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Building an Exceptional Customer Success Culture: How Buffer Does It

Customer Experience

If you’re like most recurring-revenue companies, you’re not just looking for skills when you hire customer success people, you’re looking for cultural fit and that intangible-but-oh-so-important natural customer-happiness focus. If that’s the case, the person you’d want to hire is Carolyn Kopprasch (@carokopp). Sorry, she’s not available.

Carolyn is chief happiness officer at Buffer (full disclosure: I am a user of their service), a social media posting service that schedules or meters your posts (for me, it keeps me from inundating my followers). I quoted her in my previous post on customer success culture as a great example of how to get customer success right.

I had the pleasure recently of interviewing Carolyn to find out why she is so good at customer success and how she hires and trains Buffer’s people to make sure they are, as well.

If you are leading or part of a customer success team, or you want to be, there’s a lot you can learn from her.

Making empathy a part of the culture

“One aspect of Buffer’s mission is to set the bar for customer service,” Carolyn says. She adds that the definition of customer success is evolving as the company grows — and as the Happiness team doubles in size from three to six people.

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I’ve had a number of interactions with Buffer, most with Carolyn herself. Her direct honesty and ability to make me feel cared for impressed me. Why is she so good at this? She points to two things:

First, she was a user of Buffer before joining the company. Having “been in [customers’] shoes and experienced their frustrations” gives her the ability not only to understand the situation, but also to know what will help this particular user get what they need.

Second, she cites empathy as critical to great customer service. “We have to be able to understand not just what the customer means, but their frustration, obstacles and needs.”

To even be considered for a job at Buffer, you have to be an established customer and be familiar with the product. When hiring, Buffer is looking for “someone who has used [Buffer], run into the little frustrations, been confused by this or that, who generally has experience using technology for a purpose and knows how joyous it can be when it’s successful and how frustrating it can be when it’s not.”

Carolyn says this ensures there is some basis for empathy in everyone they hire. This is true not only in the Happiness team, but throughout the company. The people on her team feel “privileged to be doing what we are doing and to have customers who give us the opportunity to do what we are doing.”

Buffer also puts prospective hires through what sounds like a practical exam. Candidates are given a series of actual requests from customers and asked to respond. How they approach the response is a key factor in the hiring decision.

But the culture of empathy extends beyond the walls of the company. “If you are not practicing [these values] in your everyday life, then it’s really challenging to put away your habits and just start it when you show up for work. So we do it in every area of our lives,” she says.

[Note: If this sounds like you, Carolyn is hiring. Just remember they only hire Buffer users.]

Creating a new kind of customer success culture

Buffer handles customer success differently from most organizations. “We don’t assign cases,” Carolyn explains. The team is still small enough that everyone can see all the open cases, and everyone is tasked with taking whatever action they can to help. With a team that now spans the globe, cases are often resolved overnight while the U.S.-based team is sleeping.

This makes communication important. “We have weekly meetings and an ongoing exchange of ideas” to keep that going, she says. The email threads among the Happiness team at Buffer include everything from making sure a response actually meets a customer’s need to discussing the most understandable tone and words to use in email.

Buffer does not try to scale its customer support with technology. They have made the decision not to try to push customers toward helping themselves, but rather to focus on hiring more people to respond to and support their growing customer base. They will add online help (“some people just like to figure things out for themselves” Carolyn says), but they will continue to make email support the primary way customers get the help they need.

Buffer also publishes — yes, publicly — a monthly happiness report on their blog and on Facebook. Here’s the October report (note the summary graphic at the bottom of the post). They let the entire world know just how well (or not) they are doing. It’s a manifestation of their transparency value, and it lets all their customers know they are a part of Buffer’s ongoing improvement.

Measuring customer success can be challenging. Unlike many companies, Buffer does not count the number of replies or exchanges it takes to close an issue. “We disregard replies per conversation. Most customer success teams look at this as speed to resolution, but we know that happy customers reply back and forth a few times,” Carolyn says.

Carolyn has two measures of success for her team: “First we work on the hypothesis that a faster answer leads to a happier customer. So, we track how fast we respond to the first email and get the solution started. Second, we track self-declared happiness. Every email to a customer has emoticon ratings (provided by Hively). We track how many customers are happy with our solutions. Or not.

“Customers can also add comments to their rating, which only go to the support individual who responded, not for review or to management.” This, she explains, allows the “Happiness Heroes” to learn what they have done well and what they have not.

The best possible response to being hacked

Buffer was hacked recently. Their response was impressive, fast and very revealing, and customers responded with astonishing support. I asked Carolyn how they put together an effective customer communication plan so quickly.

“There was no plan. There was no one person defining the voice. It was a natural reflex for us to tell everyone,” Carolyn says. “That was the extent of the plan. We could not have imagined it going any differently.”

Buffer posted several times per day on their blog and social media on their progress and about the resolution. Instead of one “please change your password” email, customers knew every detail of the issue and resolution, and exactly what to do about it. Look at the overwhelmingly positive and supportive response. It’s the kind of response of which most companies dream.

Changing customers’ expectations

Carolyn sees Buffer’s approach of quick and direct responses as starting to overcome a culture in which customers expect to be angry and frustrated before they even get the help they need.

“We live in a culture that has trained customers to start on the offensive just to get good service, and it’s really easy for the customer service rep to react to that,” Carolyn says. “Often, you don’t get to talk to a manager or someone with authority to solve your problem unless you say a curse word.”

Carolyn and her team are working to get better and better at providing help that takes away the customer’s frustration and, she hopes, changes the starting expectation of her customers.

It’s working

Buffer’s and Carolyn’s ideas on how to create a customer focus in the business are groundbreaking. Even for those of us who are working to disrupt the customer relationship models that have done so much damage to the tech industry over the years are moved by companies such as Buffer to rethink our assumptions. Buffer is an example of what can be done when you throw out your experience and start with a customer-focused set of assumptions.

Buffer is a young, growing company, but it’s experiencing very low churn rates (5-6% at last count). Only 2% of customers are paying for the service, but they see conversion rates increasing month-to-month (note that the Happiness team is not compensated for conversion).

I say it’s working.

What do you think?

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