Blending Support and Design, the CoffeeCup way

Written by on January 7, 2016

CoffeeCup Software is a computer software development company based in Atlanta with one of the most complimented support staff on the web. Conceptualised in a coffee house of the same name, CoffeeCup has been making hot brews and building web design software for over 17 years now.

Scott Swedorski, Suzanne Norvell and Adam East are the three people behind their extra-ordinary support. Spread over Georgia and North Carolina, they tackle more than 2200 support queries a month. We managed to get in touch with Scott, VP of Product Development, to talk about walking the trapeze rope between product development and customer support.


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We know CoffeeCup’s amazing, eventful history. Tell us about yours. How did you join the team?

Before I joined CoffeeCup, I created an Internet services site called TUCOWS. CoffeeCup was one of the first programs I reviewed there. Over the years, I maintained my relationship with the founder and, eventually, left TUCOWS to join the CoffeeCup team.

CoffeeCup celebrating Scott’s 10 years of awesome service

I have been with CoffeeCup for almost 13 years now. It has been very rewarding because, previously, I used to just review applications. Now, I’m deeply involved in program development; I get to see them grow from an idea all the way to a sellable product.

So, what does a typical day at CoffeeCup look like?

Some days, I feel like I want to quote a scene from Office Space.

Peter Gibbons: “Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late, ah, I use the side door–that way Lumbergh can’t see me, heh–after that I sorta space out for an hour.”
Bob Porter: “Da-uh? Space out? ”
Peter Gibbons: “Yeah, I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too, I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.

On a serious note, I try to stick to a set pattern. I start out with our public forums and make sure no questions have gone unanswered. I, then, move to our ticketing system and deal with support issues. Some issues would require debugging.In that case, we break down the steps and log it internally with our development team for a fix. I, then, toggle back and forth between email, forums and support. Time permitting, we write support articles, test new applications and work on specs for new programs and feature enhancements.

What kind of tools do you use to support customers? Don’t hold back on us.

We use LogMeIn for remote desktop connections, Skype for phone calls and an internal ticketing system for our emails. We also get enquiries through social media.

For the year 2015, we averaged 2,200+ support questions per month or around. Our email support runs pretty much 24 x 7, even during holidays. All of us have our iPhones connected at all times and, frequently, check support outside of those hours and respond to questions.

Woah! That’s one dedicated team! But surely, you must take some time off. Or do you?

What is this thing you call “time off”? 😉

We plan all our vacation time about 6-8 months out so, we always know when someone is going to be off. Just puts a little extra work load on the staff still working, but nothing we can’t handle.

I remember when my son was born, I was in the delivery room waiting for the little guy to make it into this world and still helping out in support. I had to hang up with a customer saying “Gotta go, baby is here!”.

Hahaha. Bet that was one memorable interaction! We understand that your team’s a distributed team. How do you think this has impacted your support?

Adam works from his home in North Carolina.

For us, it has worked out amazingly well. We try to do almost everything online, so with the tools we use such as Skype and LogMeIn, the location of our staff really can be anywhere.

How do you motivate yourself (and your team) day in and day out? It can’t be easy when you’re on support 24X7…

Coffee, Red Bull and food are probably our biggest motivators.

Give us some dope on your hiring process. How did you put together this amazing team?

We check for willingness to learn, passion for all things Internet and a good sense of humor. Our interview process is very informal. We just try to get to know the person, see what they have done online and generally talk about web design to gauge their knowledge.

A college degree to us is of very little importance. So many people have taught themselves to do great things.

What kind of training do you provide a new hire?

We pretty much throw them into the deep end of the pool and it is sink or swim. 😀

After about a week of hands-on experience with our software, they should have a good understanding of how the app works and should be able to answer the basic questions. As more difficult questions come in, we advise them on where they should look for the answer so they can learn from the question.

What’s the most important metric you think a support rep should aim for?

Accuracy and clarity. Customers are reaching out to us either because they are frustrated that they cannot accomplish a task or just need help using the product. A support rep should aim for a response that helps them clearly address their issues.

When support tickets drag on for 5+ pages, we are doing something wrong or the application is not clear enough to the customer. We try to learn from that support ticket on how to either a) make improvements to the software or b) write some knowledge base articles to help address that specific problem.

How do you track customer happiness? What kind of tools do you use?

We don’t use any particular tool for gathering customer surveys. Most of our customer ratings come from emails sent directly to us or posted on social media sites. The ones that stand out, we do place them online here.

