What does a career in support look like?

I work at a customer support centered company. My official work title is Woo Happiness Engineer. We help customers to make the most of our products, and I am proud of the work I do – making entrepreneurs’ life easier. Unfortunately, customer support seems to have a bad rap in many countries and the idea of choosing support path is relatively new.

Fortunatelly Automattic is not the only company who values it’s Happiness Squat. I was lucky to listen to an interview with Chase Clemons from Basecamp, who share his view on the concept of support as a career choice.

That is, not only choosing support as a career, but also developing a career in support.

These two concepts are rarely used together: customer support and career – in many companies support  is the lowest level on the company career ladder. A career is supposed to take you out of those depths and remove you as far as possible from the customer.

This increasing distance to customers when advancing in a career is an odd proposition if you accept the premise that the customer ultimately is the one paying for each and every salary in a company. Working directly with the customer should be one of the most important jobs – after all it is the raison d’être of the entire construction.

Support thrives where it’s not just a stepping stone

I enjoy working in support. I love helping our customers to make the best out of WooCommerce, to generate the setup they need, to find and solve the bugs they encounter on the way and make sure their life is easier after their support interaction with us. And yet, I prefer to avoid the topic in conversation with friends and family whose customer support experience is marked by an underpaid call center agent in Costa Rica trying to upsell yet another cell phone data plan.

What I most loved about the interview is the obvious passion that Chase has for support. He started in support at Basecamp and then made a conscious decision to stay in that field instead of “progressing” into product management or any other area of the company. Obviously, Basecamp values support as does Automattic. Still, that doesn’t seem to be the norm out there.

So when asked, what he does, Chase explains the mission of his company, which turns out to be his mission (which kind of makes sense, at least in those cases where the companies mission is aligned with their customers interest – instead of their shareholders short term interests). And it turns out this is similar to what I do as well – kind of dodging the question.

  • “What do you do for a living?”
  • “I work for WooCommerce, the ecommerce division of WordPress helping companies to take full advantage of our enterprise level add-ons that allow them to sell subscriptions, hotel bookings, courses etc.”

My mom says I’m a programmer. My husband says I am an ecommerce consultant.

Both tell me that “customer support” sounds too low-level, too poor, too simple, too salesy, too [fill in your most frustrating experience with… your cable company].

So, what are the career options in support?

The big question here is, what does career mean? Let’s check the definition:

The progress and actions taken by a person throughout a lifetime, especially those related to that person’s occupations. A career is often composed of the jobs held, titles earned and work accomplished over a long period of time, rather than just referring to one position. (Business Dictionary)

Note that nowhere here does it talk about “a career means you climb the corporate ladder”. The focus here is on progress and actions. Progress as in learning new things, tackling new challenges, growing both professionally and hopefully as well personally. Automattic’s creed starts with “I will never stop learning.” That’s a career proposition for every single Automattician right there.

That’s said, I think there are different realms where and how you can offer support – and I consciously avoid calling them levels, as this seems to always include some qualitative evaluation of those levels. Moving between these realms allows me to grow, to improve and to find new challenges – while staying true to helping customers in real life.

customer support matrix.png
Note that “later” in tickets might mean 6-48 hours, while for docs it can be month.

Asynchronous 1 on 1 work

This includes tickets, emails and forum answers – everything where one user has a question and gets an answer to that question. It’s what I currently do at Woo, helping individual customers to set up their individual store to meet their individual business needs. In case of forum interactions, other’s might learn from the answers as an added bonus.

Unique development opportunities:

  • written expression and manners as you adjusting your tone and message to the level of frustration or enthusiasm (ALL CAPS ANYONE), knowledge and needs of the customer  in question
  • product knowledge
  • use cases
  • a direct access to the wonderful world of entrepreneur creativity
  • bug report creation and technical knowledge if and when you decide to take a technical challenge onto yourself.

Real time 1 on 1 work

Mostly live chat and telephone support, two options that are not yet available at Woo. I experimented with live chat during my trial period at WordPress though.

Unique development opportunities:

  • quick adjustment to the users communication style (long and elaborate, short and succint, with or without personal anecdotes)
  • step-by-step guidance
  • on-the-spot troubleshooting
  • multitasking (as in asking for help or searching frenetically for the answer while trying to maintain the user engaged)

Asyncronous support for many

Forum answers partly fall under this type of support, as they can be useful for more people than just the original requestor. Plugin documentation, popular use cases, FAQs and user guides certainly are part of this realm.

Unique development opportunities:

  • finding the right topics
  • balance between too much information and too little information
  • collaboration with others to create the content
  • maintenance and continous improvements

Real time support for many

The support career interview with Chase is a good example (though I then consumed the video almost a week later, turning the real time education into a asynchronous form of support. Other forms are twitter discussions, facebook broadcasts or life streaming opportunities.

Unique development opportunities:

  • finding the right topics
  • balance between too much information and too little information
  • immediate response to group feedback
  • maintaining the balance between individual questions and the group intentions

A career in support means to find new challenges, to experiment with new approaches, to grow with your users and with your market without leaving new users behind.

A career in support means I never stop learning. And I never stop teaching either.

And if I get bored, or unmotivated, or feel stuck I can explore the next quadrant, making sure I never stop learning.

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