Robert La Gesse is the VP of Social Strategy at Rackspace, a managed cloud computing company based in Windcrest, Texas. Rackspace has over 5,900 employees and 300,000 customers in 120 countries. They host 69% of the Fortune 100 and 62% of companies that advertise during the Super Bowl. With over 30 years of experience in Silicon Valley, La Gesse has literally been there, done that. We had the privilege of getting on a call and chatting with him about social support, strategy and life.
So, how did your career in customer support come about to be?
I used to run a dial-up BBS in the San Francisco Bay area way back in 1981. Those were the first hints of what we call social media today and I got to meet some amazing people during that stint. I‘ve donned several roles since then, most of them dealing with customer support in some way or another.
My association with Rackspace started about 10 years ago. I was a customer for three years before I joined Rackspace as Director of Customer Development. Over the years, my title’s changed – Chief Disruption Officer, Director of Social Media, VP of Social Support – but my actual job hasn’t changed.
Even though I’m a VP, I’m still having the same kind of conversations with our customers – those 1-1 interactions where we can solve their problems and help them be successful. That’s amazing.
I’ve been with Rackspace for over 7 years now; I have a clear idea about how I do things. I tweet my phone number and make it public because I believe that I should be reachable to everyone. I’m totally against the customer avoidance game. My game is talking to customers and it’s something that invigorates me every single time.
What does a typical day look like to you?
I’ve never had a typical day actually – every day’s different from the rest. I generally work from 11 AM to 5 AM, the next morning. Show me another VP who’d say that! 😀
Not a lot of people, especially people in my role, are awake at that hour but I know, from experience, that a large portion of our 350,000 global user base is. If they have a problem, I can talk to them. And at the end of a hard day, they need that calming voice so that we can work together to solve the problem.
So, you sleep for only about 4-5 hours a night? That cannot be healthy. How do you manage to keep yourself going?
When you do something you love, this is just another investment you have to make.
I love staying up and being attentive to customers at night. Customers are surprised, and visibly impressed, when they reach out to us because of a problem and they hear this, “Hi. I’m Rob La Gesse, the VP of Social. I can get stuff done. So, what can I do for you?”
I love my hours, actually.
I don’t know if my bosses love my hours, but they sure do acknowledge it. I’m allowed to do everything I love so I love everything I do!
I encourage my employees to send our most frustrated customers to me. We have 350,000 customers and some of them are obviously bound to not be happy. Numbers work that way. There is nothing that excites me more than talking to customers. If I can take somebody from ‘These guys are idiots’, to thanking us in 20 minutes, what bigger win can I possibly have than that?
As for sleep…well, it’s not always a good thing to get only those 3-4 hours of sleep every night. So, every 3 or 4 weeks, I allot myself a catch-up day. I’ll sleep for a solid 14 to 16 hours and nobody is allowed to wake me up. This slightly brings back the balance my body clock needs.
And of course, the mornings are mine. Nobody can reach Rob La Gesse in the morning, not even his CEO. I have all hands on deck in the mornings and half my day is already gone by then. My daughter, also an employee, is an Internal Auditor. So she makes the rules and I break them. That dynamic is fun. It doesn’t feel like I have lots to manage because I love what I’m doing at Rackspace.
Tell us about your team at Rackspace.
The support umbrella at Rackspace is actually an interesting assortment of teams. Each of them handle different areas of support at Rackspace but they are all united in their focus of helping customers and solving their business problems.
I’ve got 7 employees dedicated to the Social Support team. I don’t think many other companies have this many Social Support activists on their roster but we do it simply because we feel our customers deserve it.
Just recently, we implemented this new team called Social Enablement. Currently it is run by a fellow racker, Elizabeth Jurewicz and she is responsible for teaching everyone how to use social correctly and in the Rackspace way. Irrespective of whether you belong in Sales, Marketing, PR or HR, you should know how to work on social correctly.
Are all of the teams located in Windcrest or are some of them remote?
