You're Already Doing All Hands Support

Nick Cannariato's Profile Picture

Nick Cannariato

Co-Founder, COO

Internal Comments

Back in April, I was walking around Chicago with Brian during Yetto's first in-person meetup, and I said something that started an interrogation. I don't remember what I said and in some ways it doesn't matter -- robust dialogue, jovial hyperbole, and good-natured ribbing are how all three of us enjoy interacting -- but I distinctly remember it being low stakes enough that I found myself asking "Why is this so shocking to you? It seems like a weirdly big deal." Brian's response was "You and I are so deeply similar that when we disagree on stuff it's noticeable and shocking."

I find that quote echoing back in my head as I write my "rebuttal" to Brian's belief that we should stop doing all hands support. I've known his thoughts on this topic for a while now, and in some ways they're deeply persuasive to me. As a support professional who's been doing this work in every kind of role and company imaginable for the last decade, I want to agree with him wholeheartedly. I find myself nodding along and doubting myself as I read it back.

And yet, something felt incorrect and I couldn't put my finger on it. I located my discomfort as I read it for the hundredth time, when I was about to resign myself to writing "I was wholly naive and we should stop doing this":

Several times when a CEO has asked me to implement all hands support at their organization, I have asked how they implement "All Hands Finance" or "All Hands Engineering". We don't do those things because we understand that those roles require unique skills and it takes time to hone those skills for the specific business. Asking someone to do "all hands account payable" for one week a year would seem both preposterous and dangerous. And I think the same applies to customer support. If we believe that support professionals bring a unique skill set and a unique value to the business, as I mentioned in the last section, then we should also believe that not everyone at the company can do that job successfully.

On first glance, this is a persuasive point. In fact, it knocked me on my heels the first time Brian said it to me. But reading this again I realized something: I've never once worked somewhere that didn't do all hands support.

Don't get me wrong, I've worked lots of places that didn't have formal all hands support programs, at least not the kind that Brian is talking about. But unlike accounting, finance, and other specialized roles in your organization, that doesn't stop everyone from doing it anyways; it just stops them from knowing how to do it well.

Support is different

Do I believe that support professionals bring a unique skill set and value to the business? Yes, wholeheartedly and without equivocation. More than that, I believe that the skills required to provide company-changing, customer-salvaging, product-defining support require years of experience, honing, and mentorship to develop. Those kinds of support professionals are worth whatever you have to pay them, and I in no way want to devalue their work.

But supporting customers, as a function of your business and also as an activity, is categorically different than a lot of specialized roles.

I've never seen an engineer hop into an #accounts-payable channel in Slack with an @here demand to drop everything they're doing to help an angry influencer on Twitter. I've never seen Security get ordered by another department to retool their entire workflow for the next three weeks to prioritize an important contract that sales wants to land. Both of those suggestions are daily occurrences in your company's #support channel.

But between events like escalation-via-founder, engineers on Twitter debugging in DMs, marketing folks getting LinkedIn DMs about unreleased products, and lots and lots of "urgent" questions from enterprises throwing their weight around, your whole company is already doing all hands support.

The problem is they suck at it, won't stop sucking at it, and aren't interested in your professional opinion on why they should defer to you. After all, how hard could it be to talk to customers? They do it all the time.

Where I'm coming from

My positive feelings about all hands support come from working at Zapier. Wade, one of the co-founders, made it clear from day one that every employee was required to spend 8 hours per week in the support queue helping customers; no exceptions, founders included.

During onboarding, every employee spent a portion of each day learning how to support users. They paired with incoming support professionals and received training from the company's support trainer. They learned how to use the support tools required to do it well, how to identify which tickets were ok for them to work vs which ones should be escalated to the professionals, and importantly, they learned the "why" of support and the consequences of even small deviations from a system designed to serve millions of people with only 30 professionals.

Were they great at support? Not at first. They were never as good as the full time support professionals, but because it wasn't a "one week a year" thing and we had dedicated people assigned to answer questions and pair with them, they maintained junior-level, tier-1 capabilities at minimum and the benefits far outweighed the costs.

