Why all designers should do [real] customer support

All new hires at Automattic are required to spend three weeks as a Happiness Engineer, solving…basically anything one can create with a WordPress.com site. Plus anything that the phrase “systems thinking” adds to its scope.

Many years ago, I did a stint at Apple as a Genius, which meant that it was my job to troubleshoot and fix any hardware or software that Apple made. I assumed that supporting users of WordPress.com would be comparable, and therefore, I merely had to brush up on my doublespeak, read some docs, and the ability to handle anything thrown at me with sunniness and poise would soon return. It would be like riding a bike.

After patting myself on the back for saying no to the temptation of visiting yet another new P2, I pinged my Happiness Engineering buddy. She took me through some curated (easy) tickets. I crafted succinct and effective responses, with correct answers and plenty of closure. I was ready–I had gotten through my Automattic hiring trial, so this felt like getting to the secret cow level in Diablo 2. I thought to myself, “you’re gonna pwn this.”
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For anyone who has played Diablo 2, you know that it was actually I who was about to get owned:
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Because what I chose to forget, but definitely knew, was that most of my work running the Genius Bar wasn’t getting my elbows greasy, but “repairing relationships.” Making sure people didn’t go home and burn their devices. Or get a PC. Gaining and keeping their trust, that you didn’t just understand their problem, but somehow validated and empathized with what they were ultimately using their device for. No one buys a Mac for the chess game. Knowing this immediately prioritizes certain things over getting the right answer or showing how smart you are.

And that’s the big thing that I wish I had paid more attention to while doing my rotation. I wanted to get the answer right as often as possible. In some ways, you know if a domain is working or not; if it can be CSS’ed or not. I got caught up in trying “to fix the computer in 15 minutes or less.” Eventually, after realizing that going MIA or down documentation rabbit holes was the wrong way to do this, I just started asking questions. This seems simple enough except that asking for help is something I’ve always had to actively work on, and I suppose that, like alcoholism, its something that one recovers from but never fully overcomes. (That was dark, but hey, nice to meet you). There was a bigger reason why I was doing this, too, that at a tactical level, it was to get comfortable with how I would need to communicate in a totally distributed company that refers to communication as its oxygen, or experience the effects of not communicating. I’m grateful for the buddy system for sure–aside from its practical purposes, it’s important to collaborate with different job roles and people to stay grounded and find friends in a company, even if all of your colleagues so far are genuinely kind people (I’m serious).

And funny too–after a while, I was told I’d fit in quite nicely after I posted this special request:

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I wonder though, if my gut reaction to try and demonstrate my technical skill reflected an insecurity that I was a new hire and wanted to assert my abilities on a team where the majority of designers were proficient developers and I forgot how to front-end a long time ago. Maybe it was digging up bad memories of having male customers ask to have someone else help them because their place in line meant they were gonna get the female technician.

Or maybe it was because I had accrued a little sense of entitlement here and there, after working at companies where designers just have to Make (and eschew responsibility for the effects of their creation). Moreover, if I was now at a company where the majority of its staff was Happiness Engineering, and showed no desire now or ever to replace them with algorithms–this told me a lot about how Automattic truly regards its customers, and the amount it invests in, and entrusts in, its Happiness Engineering staff…because I have worked on things that companies use to replace its support staff with algorithms.

Considering the exponential jump between what can go wrong with an OS or a machine and the things that people have/are/will do with WordPress.com–and hence the reasons for which they will get pissed off or freak out, to produce happiness in the amount of time that these people do is a truly a mark of remarkable engineering.

It’s cute how a lot of times designers will laud how they got to talk to users, wrote on some stickies, then soon after found out how to craft a delightful experience (extra points if it also scales). But the notion of doing customer support is, in effect, the opposite of meeting your user for brunch. No one knew that I was a designer behind the curtain except for the one time I was doing so badly that I outed myself to save face on behalf of the real HE’s.

I also saw some weird stuff as a Genius, and certainly saw some interesting sites during my support rotation. Like answering tickets was a way to build up the cognitive muscles needed for distributed work, seeing how people used the platform was a way for me to understand the myriad of use cases and permutations of each of those.

But I have to say that I never saw anything inspiring when troubleshooting software. Mind you, I’m an idealistic person, but I’m also in touch with my cynical side, so I approach the concept of inspiration, particularly when it’s part of my employment, with a good helping of secular doubt.

There was one particular ticket I answered, it had a straightforward question. I knew the answer off the cuff but I still went on their site you know, to judge it. It was a person who, long story short, had blogged her life with cancer at a young age and had started writing again because it had come back and this time, as a result of the treatments, had been left too weak to keep a normal job. Despite not having medical bills for this in her country, she continued doing the blog because the money it made restored a sense of dignity-in-work for her when so much had been taken away. She’s my age too, and she had written about a couple of things that she wished she could have, but now couldn’t, biologically (but I do and can). She wasn’t a cranky customer at all, very grateful and patient, and I probably shouldn’t have been a snoop but I’m glad I checked out her site because it stuck with me. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have less confessional content up but are using their site to address their own difficult situations, or whose site content will definitely not tug at my heartstrings, but like I said, I’m an idealistic person and I’m glad the Internet exists, warts and all, so that this kind of story (person!) can have a happier ending.

And so I emerge, with oh so many privileges checked and with a belly full of humble pie (it’s crustless, sugar-free, full of fiber, and still chock-full of calories!)

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