The potholes of scaling customer support and service – Interview with Michael Redbord of HubSpot

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Today’s interview is with Michael Redbord, General Manager of the Service Hub at HubSpot, a technology company that builds sales and marketing software. Michael joins me today to talk about scaling a customer support/service team, the different stages that leaders need to be aware of, what to focus on at each stage and what to avoid.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – Lidl, disrupting the UK market and striving for simplicity – Interview with Ronny Gottschlich – and is number 264 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, providing valuable insights, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to both their customers and their employees.

Here’s the highlights of my interview with Michael:

  • Michael’s job is focused on building and bringing a new product (Service Hub) to market.
  • The new product is 100 percent focused on the customer experience.
  • Michael has been involved with customer service at HubSpot right from the early days of the firm and he helped build and scale up the customer service/support team.
  • Growth is hard.
  • It’s never accidental.
  • Growth is quite deliberate but also messy.
  • When Michael started at HubSpot, they were under 100 people and they had under a thousand customers. Nowadays, HubSpot has around forty five thousand customers and thousands of people.
  • The path to growth is sometimes hard and sometimes full of potholes along the road.
  • When they were under 2000 customers. It was crazy. The service team was around 20 or 30 people out of a total of 80 or 100.
  • They hit their first major pothole when they rewrote their platform. As a result, customer attrition started to spike.
  • They hit their next one following their IPO when they moved from being more of an app-based company to more of a suite based company.
  • Many potholes can be foreseen and many are self-inflicted.
  • However, not all potholes can be avoided because the very thing that enabled you to be successful at one stage of your growth can actually become your handicap at the next stage.
  • The thing that often gets really fragile around these times are customer relations.
  • To cope with that HubSpot tends to retreat to a really human standpoint, which means being really honest and transparent about what is going on whilst focusing on excellence in the moment.
  • The dream for every company, for every service organization, is to move from a reactive state to a proactive one.
  • The more you can help yourself to be proactive the better.
  • Most small companies offer really excellent service. As they grow this tends to break down because they drift away from their customers.
  • Michael recently wrote an article in Harvard Business Review (Scaling Customer Service as Your Startup Grows, Sept, 2017) about the various stage of growth, service and what companies should be focusing on at each stage. Here’s how he describes them:
    • Founding Stage, where you have a couple of employees or maybe just your founders and there’s maybe one person whose job it is to do service.
    • The thing to focus on is to set up some simple communication channels to make it clear to customers how to get in touch with you.
    • Your customers, at this stage, want to take the ride with you and so you have a different type of relationship with them.
    • If you do manage to grow you’ll get to the stage where you’ve maybe a dozen or even two dozen employees and, at this point, what you really want to do is establish those communication channels a little more formally whilst also establishing a little bit of process around them.
    • However, the thing Michael sees companies at this stage doing is that they want to get really sophisticated really quickly and introduce concepts like automation, analytics or chatbots.
    • Analytics can be really cool but they often do not offer the right level of return for the amount of operational work it can take to get those up and running.
    • At this stage, companies should stay focused externally and on their customers and their experience.
    • Then, as you keep growing and reach 100 or 200 employees, at this stage, culturally inside the business things begin to change.
    • At this stage, companies should solidify their service, grow their knowledge base and probably start to solidify specialization.
    • Here, companies should be wary of efficiency and how efficiency can become their thing and the driver of everything.
    • At this point, most companies are not big enough yet for efficiency to be the growth lever and they should still be focusing on their customer.
    • Only beyond that stage does focusing on efficiency, systems and set-up start to really pay off.
  • When you are growing you need to put process in the back seat and put people in the front seat.
  • When HubSpot hires they look for traits rather than skills ie. support people need to love talking to people, especially in the digital world we live in, and solving problems.
  • HubSpot’s cultural values (HEART: humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable and transparent) really help with that and have been a tremendous boon to their growth. They test for these values in their hiring process.
  • Their contact with customers is split 50/50 between phone and digital channels, which is informed by and carries through from their sales and marketing approach.
  • One the biggest skills for leadership when growing service and support is patience. If leadrship is too focused on cost and the value that service is delivering they themselves will be one of the biggest hurdles that companies have got to get across to be able to enable success.
  • Here’s a couple of stories from Michael that bring HubSpot’s approach to customer service to life:
    • The first story comes from a ‘pothole’ period where everything was going south incredibly quickly following a platform change. Moreover, the room that the service team were working didn’t have operating AC so it was pretty uncomfortable on a day to day basis. In addition, the days weren’t helped by a display TV that showed their performance stats were all red, at the time.
    • Many customers were complaining that they were on hold for too long. Moreover, everyone hated their ‘on-hold’ music. Except one. One customer sent them a message (tweet) that she loved their on-hold music as it reminded her of the music that you hear when you’re getting a massage. Michael thought this was funny so, thinking it had been a rough week and wanting to do something good for someone, he looked her up in their CRM system and sent her a gift certificate for a massage.
    • Michael didn’t hear back from the lady.
    • But, the story doesn’t end there.
    • The following year, Michael told this story on stage in front of thousands of people at their annual conference. And, just as he has finished the story, a voice form the back of the hall yells “That was me!”.
    • This threw Michael. Embarrassed, he asked that they talk afterwards. They subsequently met up, had a great conversation about customer marketing and all sorts of other great things and now keep in touch and catch up on an annual basis.
    • Michael’s second story is about how many of the senior people in HubSpot started in the company working in frontline support and from there have progressed into senior positions around the firm. In one particularly busy period, where they were facing a massive ticket queue, the service team were thinking about their options about how they could reduce their queue. They considered hiring more people, offering overtime etc…all the usual options. Then somebody suggested that they ask their frontline support ‘alumnus’ that were still with the firm if they could help out. With nothing to lose, they sent an email to about 150 people around the firm and about 100 people showed up to help. Micheal said that it was just like calling the fire brigade. When they showed up, Michael booked the big company meeting room and everyone pitched in and got to work on the queue. That approach was so successful that it has now become company protocol and they have repeated the exercise a number of times since then. Not only dies it help then maintain their service standards in times of crisis, it also helps them build great connective tissue between different members of the organization who may not otherwise interact.
  • Michael’s advice to service leaders:
    • First, don’t focus on delight. Yes, you want to make the best you can out of those delightful moments. They make really good stories. But, they are not scalable as they are dependent on flashes of creativity. Focus on scaling that kernel that is at the very, very centre (the core) of what makes you excellent at customer experience.
    • Second, focus on delivering and adding a real human touch to every interaction, adopt a super conversational tone, one that is not jilted and overly formal.
    • Third, people should become students of the way that not just their customers work but consumers at large behave. Become a student of the way that people are changing their behaviour today. There’s a lot of changes going on and if you can observe those, and harness them, they are key to understanding how you can change your service model to actually work better for your customers.
  • Check out HubSpot’s new product line: Service Hub.
  • Also, stay up to date on all the changes at HubSpot and get great service related insights at blog.hubspot.com/service.

About Michael

Michael RedbordMichael Redbord has been working in online marketing since 2005. A graduate of Tufts University and then on the Client Services team at Compete.com, Michael has worked with a variety of different sizes and shapes of companies and helped shape their marketing plans, traffic acquisition methods, and competitive online strategies.

At Compete, Michael’s primary focus was in the online travel industry, working with airlines, hoteliers, cruise lines, and online travel agencies. He spent half of his time building data-mining libraries, and the the other half consulting on the results of that research to the travel industry.

At HubSpot, Michael worked to onboard new customers, then built out the HubSpot Academy to provide scalable education for the whole HubSpot customer base. Following that, for over 5 years, Michael held leadership positions in the Services/Support organization, eventually leading the post-sale group as Vice President of Services & Support with responsbility from customer support and success to operations and renewals. During that time, he scaled the HubSpot Customer Support team from 20 people in a single office with single-language phone support to more than 200 people powering a global, multi-lingual, multi-channel support experience. In doing so, Michael took the support team from a cost center to one of HubSpot’s greatest engines of growth, with a revenue retention rate of over 100%. He’s now taking his learnings from those years of scaling customer teams and sharing them, as Vice President and General Manager of HubSpot’s Customer Hub product.

Michael likes talking about customer success, traveling to places that feel far away, cooking for large groups, and reading philosophy and hard sci-fi. He’s happy to talk about any of these at any time.

Michael is a noted writer, speaker, and former competitive classical pianist — in case you’re looking for a conversation starter.

Check out HubSpot’s new product line: Service Hub. Also, stay up to date on all the changes at HubSpot and get great service related insights at blog.hubspot.com/service. Say Hi to Michael and the folks at HubSpot on Twitter at @redbord and @HubSpot and connect with Michael on LinkedIn here.

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Thanks to Pixabay for the image.

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