What made it worth it?

Like Brian mentioned, it's a massive investment of both the company and Support's resources to make this kind of all hands support happen. Among other things, you need to:

  • Staff a dedicated training team.
  • Fly that team in for onboarding (if you do in-person onboarding) or schedule time during onboarding for each employee to learn from them (if you're fully remote for onboarding).
  • Have Support account for sub-junior employees in the queue and ensure that they have something to do.
  • Regularly remind new employees that it's not optional and they have to do this.
  • Sacrifice 8 hours a week of everyone's focus on their day to day work.

With all those costs, what was the result? Why is it something I still can't let go of?

First, I have never worked somewhere where the Support team was more valued or respected. Far from Brian's concern that this devalues support, at Zapier my time and attention were treated like an intrinsically valuable, limited resource. Other teams routinely praised the Support team with specific encouragements from tickets they came across and learned from. Engineers would catch an edge case that affects some small percentage of users before shipping the feature and would explicitly delay shipping it so they don't overwhelm support. It honestly freaked me out for a while, it felt Stepford-esque.

Second, engineers spent way more time fixing their customers' everyday pain. Wade once said something to the effect of "If you make an engineer answer the same question 50 times, it'll be fixed by Monday"; my experience there bore that out.

Finally, rather than lowering support quality, it aligned the whole company on the right way to talk to customers about the product. Support teaches you the awesome and terrifying power of words. We have decade-long discussions about whether and in what specific contexts saying "Sorry" is appropriate. It's the kind of thing that seems like an overreaction until you get named in a former-customer's lawsuit for "admitting fault" in their costly data loss issue. You want to stop Sales from promising features on Friday that the product doesn't do yet? Make them answer the angry email about it next Wednesday.

How my thinking has changed

It pains me to admit that I think Brian is ultimately right here. At the end of the day, the kind of all hands support I'm describing above is rare to the point being non-existent. Most companies don't have the buy in, culture, will, or desire to do it well. I admit that my resistance to fully agreeing with Brian is that I experienced the platonic ideal implementation.

I can't help but feel that it's still worth fighting for though. I don't agree that expecting everyone to effectively help customers and communicate information clearly inherently devalues trained, career support work anymore than teaching everyone to write inherently devalues the works of Ursula K. Le Guin or Samuel R. Delaney. If you're an organizational leader and you agree with me, the components of successful all hands support are:

  1. Frequency: You have to do it more often than "once a quarter" or "once a month." Ideally it needs to be for some inflexible number of hours every week, scheduled as it makes sense to the individual (e.g. 8 hours a week, scheduled into the week at the discretion of the individual employee). This isn't so much a best practice as a minimum bar, if you're not in the queue every week then you're woefully behind on what customers are experiencing.
  2. Totality: If it's all hands support, than it's all hands. A single exception to this rule will destroy it. No one -- especially not senior leaders -- can opt out and willful failure to comply must face consequences. In my opinion, if you're doing this it should go in the employee contract so folks know that it's an expectation going in. It needs to be a top-level value you not only hold but celebrate.
  3. Deference: Your Support team, from the newest team member to management, will always know more and be better at this than you. Give them power over the program and the resources to do it well. Don't make training the rest of the company someone's "20% time" gig. Make it clear that they are the experts every single chance you get and celebrate specific things they've accomplished and not just "Wait time is down and the queue is being handled."

If you're not a founder, VP, or C-suite executive fully committing to the system I described above? If you're a Support leader or team member who longs for Product and Sales to feel the pain they've caused you and your team?

I get it. I do.

But the bottom line is that in most cases, if you have some influence and want to affect the most change with the fewest resources, it's probably not worth it to start with all hands support. In fact, even if you are doing some form of all hands support you should do what Brian suggests. Your team will thank you.

No matter what you choose to do, for the love of all that is good and the sanity of your team, have a talk with your leadership about how they shouldn't be an escalation point for the public. Make the consequences of careless words and actions visible to the rest of your organization.

Because if your company isn't gonna do all hands support, then they should actually stop.