Rob Holcombe, Director of Customer Support at Canopy Tax joins us in this episode of Support Ops Simplified.
Sid Bhambhani: We are recording and there we go. All right everyone, welcome to another episode of Support Ops Simplified. I am your host Sid Bhambhani and today I have with me Rob from Canopy Tax. He’s the director of support over there and he has a ton of experience with customer support operations, both in his current position and as a customer support executive at Frontier in the past. Welcome, Rob. Do you want to give us a quick intro other than what I just gave our listeners here?
Rob: Hey, thanks for having me. My name is Rob and I’m working with Canopy Tax. I’ve been here for about two years, built their customer support program from the ground up and so that’s been a lot of fun. Before here, I was working with Frontier Communications supporting Intuit products. So I’m very familiar with the accounting side of the support and working with tax executives and tax professionals on their software and helping them to get up and going and helping the general public to pay their taxes. That’s just a brief overview.
Rob: Yes. I’m sure your customers are really looking forward to taxing season just like everyone else in North America, aren’t they?
Rob: Oh, yes. You know, my customers are [unintelligible 00:01:25] professionals so they get paid during this time, so they love it.
Sid: [laughs] Perfect. Maybe just as a starting point, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into support? I’ve been going through your profile and looks like you’re a lot into coaching and athletics and there was a transition from there to support. Maybe there’s a great story over there that you can share with us.
Rob: It is a funny story. I was in customer success. I was teaching online business and doing some coaching that way and I was also coaching basketball at the same time. At that time, the company that I was working with actually had an FTC investigation launched against them. I didn’t find anything, everything was great with the company but because they shut down, we all lost our jobs for a time period and so I was just out of work.
I had two kids and needed to be able to support my family and so my brother in law just said, “Hey, why don’t you come over to this company Frontier and try it out?” I went over to Frontier as a phone agent and within two weeks, I got promoted to a lead and then three months after that, I was promoted to a supervisor and that’s really how I got started in support. I didn’t really have that much interest going in but really quickly realized how much passion I had for helping people and really delivering an experience that would help them to feel as if they were leaving my phone, which I consider my office, better than they were before.
I really developed a passion for that and then I developed a passion for helping others to deliver that kind of experience as well and so we never want to leave a customer feeling anything but better than they were before they met us. So that’s how I really got into support. It was not by choice if you will, but it actually turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to my career.
Sid: That’s a very interesting story on a few accounts. One of them is that there’s a lot in common with coaching and coaching for customer success. I’m sure you’ve gained an appreciation for that now more so than ever and then the other part that I find interesting is that you came from the trenches, so to speak. You were a front line agent and now you’re running support operations. How does that shape your perspective?
Rob: It gives you a good insight into not only dealing with customer issues but also relating to the emotions that are involved. I feel like that’s something that gets lost a lot of times when you’re talking about customer support. It’s typically looked at as customer support is either customer service or technical support. I feel like customer support should be a melding of the two worlds; that you should have people that are not only smart when it comes to technical issues but also who have a high ability to gauge emotions, a high EQ if you will.
That’s really the thing that I strive to create most is high EQ in all of the people that I work with and that I coach in terms of customer support is being able to say, “Every single customer that’s calling us, they’re calling us because they have an issue with their software, but they also have an issue that is with their emotions.” Most of the time, I feel like, especially working with business owners, they got into the business because they wanted to be able to call the shots. They didn’t want to have to take orders from somebody else, they wanted to be able to do–
When their software doesn’t work, then you’ve essentially taken that control away from that they got into it for. That’s the whole reason that they started doing their own business and hiring other people is that they wanted to tell people what to do. They don’t want to be told, “Hey, your software is not working right now so you can’t do anything.” You take the control away. Treating those emotional issues, even when you’re not able to resolve a technical issue right away because it has to be fixed on the back end of your software, you can always resolve those emotional issues.
That’s the big thing that serving on the front line’s really helped me with was I had those interactions personally, and I know exactly how to convey that to my team so that they can also take care of those emotional issues.
Sid: That is a very good observation and in fact, I think that’s something a lot of people struggle with, in a customer support role, is you have to have that balance between technical and being able to gauge the emotion of the person on the other side, right?
