are closest to the sun, so it indicated that Humason was massive in size. Also, because it was so distant, the shape of its tail was particularly quirky, which I love.
We started the Secret Sauce series to find out more about what makes the customer service of some great companies click. We get in touch with one awesome support rep and pick their brains. We find out all about their support process, what inspires them to go above and beyond the call of duty to make their customers happy. If you know of a customer support rep you’d like to see featured here, drop us a line in the comments or shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org