I’ve got a globally dispersed workforce. I am an at-home-Racker myself. I live 8 miles away from our office and I haven’t been to our office since April!
We have some amazing video conferencing software in addition to our social and phone channels. I genuinely feel that businesses don’t necessarily need to grow that way anymore.
I do my best work from the comfort of my recliner and I think I should be paid only to do my best work.
Tell us about what it’s like to manage teams distributed over the world. What are the pros and cons?
There are always challenges with everything. Technology isn’t perfect but it is still such a godsend if you compare it to the methods from 15 years ago. You will never see me complaining about someone’s PowerPoint presentation glitching. We are working with miracles right now and I have the patience to deal with the problems that accompany them. The pros outweigh the cons.
Tell us about Rackspace’s culture. What are its core values?
The culture at Rackspace is pretty well defined. We put our employees first, our customers second and our shareholders third. This, I realize is in contrast to popular belief, that customers should be given the top most priority.
I think that the key to happy customers is a happy Racker. And the key to a successful company with happy shareholders is the existence of a happy customer base.
Our Chairman put it best: “What we all want from work is to be valued members of a winning team on an inspiring mission.” And that’s what everyone here wants to do: be a part of the winning team by making a difference.
Whenever we see a customer talking about Rackspace, and how they had a great experience with us, we make sure that it doesn’t go unnoticed. The agent who was responsible for providing that customer with a great user experience is recognized by everyone all the way up to the CEO. Our CEO is very responsive and makes it a point to personally send that Racker a personal kudos. We also have a Certificate of Awesomeness given to them to boost their morale. There is so much humanity here.
You’ve been with Rackspace for over 7 years. How did you manage to scale support without losing any of its core values?
First of all, if you want to work at Rackspace, you’ve got to have the desire to serve. Actually I have a great story about this.
A few years back, I was at an offsite leadership meeting at some resort. There was this bartender who was responsible for a very tough audience of around 100 people, all by himself. I’d asked for a margarita or something and he had served me the wrong drink. He looked visibly swamped so I didn’t want to pile up on his woes. I didn’t complain. Ten minutes later, he walks up to me and says, “I’m sorry, sir. Here’s the margarita you asked for. I’m sorry to have gotten you the wrong drink. Both these drinks are on the house.”
I immediately pulled out my wallet and handed him a business card asking him to forward his resume to me as soon as possible. A month later, he’s at his first week of orientation at Rackspace.
Empathy. That’s what I look for in all my employees. Only when they can understand the feelings of their customers, can they provide top notch service.
So, do you think if there were a “secret sauce” for customer support, it’d be empathy?
I definitely think empathy is the backbone to customer support. We’ve got customers who pay us millions every month and we’ve got some who pay us ten dollars a month. When I talk to them, I don’t ask them how much they pay because I honestly don’t care!
These automated algorithms that tell the agent all about how much the customer pays, or how regular a user they are, are just wrong. Things like these inadvertently set the tone for the entire conversation and that invalidates our concept of equality amongst the customers.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge in providing great support?
That’s a pretty simple question actually. I’ve got 350,000 customers and all of them depend on our data centers working. We’re a company built by human beings, so we cannot always be perfect.
I remember a few years ago when we had an issue with a data center and Techcrunch wrote an article about how, if all your favorite websites were down, Rackspace was responsible for it. It was harsh but it was true.
Things are complicated when you’re a B2B company. When we make a mistake, it’s not only our customers who are affected; our customers’ customers are also affected. A glitch at our end can potentially affect millions of end users. Avoiding that and keeping our servers continually running like clockwork is the biggest challenge.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
I would say the customer conversations are the best part about the job.
There have been times when I’ve picked up the phone only to be on the receiving end of a flurry of insults and expletives for a solid 3 minutes. I only have one response to something like that. I wait till he’s done to let him know that, at 2 AM, I’m his best option so we need to move on towards a resolution – we can figure out who to blame later.