Sid: I know in my previous experience, people would ask for updates. They weren’t looking for a resolution per se but an update on what’s going on and if you were able to provide them an update, that was good enough as long as they knew that a resolution was forthcoming. I think that’s a really good point. How big is your team right now? How many people are you actively coaching?
Rob: Right now, I’m working with six people. Canopy is a startup.
Rob: I got here two years ago, and we had two people and that was it; two people who did chat support. We’ve introduced phone support and we’re looking to grow here pretty soon. We’ve introduced a new tax prep product to the market and so with that, I think will be growing really, really big soon. We’re looking to take off there but right now, we’re only at six and so I get to work personally with every single person and really do a lot of one on one time, which is really good.
Sid: That’s awesome. What I’m also hearing is that you, as a part business owner, have the opportunity to build a culture that you can be proud of. What are some of the strategies that you’re putting in place to put a culture together in customer support that would scale as you guys take off in the future?
Rob: One of the biggest things that I feel like is really crucial to a culture when it comes to supporting is developing a spirit of ownership with every individual. I want every individual to feel as though they are a business owner, that they have their own customers. That their customers are not just Canopy customers but they’re also their own customers that are really in charge of they’re in charge of making sure from beginning to end that this resolution happens. Even if we pass something to our development team in order to get a bug fix or something like that, that we are the ones that circle around and close the loop.
I’ve really tried to develop that so that if every individual has ownership, then you’re not only creating great agents but you’re also creating future leaders. That’s really one of the things that we have strived for is, make sure that not only are we developing our own personal business but you guys are going to be leaders in the future, you’re part of the original six, right?
Rob: You need to be bought into the culture and start building it. That’s one of the biggest things that I think a customer support team needs, is people who will individually take ownership of themselves rather than saying, ” Hopefully, somebody else is going to do it.”
Sid: Right and that’s very true. In fact, there’s a lot of times when the frustration on a customer side is aggravated by the fact that there are internal processes that cannot meet the demand so someone needs to be held accountable to make sure that we can deliver on the front lines.
Rob: Sure and you talked about providing updates, and I think being able to proactively reach out and provide updates when they come in, rather than waiting for somebody to actually check with you for an update is really important too in terms of trying to eliminate some of that friction when it comes to internal processes.
Sid: Yes. Speaking of processes, I think one of the challenges that I had, and I think it resonates with a lot of startups or scale-ups for that matter even, is the balance between culture and metrics. We know what good culture is, we know what people should be doing, how do you reflect that in your metrics and your report in terms of day to day operations? What are some of the key KPIs that you hang your hat off?
Rob: The biggest thing is I want to make sure that– I have a philosophy where customers want speed, they want knowledge, and they want to delight and so that’s my SKID product plug if you will. That’s what I hang my hat on, is making sure that– I have a group inbox for chat support where it’s basically first come first serve and our agents are able to take chats as they come in. It’s a group inbox. They have volume metrics that they need to meet for bonuses and stuff like that but essentially, they can choose whether or not they want to take these chats.
However, the entire team is measured based on the response time and so there’s a median response time that we want to keep, under a minute and right now for 50 seconds which is really quick. Typically, when I chat into other places, I’ll never get a response within 10 minutes and if I do, then that’s good response time. I feel like we should have almost immediate responses to all of those. We also measure the answer percentage for our phones so that’s the speed metric.
In terms of knowledge, there’s a lot of things that we do in terms of monitoring chats, monitoring calls, making sure that we get all the answers and that we disperse that correctly. We’re in the process of creating an internal database that’ll help with that as well. We use customer satisfaction surveys in order to measure that rather than using a traditional, what’s it called?
Sid: Like an NPS score?
Rob: Yes. I had KPI in my mind but in terms of that, we actually use just an average survey score. It’s a survey score on a scale of zero to five in terms of determining satisfaction. Those are the big metrics that we use. I use the medium response time and the answer percentage as a team score and then individual survey scores will factor into bonuses and performance analysis.
Sid: Out of curiosity, what kind of return rates do you see on your surveys? Are a lot of your customers coming back with feedback in those survey type responses?
Rob: Yes, I’d say about a quarter. Usually, we’re around 23 percent return rate on those surveys. It’s dragged down a little bit by phone because all surveys go via email and we all know that email annotations have it’s–
Sid: Yes, absolutely.