Tell us about your social media support strategy.

We don’t do support on social media as we think it can sometimes be difficult to track and resolve issues. With Twitter, it’s a challenge to keep the answer within 140 characters. We direct users to our internal support system if they ask product specific (like bugs, how-tos, etc) queries. But, we answer sales and account related questions for our visitors on Twitter.

How did you scale customer support at CoffeeCup, while keeping the culture and core values intact AND making sure customers end up happy?

We run a very tight ship here and our support team has pretty much been the same for almost the entire history of our company. It makes it easier to keep in contact with our customers because we build relationships with them. Sometimes, customers raise support tickets asking for help and want a specific person to reply. While that makes the other two sad, it shows our users have some closeness with us.

What’s your most memorable customer interaction?

We’ve had several of those moments over the years, but there was one recently that does come to mind. During a training call on our new Responsive Site Designer application, Adam was walking a user through the basics of the program teaching him about grids, rows, and columns. The customer just could not wrap his head around how they worked.

Adam tied them into something the customer knew (he was an accountant and used Excel daily). The customer immediately said, “I am sure you can smell something burning” meaning he was finally starting to understand. Then the “Aha…” moment happened, and it was just like a light bulb busted in his head and the customer said, “To think it was this simple and I was looking at it like it was another language.”

That is when we decided to coin the phrase “Aha moment.” Since then there have been many more instances of these.

How do you keep the CoffeeCup community interesting and engaging for people around the world?

We usually post videos explaining how-tos, projects in the pipeline and candid pictures of people goofing around the office. These get shared on social media, emails and our user forums.

Tell us about a time you’re proud of. An interaction where you made the customer extremely happy.

We try to make each and every customer extremely happy. However, there is one. A support ticket comes in late night from a gentleman having issues connecting to his FTP server. We run through the basic fixes but nothing works in his favour. At this point, we both agree that it has to be an incorrect username and password as that was the error he was receiving. He gets agitated because he has a deadline and “something” important to attend to.

Adam calls the customer and remotes into his computer, only to find what we had first believed, he was using the incorrect user/password for his server which was hosted by another company. Finally, we offered him a solution and got him up running in about 20 minutes. At the end of the call, the customer confided in Adam that the “something” he had to attend to was his mother’s funeral arrangements and that he had to finish this so he could get her affairs in order. He told us that, without our help, he would have been still trying to get in touch with his hosting company.

While we spent a little extra time helping this customer, it really made a lasting impact on him, and he has purchased every single software we have published since then.

Having the ability to help others in their time of need makes us happy to be doing what we are doing.

What’s the best thing about working for CoffeeCup?

Flexibility with hours, work location, my co-workers (who are some of my best friends), and being able to see something grow from an idea to a full sellable product.

Tell us about a really tough call and how you handled it.

There is only one ticket that comes to mind here. I was emailing one of our customers who had a problem with one of our products. We were about five pages into the conversation when I felt we weren’t on the same wavelength. So I casually asked Adam to take a look. He started to read through the thread and reached the point in the conversation where the customer had accused me of working with the NSA (yes, the NSA!).

From here on, the questions being asked were not related to the issue at hand. Each response made by this customer was around 10-15 paragraphs long and had nothing to do about the issue he was having except for about one sentence each post.

So the verbiage “if you can’t beat them join them” came to mind… and Adam did just that. He put on his tin foil hat and started a conversation with the customer about how I was a member of the NSA, but a double agent and was here to help him correct the problem. After about five more pages, Adam had solved his issue.

Later the customer wrote a 6 paragraph apology to me saying he might not work for the NSA after all, but would keep an eye on me!

What do you do when you’ve had a rough customer call like that? How do you get back into your happy place?

Booze. Yeah, booze works.

The Gatekeeper who worked to bones is seen chilling with the stock.

Bad calls can take a lot of time to shake off, especially the ones that are completely unreasonable or rude.

We just try not to get dragged into a debate. If a customer is going off at one of our team members, someone else will step in. Sometimes just switching the person they are talking to can help, but if not, we simply let them know that unless they change the way they talk to us, we will not respond to any further inquiries and direct them over to our user forums. Most of the time this works.

We just try our best to shake it off and focus on the next task. Talking internally to one another about the call does help vent some steam and can lead to potential internal changes to avoid the issue in the future.

What’s your biggest challenge in providing great support?