I don’t have a problem establishing an equal footing. I would have said the same thing to a CEO too. If I don’t establish this equality, I think I lose all credibility and respect.
Irrespective of where he’s positioned on the food chain of his company, he must know that only when the customer and the agent work together, can any magic happen.
As someone who is on clock for nearly 18 hours a day (and someone who has their phone number as a part of their Twitter bio), you must talk to a lot of frustrated customers. How do you usually handle difficult customers?
When it comes to handling the particularly difficult customers, I’ve got a unique approach. I’ve got the voice of senior leadership and if I think we are making a mistake, I will apologize and promise to fix it at the earliest.
However, if a customer is wrong, I will tell them that directly. I am totally opposed to the notion that the customer is always right.
We, at Rackspace, are responsible for hosting thousands of servers and I refuse to believe that the customer is always smarter than us. I agree, we do make mistakes but I don’t particularly like how customers always think we’re at fault. The key to dealing with customers like those is just to keep a level head and move efficiently.
And I’ve got to say, I talk to a lot of them. I get the most interesting text messages from my CEO or the Chairman of the board. They just send me phone numbers without any context. None, whatsoever. And I just call them and say – “Hi. I’m Rob La Gesse from Rackspace and I heard you had a problem”. Sometimes it’s a customer, sometimes it’s a potential customer. What is exciting is the fact that no two customer interactions are the same.
What if an employee that caused the frustration? How do you deal with your employees when they make a mistake?
I do simple course correction.
I jokingly tell my employees how they’re allowed a mistake but not the same mistake again. Of course, I wouldn’t fire them over a mistake but it keeps them on their toes!
I’ve made some mistakes myself. I once tweeted something like “Having fun at Sea World” from the company’s official account. Our customers obviously didn’t like that gesture and were visibly worried about who was manning their servers if we were at Sea World. Fortunately though, modern features reduce the chances of silly mistakes like these now. Technology has bridged these gaps and now I can keep a close tab on all these activities.
Social is transforming into something huge. I can already see the potential this carries. One day, social will be every employee, every customer, all the time, every time.
Tell us about your most memorable customer experience.
Well, this might have an odd tangent to it but my team has actually helped customers who were threatening to harm themselves.
We are not trained for this but someone reached out to us on social media, and for some unknown reason, told us that they wanted to hurt themselves. This is not something a marketing, PR, support or salesperson is trained in. Fortunately for me, I had worked in healthcare, so I managed to keep a cool head throughout the incident.
We went to great lengths to find out where they were reaching out from, so that we could contact the concerned authorities. I’m so proud of what my team and I achieved that day.
We just thought about doing the right thing for a person instead of doing the right thing for our company. We could have just hung up and hoped for the best.
This was so telling about what we can accomplish as a team and how we can positively make a difference. I am not building a team so that they can walk on rose petals. There will be hard times and I need my team to stay strong through it all.
I knew there would be legal implications with what we would do and there were. But at the end of the day, what mattered was that we helped someone out in a huge way. I’m not sure if others will do this but as long as it comes to me, if there is someone telling me they’re going to harm themselves, I’m going to help them out. I don’t care about the procedure or PR or HR, or any of that. My team and I will help that person out.
Your team sounds incredible! I think the world would be a much better place with teams like yours everywhere. If you were to mentor someone building their own social team, what advice would you give them?
I would to tell them to get their voice and build their confidence. If you don’t have the voice to speak out, you shouldn’t be in support. To get higher up the chain, you should have the confidence to go up to your CEO and say- “We have to do this. I’ll tell you why.”
You could take the normal path and make a small dent in a big company or you could find your voice and make that dent big. I always have been the guy who wanted to make the big dent and I have the attitude that says I’d rather have my voice than have a job.
That attitude is what you should look for.
When you’ve got something that special, you have to hang on to it. I want to empower every single one of our employees to have that same confidence to share their voice.
How does Rackspace measure customer happiness?
As far as it goes for me, I measure customer happiness by the number of customer smiles we get. My boss likes dealing with numbers so we do measure our engagement levels on LinkedIn and Twitter. I don’t particularly love the metrics.