Rob: Those get lost a little bit. The phone return rate is only at about 7% typically, whereas, the chat percentage is much higher.
Sid: That’s actually still pretty good compared to some of the other metrics I’ve seen. If you take it all from an end to end perspective, one of the things that I know we talked to a lot of our customers and companies in the customer experience and how that is a part customer service and the delivery and part how a customer feels about the product at large. Maybe this resonates with you in terms of being able to take some of the feedback from your customers to your development team and enhance the product in certain ways.
Do you have a loop in terms of how you measure or whether you can even take the insights that a customer’s giving and feed that into the bigger organization because a lot of conversations are happening on this front line, right?
Rob: Yes, absolutely. We do have a direct reporting mechanism where our database feeds directly into the development database, which is JIRA. They use JIRA. We use Zendesk and there’s a direct link between the two and so we have a backup channel and then we also have a product feedback channel. Feature requests and different things like that will be fed in there and I have a meeting every week with the product team where we go over some of those. I also run our community. We have a community where a lot of feature requests will come in and then I compile an email and send it directly to our product teams.
I have a lot of interaction with them. We actually just moved our customer support team from being in a customer department to actually we’re pulling up under engineering and partnering with QA and so we get a lot of internal discussions when it comes to those feature requests.
Sid: It seems like a much tighter integration if you’re part of the same team that’s delivering the service and improving the product.
Rob: And shortening the time to resolution because we’re able to bug them a little bit more [inaudible 00:14:53] back end and stuff like that so it’s good.
Sid: I think anyone who’s in support knows about the frustrations of dealing with engineering and trying to get answers out of them so that’s actually [crosstalk] It seems like a very tightly knit integration, can you talk a little bit about the tech stack that you guys are using to enable this integration and enable the people to have these communications back and forth?
Rob: From the supports perspective, there’s the central hub is Zendesk and so we use Zendesk, and it integrates with all of the other things that we try to work with. We have some engineering teams that are working with JIRA, and so it integrates with that so we can pass tickets directly through there. We also use Trello and so some of our teams are using Trello and so Zendesk integrates with that as well.
For chat, we use Intercom and it will [inaudible 00:15:51] conversations directly into Zendesk. Zendesk is really our ticketing system where we hold everything. We use the VoIP service through Zendesk as well and so that’s our central hub where we’re able to disperse all of the other systems. We have a few other integrations. We were looking at SurveyMonkey but decided to go with our own Google sheet that we built in order to send surveys out, so we stuck with that.
Sid: Cool. That sounds pretty much on-trend in terms of being able to get information back and forth and have it in a single source of truth in a CRM. Given all of this work that you’ve done and the culture you’ve built, can you talk about one customer experience scenario that has been a big win for you guys recently?
Rob: It’s tough to think of individual conversations because my team has so many of those.
Sid: Even at a strategic level, in case you guys were able to change a process or something that got you a step closer to your customers in terms of service delivery.
Rob: I think a big thing that we did recently was integrating a payment system into our own platform. We used to use Stripe and integrate with them but there was a lot of clamoring for a payment system within our products so that they could tie their invoices directly to all of the different profiles of customers that they had. We actually built our own payment system and we still partner with a third party, but it’s labeled as [unintelligible 00:17:38] payments. People are able to tie their payments and their invoicing directly into their tax prep or their tax resolution or all of the services that they offer to the customers.
That was a big win in terms of being able to cut out a lot of manual processing where you are creating an invoice outside of Canopy, you have to save it to your computer that loaded up, then send it to your customer. All of that stuff gets blown away and it’s all integrated. That was a big win for our customers. That was one of the things that they were really wanting and it’s had a lot of really good reviews from the customers just being able to do it without all of those other manual processes.
Sid: That sounds pretty cool. In terms of when you roll out a big change like that, how do you proactively get your customers to a point where you’re there to assist them? Do you have an SOP of some sort, which you go through and make sure that you can nail that customer experience when a new product or new features going out the door?