Getting our customers to “use their words”. Sometimes, customers can be so vague and that gives us no starting point in helping them out. We could go on for hours and make no headway with them because they are so lost. That can be frustrating from our side because no matter how many times we give them the answer, they are just getting more and more frustrated. This is where we have to really restrain ourselves from sending out expletives.

Seeing as you’re in both product development and customer support (phew!), tell us about how that’s impacted your feedback process? How do you get feedback from your customers and how does that reflect in your product in the long run?

If our software does not have the feature, we simply say it does not and point our customers to a suggestion forum where they can post their request. We regularly look to that location for update ideas.

As we see people asking the same questions over and over on how to do X or if we had feature Y, we can talk as a team with the developers and outline if this would be a good feature to include. Our support and development teams are just desks away, which makes things pretty nice in this regard.

Some feature requests are as simple as just having a link to explain something in better detail or adding some words to the setting that outline what it does. Others might be a bit more involved, so for those, we create draft mockups of what the feature might look like and how it would interact with the software. If this is a web app of some kind, we also work out what the resulting markup would be. We do as much of the ground work as possible. For larger ideas that we may not know how to handle, we talk as a team and find out the best way to resolve it.

What’s your biggest time-saving trick?

Keeping a good list of predefined replies that are tailored to a specific issue.

We get many, many repeat questions and instead of typing the same reply back, we create a predefined reply that explains the issue and link to any supporting articles or include screenshots to help. I would say 25% of our daily tickets probably revolve around using the same predefined email or a slightly modified one.

What’s your support playlist like? What kind of music do you like to listen to while supporting?

We have a huge variation on this. For me, I love 70’s and 80’s music. Give me anything from ABBA and I am one happy camper. For Suzanne (our sales guru) Britney Spears and Taylor Swift get her pumped up. Adam (our web guru) prefers the oldies, everything from Classical music up to and including “Hello” from Adele.

What’s something you wish customers would understand about support?

That we are not mind readers. You would be amazed at how many times people email support and they do not even know what program they are using, what operating system they have or where their website is. It takes 2-3 pages of replies just to cull out basic info and then once we have that, it becomes easy to find a solution.

What is the key thing that makes your customer support extraordinary?

We try to go above and beyond.

While email support is free, we do charge nominal fees for phone support but with phone support, we also offer remote login support. Sometimes, we will offer a free phone call outside of our support hours (sometimes after midnight) and remotely connect right at that time and fix their issues with no charge. These customers are just ecstatic when that happens.

Another big thing is response time. We have an average response time of under 15 min. Some even think they are talking over live chat with our tech support because the responses are so fast. They don’t realize they are communicating over email through a ticketing system.

What do you find most rewarding about being in customer support? What makes everything worth it?

When we can give a customer the “Aha” moment and they, then, fully understand how to make something work. That totally makes everything worthwhile.

If you were advising someone who was building a new custserv team, what would you tell them?

Create a good team and NEVER outsource your support to anyone. I don’t care what country you are located in, no one will ever know (and care) more about your products than you do.

For pre-sales questions, we are often asked if support is handled here in the USA or if it’s farmed out to another country. Letting your customers know they will reach someone here is a pretty big factor in their purchasing decisions.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned at CoffeeCup?

That I still have a lot to learn.

The web is evolving everyday and you, sometimes, have to step out of your comfort zone and try new things.

In terms of customer service, which company do you admire a lot?

Amazon, hands down. They are truly amazing! Whenever I’ve emailed support, I get responses within 20 minutes or less and the situation is almost always handled within their reply. They also compensate their customers for order problems with extensions to their Prime Membership which is a great way to build customer loyalty.

Name another support rep you’re a big fan of, and would like to hear from.

Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. From time to time, he does respond directly to people and I think that would be totally awesome, getting a personal response from him.

What do you think is the secret sauce to customer happiness?

Having a great product. If your product has issues or is difficult to use, that creates a frustrated and poor experience. In a perfect world, having ZERO support questions means you are doing everything right.

On the lighter side, if you were reincarnated as an animal, drink and an ice cream flavour, what would it be?

A Bald Eagle (what is more cool than an Eagle!).
Dr. Pepper (they had the best jingle in the 80’s) and
Superman Ice Cream, the best ice cream in the universe.

If you could choose any superpower, what would you choose?

Ability to turn anything into gold pressed latinum (yeah, my Star Trek geekness shows) or ability to fly. I hate wasting time traveling, so if I can fly to Fiji on the weekends, life would be golden.

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 with your suggestions.

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