Alex Flint is the Manager of Customer Excellence at 500px, home to some of the most beautiful pictures on the web.
A marathoner, Alex likes to train with Tribe Fitness.
We managed to catch up with Alex and chat about life at 500px and customer support.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first. How big is your support team, Alex?
Five agents strong.
And where is the team based?
How many products do you support?
What channels do you support?
Email, live chat and Twitter.
How many queries do you get each day? An average number will do.
How did your career in customer support come about to be?
I was a retail manager for many years before finding myself with 500px. I did time with Rogers, Bell and Apple. I always loved retail, but found it was the customer support that I enjoyed much more than the sales. I knew about 500px and I followed them on Twitter. When I saw the job posting for a part time customer support agent, I was intrigued, despite the drop in pay and hours. I knew I was getting in on the ground floor of a company that was going to go places. That was in June of 2012, and thankfully my intuition was right.
Walk us through a typical day in the life of Alex Flint.
My typical day starts a bit earlier than the developers and technical teams. I tend to roll into the office around 9. And the first thing I do is immediately check the helpdesk for any urgent matters. This way I can triage any big issues before the tech teams arrive, and have all the information they need to fix things ready.
Once I’m done answering urgent emails and following up with cases from the previous day, I move on to other tasks and chores that need doing. I process refund requests, I send payouts to our photographers who sold photos recently, I send our CSAT and NPS surveys, and reach out to any negative CSAT surveys from the previous day. By the time I’m done with that, it’s usually around lunch time. 500px provides free lunch to all employees so I don’t have to wander far for a quick bite.
My afternoons tend to be full of meetings and strategy/planning. I work closely with the product teams to provide customer feedback and insight into product decisions. I also spend a good amount of time thinking about customer support in general, and how my team can improve. Then I head home, go for a run, and watch some Netflix!
That’s a jam-packed schedule! Keeping yourself going on and on (and on) must be quite the struggle. How do you motivate yourself (and your team)?
Customer support is a hard job, and anyone who says differently has never done it.
We have to actively try to share positive stories and keep each other motivated, because some days it’s an uphill battle. Sharing wins and celebrating achievements is important for any team.
How do you manage taking time off from support?
I actually managed to take a month off last year, to go camping in the Colorado mountains, where I had no internet or cell phone most of the time. How I did it is still a mystery.
Having a team that knows their stuff and can handle anything that comes up is the key. I trust my team 100%, and they can manage anything that happens, with or without me. Just don’t tell my boss that 😉
I understand that some members of your support team work remotely. What’s that like? How do you make sure communication is seamless?
We’re all local, but our weekend agents work remotely on Saturday and Sunday. We’ve found Slack is a great tool to keep everyone connected and communicating, even remotely.
We also work closely with our marketing and blog team, who are all in SF and NY. We generally get on Google Hangouts every day to catch up and have meetings. Slack is great, but it’s not face to face communication, and Hangouts is the closest we can get to that.
Let’s talk numbers. What, in your opinion, is the most important metric you think a support rep should aim for?
CSAT is the only metric I report to my agents.
As soon as you start measuring average handle times, time to resolution, etc. CSAT will slip and agents will feel defeated, fighting against metrics they have little direct control over.
We use CSAT (via NiceReply.com) to measure customer’s happiness with our support team. We also use NPS (via Delighted.com) to measure our community’s general happiness with the product/company.
Speaking of community support….between 2009, and 2012, the 500px community grew like crazy (it went from a few thousand to millions of users). How did you scale customer support and engagement as you grew?
Scaling support is a challenge, for sure.
There comes a point in each company where you have to decide how you’re going to approach customer service. Are you going to be closed off to the customer, or are you going provide the tools and resources they need?
Obviously we went with the latter. We invested in hiring and grew our team from 1 (me) to 4. We then put a lot of focus on our self-help tools and support articles. Customers who can find their own answers are happier, and save us time. This is a continual process, and we have big plans for 2015, so stay tuned for those!
How do you keep the 500px community interesting and engaging for people around the world?
We treat every customer as if they’re our neighbour.
There are universal truths that are true regardless of where someone comes from. Everyone wants to be heard and respected, and everyone who contacts support just wants their problem solved!