Rob: A lot of it is just letting people know through the app. We’ll go through and we’ll build what’s called a tour in Intercom, and it actually gives the customer a walkthrough. We’ll send them an invite saying, “Hey, this is coming out, this is something that’s brand new let’s take a look at it together,” and then they can go step by step through creating a fake payment and invoicing it.
They get the whole process beforehand so that once they come to us, they already have an idea of the questions that they want to be answered before just jumping in headfirst and not knowing exactly how the process works. Being proactive in terms of announcing those changes has really helped us to– Then we’re able to create some safe responses that will be a lot easier to pass along as well [inaudible 00:19:37] find that they need for their questions to be answered.
Sid: That makes sense. That way you’re providing a lot of the information closer to them as a self-service way as opposed to them having to call in and figure it out with you, right?
Rob: That’s what our customers really like. They want to be able to do multiple things at once and so we find that they prefer to chat a lot of times, whereas, in other industries that I’ve been in, people will prefer to call in and have experience with the person on the phone. Our customers really like to chat because they want to be doing multiple things at once and so they can chat, wait for a response and do other things while they’re waiting rather than sitting on the phone.
They really like the self-service model. We built an extensive database of articles to help them and videos that they can work with. Self-services is a good facilitator to get them the information that they need without having to make that contact with them when they need us, we’re always there for them.
Sid: Right, and you know what, I’ve been hearing that as a trend among different industries now as well. I think it has more to do with the changing consumer than anything else and the fact that they want to be able to multitask and get to that information quicker. Actually on that point, what do you see as the future of support on your end as you’re growing? Like what kind of either technological or strategic innovations or changes do you see on the horizon that you’re looking to or excited about implementing or looking at further as you guys grow?
Rob: I love all of the things that people talk about in terms of the future of support. What I am nervous about is the lack of human interaction that comes into the future talk. I think there’s a lot of things that human interaction does for a product and for a customer, creating relationships rather than just that technical, let’s get your problem fixed attitude. I would like to see AI be able to take over some of that initial conversation in question asking and then be able to direct to the correct individuals for support.
Those are things that I’m really excited about. I love mapping out maybe those initial probing questions in order to find out a little bit of information that can then be passed to a human representative on the back end to then create a little bit more rapport and an emotional connection with the customers. I look forward to eliminating the busywork. Eliminate the busywork of some of these probing questions, get the customer to the correct individual and then really focus on creating relationships with your customers. That’s the biggest thing that I’m excited about.
Sid: That’s actually pretty cool. There’s a thought or a school of thought in the industry, instead of calling AI artificial intelligence, we are looking at calling it assisted intelligence. Where instead of having AI dish out the answers, what you’re doing is just helping the agents come up with better answers as they’re interacting with customers. Have you looked into that? Have you been exposed to that at all?
Rob: I haven’t heard of that, but that sounds amazing. [laughs] We’ll do that all day long because then it really is where’s your brainpower focused. If your brainpower is focused on getting a technical answer, then you’re not able to build nearly as much rapport.
Sid: Absolutely, yes.
Rob: Really connect with those customers and create loyalty. Longterm loyalty resides not in getting technical answers but in getting relationships formed with those customers and building an experience around it. Having the ability to have some sort of assistance when you’re on the phone, that’s almost like having somebody troubleshooting for you while you’re having a conversation, that would be awesome.
Sid: Well actually, for the benefit of our viewers, our listeners rather, one of the things that has been catching a lot of steam lately is that concept where having someone provide a technical answer is pretty easy, in the sense that you would be able to self-service that or you’d be able to get that out there to some other mechanism. It’s that relationship that you’re building when you’re talking to someone on the phone or over email that really differentiates you as a person that adds that value adds to that service that you’re providing.
A number of solutions are looking at being that little voice on your shoulder that tells you, “Hey, maybe you didn’t hit the mark with that comment as the gauge customer frustration as you’re looking through it and interacting with them as opposed to providing you the technical answers.” That’s the assisted intelligence school of thought. Maybe you can carry on that discussion offline as well once you’re off this podcast here. That being said, are there any aspects of the automated interactions that you’re seeing today that are catching up really, really well on your end other than chat?
