Pillars of Support

I am proud to say that SomewhereWarm is a support-driven software company. But that’s usually easier to say than to define — or do.

These days, a growing number of software companies claim to have adopted a customer-first strategy; some of them with roots going deep in open source ground. Despite this, very few share their experience in building support-driven cultures and products. How do the most successful, customer-first companies recruit, train and manage their support teams? Most of the published information is anecdotal, and rarely includes any internal documentation or training resources.

It’s no secret that the teams responsible for engineering products are largely isolated from the teams that support them — even in software companies that really care about their customers. At worst, support teams do not collect or communicate valuable insights that could influence short-term product direction. At best, support feedback is analyzed and utilized to set product priorities, but support has no voice when it comes to validating new features or fixes.

SomewhereWarm is a tiny company. We are quick at building processes and products. We can make drastic organizational changes successfully, change our support operating procedures within days, or rebuild our continuous development pipeline in weeks — and still deliver value at a faster rate than most companies 10, 100 or 1000 times our size. However, I admit that we do not fully understand how some of our processes could scale to work in a company of hundreds or thousands.

Despite being small, our team is quite opinionated about what it takes to support and build products in a support-driven fashion. I understand that the practices that have been successful for us so far may not work for everyone. Different teams measure success in different ways. However, I still believe that sharing some of our experience might be of value to some of you. So here it is!

Pillars of Support

Customer support can be demanding, and even frustrating, at times. Great customer support directly affects the success of a product, but treating each and every customer with empathy and respect can only take your product half way there. Going all the way takes an empowered Support team — one that not only understands customers and helps them succeed, but also listens to them and helps ship the entire team build a better product for them.

As SomewhereWarm grew from a one-man shop to a team, I started laying out the foundations of an independent, knowledgable, empowered Support team. Pillars of Support is the introductory chapter to our internal Support Manual, written to:

  1. Help new teammates understand their position in our software engineering pipeline.
  2. Introduce them to the principles guiding our interactions with customers.

As its name suggests, Pillars of Support is not an operating procedure: It only sets the foundation on which our support team operates. If you have a growing support team, my advice would be to maintain at least two documents: One that lays out your principles, and one that describes your operating procedure in detail.

  • Part 1: Building Trust lists the principles that guide every customer support interaction at SomewhereWarm.
  • Part 2: Building Product explains how a product mindset helps our Support Engineers identify and relay information that helps us prioritize impactful work.
  • Part 3: Building Quality explores the benefits of involving Support Engineers in quality assurance tasks.

Part 1 contains lots of little nuggets borrowed from the Helpscout blog. If you are looking for tips to improve the way you support your products, it’s a great place to start! We’ve also borrowed a few ideas from the Skyverge Support Guide, but if you are looking for a practical guide to empathetic communication, have a look at Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication. Finally, if you are creating a Support team from scratch, I highly suggest Jeff Toister’s The Service Culture Handbook.

Without further delay, here’s Part 1: Building Trust. The other two parts, Building Product and Building Quality, will be posted over the coming weeks, so keep an eye out for them!