As for our marketing efforts internationally, celebrating cultural events and holidays is a great way to engage international users. Chinese New Year is always a big week for us, and celebrating it with our users in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan has helped grow our community in those places. We’re lucky to have the best collection of photos on earth, so connecting with people using photo collections and amazing photo tweets is easy for us.
Shameless plug: Anyone can use our photo collection to connect with their customers now, by purchasing web/social licenses from 500px Prime.
One of our favorite customer service stories, of all times, is a story that involves 500px. That’s just one of the many terrific stories out there that paint 500px as a brand that cares.
That’s one of the fun parts of being a tiny scrappy start-up. We’ve grown to the point now that building apps on a whim isn’t a viable option, so we’ve had to find new ways to surprise and delight customers.
We try to connect with each customer on a personal level which makes for a great story every day.
We use animated GIFs in our email replies, for example, just to make them memorable and fun for the customer. That’s the best way to delight someone in a one-to-one interaction.
Delighting the community as a whole is a more difficult task, and takes a lot of listening. A huge chunk of my time is spent reading emails and tweets to pull out trends in what customers are asking for or having troubles with. When a customer reports a problem, they may not even know that others are experiencing the same thing, but that data is tracked daily here and turned into tickets for our developers to investigate and fix. Our product roadmap is largely dictated by customer requests too. Including their feedback and requests in the roadmap is the best way to delight customers on a large scale.
Where do you stand on transparency? Are you all for transparency or do you think some things are better left in the attic?
I can’t talk about it.
Just kidding. One of our core company values is transparency. We share as much information as we can, without tipping our hand to the competition.
We’ve found from experience that communication is important to the community. Letting users take part in our product development and testing, rather than springing changes on them without warning is best.
P.S: Our CSAT score is at 9.1 right now, though we’d like it to be at 9.5+
You’re going to think that I’m just saying this but over here at Freshdesk, we’re big fans of the 500px mobile app. It’s clean, it’s beautiful…how did you do it? And how do you make sure that your customers are happy even if they’re on the go?
Our main approach to support on mobile is to build the apps so simple that they don’t need it! But when they do, we include easy ways to contact support right from the apps. We also read the reviews on the App Store and Play Store regularly, to look for trends in issues people are having, so we can improve those features next time around.
Tell us about your toughest day at work.
I can’t think of a specific example, but that might be because I’ve blocked it out of my memory. We’ve had some major fails over the years. Failed product launches, major downtime, etc. But those days are often the ones you look back at most fondly, because the whole team worked together and we got through it.
How you handle the worst situations will earn customers’ respect faster than anything else.
We’re going to throw some situations at you. Tell us how you’d handle them.
a) A customer requests a feature that’s in the works. But it’s complicated and you don’t have an ETA. How do you handle these type of requests? Mind jotting down your reply?
Thank you for that feature request! That’s a feature we’ve had requested quite a bit, and our team’s really interested in it. Stay tuned, and maybe you’ll see it on 500px down the road.
b) What if it’s a feature that you have no intention of implementing?
Thanks so much for sharing that request! We don’t have any plans of building that at this time, but your request is noted and our product team is always looking for customer requests for ideas of what to build next.
c) A customer requests a refund. Do you just issue the refund or is there a process that involves you roping in a sales rep in an attempt to woo them back one last time?
We’re happy to offer refunds, and have a very liberal policy. Since 500px also offers a free membership level, which we’re totally happy to have customers use, we’ll gladly offer refunds and hope to keep the customer as an active user of the free membership.
Of course, we’ll always try to solve the problem and avoid a refund when we can, but we don’t take it personally if someone chooses to downgrade. We’re confident that we’ll get them back in the future 🙂
d) A customer requests a feature that’s not on their plan. They’re willing to pay extra but they don’t want to upgrade to the next plan. Do you just categorically deny all of these requests or do you make some exceptions down the line?
We hand out trials to our paid memberships like they’re candy! We’re happy to offer a couple weeks of Plus or Awesome to anyone (just email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask!) And then if you love the features and decide it’s worth paying to keep it, we have regular promotions, or might even be able to provide a promo code to help a free member get on a paid account.
e) One of your support reps makes a mistake that greatly annoys a customer. They’re trying to smooth things over but the customer seems to be getting more and more frustrated over time. Do you step in and take over or do you let the rep handle it?