I was just mentioning assisted intelligence is the school of thought over there like into what you were saying in terms of having people drive a lot of the emotional aspect of it. Whereas, the assisted intelligence comes in and taps you on the shoulder with a few hints on what we should be doing next. More of a guide than taking over and answering the question in a very mechanical way. You can carry on that conversation afterward. Just something that I was thinking of as we were going through this is you have a lot of experience coming from the ground up and building these cultures, who have been some of your mentors as you entered and took over this new industry?
Rob: What’s funny is I had a lot of the call center environment as a mentor, and I feel like a lot of it is a mentor in terms of what not to do, right? I saw a lot of what happened. The office in Provo that was working with Frontier was really a startup in and of itself. There were 20 or 30 of us from the beginning, and it shot up to 800 really, really quickly. I saw it as a startup environment where everything was fun and become a lot more corporate and a lot more just driven by that mindset. Having levels of bureaucracy that had to go through in order to make changes and not feeling you were listened to by your leaders.
I heard a lot of that and, I saw a lot of the detrimental moral practices that were taken into play when it came to building a support organization. A lot of that mentality that I’ve had in building culture has come from what I’ve seen take environment from a really fun and exciting and just energetic environment to what happens when companies grow and, all of a sudden, money comes into play. I’ve tried to do everything that I could to build a culture the right way if you will from what I’ve seen before. I use a lot of podcasts when it comes to forming the culture of my team. One of my favorites is Simon Sinek. He’s really influential on my managing practice and the culture that I try to build.
Then I listen to a lot of different business gurus, if you will, but more like Tony Robbins. I feel like it’s more of a psychologist when it comes to business than anything else. That’s really important when it comes to the way that I want to build a culture. I want to build a culture that everybody feels safe, everybody feels valued and everybody is excited to come to work. That’s really why I found ambition and support, was to change the traditional culture that supports works because when people think of customer support and doing customer support, typically it’s not, “Oh yes, I’m really excited about doing customer support.” Typically, it’s not that, and I feel like it could be.
That’s my mentality and coming into a supportive environment is let’s create an environment where people are excited to go give support and excited to help customers and they find a passion in it. As opposed to dreading talking to customers and things, which I feel like is in a lot of industries, the mentality, and I don’t feel like you can give good customer support if you’re not excited to do it.
Sid: Absolutely, right? One of my old colleagues used to tell me, it’s like you can’t hire someone who went to university to become a customer support agent. You will not find that person.
Rob: That’s right.
Sid: Everyone’s evolved into it, right?
Sid: The last question, as you build out a team and you build out this great culture, what are some of the significant aspects you look for in someone you put on your team? Maybe this is the last thing that we can leave our listeners with in terms of advice on how do you put together a stellar team? What are you looking for in a person?
Rob: Now, there’s a lot of things for sure, but I think, A, somebody who is going to be a team player, everybody can rely on everybody else, you want to make sure that– Going back to Simon Sinek, one of the stories he tells is about Marines. He talks about the type of mentality that it takes to be a marine and to actually go in and save somebody and risk your life. When he asked them why they did it, they typically turn around and say, “Well, he would have done it for me.”
I want to build that mentality in my team where everybody is supporting each other. Everybody has each other’s backs and there’s a lot of camaraderies that happen. Somebody who’s going to be a team player and somebody that has a positive mental attitude are two of the biggest things that that I look for and that can transmit that to me in an interview because I want them to be able to send those positive vibes to the customer and make them feel good as well. Those two things– I don’t look as much for the technical background, just because I feel like the technical part can be taught a lot easier than positive mental attitude and the EQ and being able to interact with people and make them feel better when they leave you than when they came. I look a lot more for those emotional investments than the technical attributes.
Sid: That’s a great way to go about it. I’m just going to summarize a couple of things that I’ve picked up in this conversation because it’s been a fascinating one. It is, look for people who have your back and would do the same for you so that you build that supportive environment. The other thing that I thought was a real gold nugget there was your philosophy around SKID, speed, knowledge, intelligence, and delight. Did I get it right?
Rob: Yes, you got it.
Sid: That’s perfect. Thank you very much, Rob. This has been a great conversation. I think there was a lot of good nuggets in here for our listeners. I hope the very best as you guys grow on a scale. I look forward to speaking with you again.
Rob: Thanks a lot, Sid. Thanks for having me. This was really fun.
Sid: All right. Cool.
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