You would think I would be concerned with the metrics, my title says I should be, but that is not what I do. I do customers, that’s what I do. I know who my customers are, what they want, where we’re failing, and what we must do. I’ve got access to the leadership to drive my vision up the food chain and my passion will give me the drive.
I’m more intrigued by how many customers talk to me on a monthly basis but these numbers are hard to measure. We get a ballpark estimate of this number using our Net Promoter Score. Every quarter, we take a survey on 25% of our user base and ask them basic questions like “How likely would you be to recommend Rackspace to your friends?”. I don’t usually call up the customers who give us a 9 or 10, but I make sure to follow up with those giving us a 3 or 4.
Honestly, sometimes it’s because of silly things like – ‘I got a new account manager and she sounds Russian and I can’t understand her’. Sometimes, it’s deep technical problems that we’re facing. The key over here is engagement. I don’t think anyone clicking that one button survey would have expected anyone calling them. I guess it’s just the human touch.
How does the feedback you (and your team) get from these conversations trickle back into the product? Can you tell us about the process?
Customer feedback can work wonders for you if you let it work both ways.
My team is amazing and we work with these great escalation paths to decide what to escalate and to whom. If it’s a customer pain point, that’s easily defined in our workflow and we escalate it to the concerned authority. If we notice trends over a period of time, we escalate that as well to product managers.
We also flip that in the other direction. When we see a customer professing their love for a particular Racker on Twitter, we look up that Racker and look into tickets to find out who he or she is so we can send them an email including the employees in the entire food chain. This way everyone can see what an incredible job that Racker is doing. Also, our CEO almost always acknowledges that with a reply.
It is so impactful when you move not just the negatives, but the positives up the food chain.
That’s what defines the company – we notice the good things and move it up as well.
Is there a particular social media channel that you prefer over the rest for support?
Twitter because that’s the place where I interact with people the most. The same parallel can be strung out for Facebook or Instagram. But don’t do a corporate mandate for channels. Like, let’s focus on Instagram because that’s what is popular now. You have to be where your customers are. Following your customers will lead you to redemption.
A few years ago, we were named the 8th fastest responding brand on Twitter, which pissed me off because we weren’t in the top 5!
Editor’s note: At this point, after we marvelled at that mention, Rob challenged us to try getting in touch with Rackspace support. ‘You’re guaranteed a response in 5 minutes or less, no matter where you are or what the time’, he said. Curious, we decided to take him up on the challenge.
Rackspace favorited the tweet in about three minutes. We had a reply in 15. Truly fanatical! If that isn’t impressive…we promise to eat some hats.
What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t ever do a job you don’t enjoy doing. I’ve been in the dumps. Literally. I’ve dug ditches, put shingles on houses and I hated it. I later found the job I love and since I love my work, I’m really good at it. And since I’m good at it, I’m compensated handsomely for it. I tell my 20-something kids everyday. “I pay for your college education but don’t expect that to be your liberty.”
Your liberty is whatever you feel is right and what you love.
If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would it be?
Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Barack Obama. Specifically in this order.
Elon Musk is just amazing. I love that guy. Elon Musk is a visionary not only with what he builds, but with how he thinks businesses should be built.
Bill Gates, I’ve just shared those handshake moments with him in hallways. I think he’s way smarter than he was ever given credit for. I think he’s been denigrated as the Microsoft CEO bad guy and I think he is one of the most effective, brilliant people to have ever walked the planet. So I would love to talk to him.
Richard Charles Branson! I’m going to have to make this list into 4 people now. I think Richard Branson is such an out of the box, crazy thinker. He is like me. He doesn’t think of why, he thinks of ‘why not?’
Which company do you admire the most with respect to Customer Service?
Rackspace. I’m sorry I’m cheating but Rackspace is going to be my answer.
We started the Secret Sauce series to find out more about what makes the customer service of some great companies click.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 firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions.