Zendesk Cust Serv Evangelist on Productivity and Keeping Customer Service Agents Happy

Dave Dyson was a software engineer for thirteen years – and then an actor for seven – before he joined the customer advocacy team at Zendesk more than seven years ago. When Dyson joined the Zendesk team, Zendesk had one product, was developing its customer advocacy teams and had a support team of roughly three dozen for the entire company. Today, Zendesk has customer support teams all over the world supporting multiple products. 

Now a senior customer service evangelist in Zendesk’s marketing team, Dyson often participates in the Tuesday morning ICMI Twitter chats (#ICMIchat) that explore a variety of customer service topics. We caught up with Dyson after following an #ICMI chat about productivity in the call center. Dyson caught our eye when he suggested there’s more to productivity than speed. Here’s what Dyson had to say about customer support, productivity and how acting trained him to be a better customer service representative. 

Q. Before you joined Zendesk, you spent seven years acting. What lessons from acting can you apply to customer service?

A. Acting teaches you to become a really good listener, so the experience definitely helped me with communication. I also directed improv, which requires recruiting, training and helping people stay on track with the show’s artistic vision. There’s a lot of overlap with what one does as a customer service manager.  

Q. What was the transition like going from software engineering to customer service representative? 

A. I’m the tech kid in my family so I had been our family IT person for years. If my dad was trying to learn email or was having trouble with his laptop, he’d call me. So I was used to doing that in a familial setting. The professional setting was an extension of that. 

As a software engineer, I was responsible for managing customers who had a customized version of our portfolio-analysis software designed for money managers. That was during the days when companies had mainframe computers, so I was offering customer support in that capacity.

When I knew I needed to get a full-time job again—acting wasn’t paying the bills—my programming skills were stale. Working in customer service allowed me to use my communication skills while also helping people work through technical issues. I felt like a hero every day because I was making someone’s day better by helping them. 

Q. What is your customer support hiring philosophy?

A. Zendesk has always been a great company to work for. Since our software is about helping customers, our support team is highly valued. We hire good people and give them the tools, training and structure they need to succeed.

We give people plenty of opportunities to grow not just within support, but within other departments as well. We want the people who work for us to love their jobs and feel inspired. This is always a gain to the organization. 

Q. How did you come across these ICMI Twitter discussions?

A. My boss has long standing relationship with some of the people from ICMI, and we’ve been a sponsor at their Florida expo. She encouraged me to participate in the ICMI Twitter chats, and once I’d attended their expo myself and met some of the participants, I felt comfortable jumping in myself. If there’s a question asked that I have a strong opinion about, I’ll share an answer. It’s a fun group that I respect a lot, and I’m happy to contribute when I can.

Q. One of the chats you were particularly engaged with had to do with call center productivity. How would you define call center productivity?

A.  It really comes down to how many customers need your help in a day, week, month, or whatever other time period you want to measure productivity within. Productivity is always something that we’ve measured at Zendesk. When I first started working here, we had two tiers of support and since then we’ve moved to three. For the first two tiers, we initially set guidelines about how long the request should remain with the team before it was escalated. For tier one we set 15 minutes and for tier two we set 45 minutes. That was a little challenging because when it comes down to it, the person who knows the customer the best—the one who knows how long something might take for a resolution—is the person who is working that ticket. Since then, we’ve sort of backed off of that system. Now we have a triage team that looks at a ticket within a minute from when it comes in. They decide if the issue looks like something that can be resolved quickly and the ticket is triaged to tier one. If it looks like it will require a deeper dive, it’s triaged to tier two.

Our customer service agents have one-on-ones with their supervisors to review how they’re doing, including how many tickets or conversations they’ve resolved over a period of time, but when we’re looking at productivity, this certainly isn’t the only measure. Every customer advocate is at a different stage of learning and development. The best way to look at their performance is to see where they are today and look for incremental ways to improve that performance. 

We also measure customer satisfaction, of course. If an agent is written about in a favorable way 95 percent of the time someone writes about their experiences with that agent, that’s great. But we also look at response rate, which can vary a lot from agent to agent. You might have a 100 percent customer service score, but if you only get rated one out of every ten times, you might not be providing the same quality of service as someone who only is rated positive 95 percent of the time, but is rated one out of every four times. And then of course when you look at customer satisfaction, you have to figure out if the poor ratings are because of the customer service, dissatisfaction with the product, or something else. Numerous things are out of the agents’ control and this has to be considered when measuring productivity. 

Q. Can you expand on that a bit? 

A. Sure. If you’re in a traditional call center environment where the clock is ticking and a manager is over your shoulder, that puts pressure on you. When people are under pressure they get stressed and when an agent is stressed, they might deliver a quick answer that isn’t the right answer. People rush through tickets when they’re trying to keep their numbers high and while that might meet some quotas, it can cause the agent to make assumptions, so answers don’t actually solve the customer’s problem. 

Productivity shouldn’t come at the expense of taking the freedom away from agents to take a ticket, read it independently and critically and then come up with the right solution. I think it’s better to use a “measure twice, cut once” mentality–torque, not speed.

Q. Given that, what can you do to boost call center productivity? 

A. When people are working at a job that they’re trying to survive, rather than working at one they love, they’re not likely to stay very long and that’s a huge loss to the organization. When someone jumps ship the minute something better comes along, the company loses their experience and takes a morale hit. Anything you can do to make an agent’s life easier will make your overall customer service experience better. 

In terms of productivity tools, Slack has helped us a lot. It’s easy for our teams that are all over the world to collaborate. At any time, anyone can ask the customer advocate team a question. They don’t need to know who to ask and their question is answered much more quickly that it would be over email. 

We also have a really collaborative atmosphere. We encourage people to help each other. We don’t want an “every man or woman for themselves” mentality when it comes to productivity, because then no one has any incentive to help anyone else. When performance is team based, everyone works to help the team, which again, benefits the customer.  

We also work to provide ongoing training so customer advocates can answer all customer questions. As a company, we try to be flexible with all employees. We understand that people have lives and want to provide flexibility if one of their kids has a dentist appointment, for example. 

We’ve done a few internal SAT surveys. They were completely anonymous surveys that asked employees a series of questions about job satisfaction. It not only gave us a way to measure our culture, the text feedback gave us specific suggestions for improving our work environment. Now we’ve created this feedback loop so we make commitments to improve certain things based on the survey so that when we give it again, we can specifically measure whether we’ve made any improvements. 

Thanks Dave! To hear more from Dave, please click the links below.

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