It’s just a chance to coach them. I know that none of our agents would give someone wrong information on purpose, so it’s probably my fault that they didn’t have the right info anyway! I’d personally contact the customer to apologize and do the best to explain the situation, as well as provide the correct solution or information.
What’s the protocol when a customer reports a bug over the weekend?
We have a weekend agent (usually, though we’re short staffed right now) who will report bugs as they come in. We also have on-call Platform and Web developers who we can lean on if something’s urgent. Our “We Love Uptime” chat room on Slack is monitored 24/7 by key people, who can jump to action if something blow up.
How do you deal with unreasonable, frustrated customers? Is there a tone guide that you consult?
A “voice” guide is actually something we’re crafting now, so we don’t have one yet. We just keep our company values in mind when dealing with everyone. Our values include empathy, transparency, and excellence. So we’ll always strive to put our messages through those filters.
Sometimes people just need to vent. And once it’s out, we can get to the root of the problem and offer a solution.
Other times, if a customer is not interested in actually receiving our help, and is being offensive, abusive or threatening, it may come to a point where we tell them to adjust their tone if they want help, or we’ll be forced to stop responding. That happens very rarely, but I think it is an important thing for your agents to know they can do that. Our agents are the front line; they absorb a lot of frustrated, confused or angry emails, so letting them know that they’re not punching bags is important to their morale. Support agents can experience burnout just as badly as developers can!
How do you unwind after a long day of support?
I run marathons and ultra-marathons, so I spend a lot of my time running through forests. Most weekends I get out of the city to run, hike and camp. I also love comedy. So, I see a lot of stand-up and improv shows around the city.
What, in your opinion, is the best thing about working for 500px?
I don’t know how to answer this without sounding clichéd, because all of the things people look for in an employer are here. Amazing and talented people, a great office environment, and an exec staff that truly care for their employees’ happiness. Free lunches, good benefits, comfortable chairs. It’s all at 500px!
What, despite all your years on support, are you still constantly surprised by?
I’m surprised every day by how engaged and passionate our community is. Every little update, change or feature results in an outpouring of comments (both good and bad sometimes) and it’s always amazing and reassuring to know that what we’re doing is noticed by our customers.
What do you look for in your support reps?
I hire purely based on personality and attitude.
The tools are easy enough to teach, and product knowledge can’t be learned in any way other than being in the trenches, so it’s a waste of time trying to find candidates that come preloaded with those skills.
Hire someone who will be fun and easy to work with, and fits in well with the team and company’s culture. The rest will come naturally.
What has your time at 500px taught you?
Everything. It was my first office job, my first customer support job (except for retail sales previously), my first tech job, and the list goes on. I’ve learned everything about this industry and customer support on the job. I learn more every day too, and if it ever stops, that’s when I’ll start job hunting.
In terms of customer service, which company do you admire a lot?
I love Squarespace and what they’ve done with support. 24/7 support is a tough thing to do, especially for a bootstrapped startup. But they’ve invested in it and it’s paid off big time.
I also look up to Facebook, but only as a feat of engineering, and not so much as a model for support that I wish to follow with 500px. Facebook has engineered support beyond what any other company has ever done. Almost any question you could ask them will be automatically answered by a robot, and accurately too. I guess all that creepy user data they have is being put to good use!
Name another rep you’re a big fan of, and would like to see featured in this series.
Rosie, the support manager at Strava. She’s super friendly and knowledgeable, and has been really helpful to me. I’m a big fan of Strava, so last time I was in SF I reached out to her and had a great time sharing support ideas and stories. She has since been a great resource to bounce ideas and questions off.
One last question, Alex. What’s your most favourite GIF?
I use this gif in emails a lot, whenever a customer’s asking about payments, refunds, etc. It’s the best way to get a smile out of what is otherwise a boring and often negative situation. Everyone loves Breaking Bad.
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 representative and we pick their brains. We find out what a typical day is like for these support rockstars, their personal work-philosophy, support process and what inspires them to go above and beyond the call of duty to make their customers happy. Know a customer support rep you’d like to see featured here? Drop us a line in the comments or shoot an email to email@example.com with your suggestions.