“Hire writers” – An interview with Kristin Aardsma – Head of customer Support at Basecamp

kristin aardsma

I vividly remember this day in 2006 when my friend (and colleague back then) Fred Brunel [FR] came to me and said : Cecil read this : it will change the way you see the job and the business.

The e-book (it was available online) was Getting Real – the smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, respectively CEO and CTO of an obscure company named 37Signals. The company was delivering services and tools online. Services with strong opinions, singing the praise of less (work, features, words, hours) a minimalist approach with slick and seamless user experience. The company later decided to concentrate on their best product, Basecamp, rebranding the company after the product.

And, man, what an impact this book had on me! It completely changed the way I looked at work – forever. One of the chapter is named Stay Lean. As a prescient echo of what my career would turn out to be 5 years later. This blog has relentlessly been writing about 37Signals, Jason Fried or DHH as both leaders proved to be major inspiration for me.

Needless to say I was super excited to have the opportunity to meet Kristin Aardsma, Basecamp Head of Customer Support, at the Lean Digital Summit 2018 that happened on 18th and 19th October 2018 in Lisbonne. As you would expect from the person in charge of customer support at Basecamp, Kristin made a stunning talk with many strong and counter-intuitive statements. Kristin agreed to spend some time for an interview with Catherine Chabiron from Institut Lean France and myself. We are so grateful …

Hire Writers

Hi Kristin, thanks you so much for this inspiring talk and allowing us some time. Could you please tell us what is your background prior to joining Basecamp ?

I am trained writer with two degrees in poetry. I spent my twenties reading literature and teaching poetry, literature and creative writing. I also worked at theater, writing articles for high school students to help contextualize the plays. I had a friend who saw the job ad and thought this was a good match for me. I was looking for something stable. I met Jason and I started the following week.

What was the most surprising thing you saw while joining the company ?

The amount of trust we are given [refer to Jason post on the topic]. I was apprehensive to join office culture as I was some sort of bohemian as an artist and teacher. I quickly realised that this was not my dad’s experience, that I was able to make things better without bureaucracy.

You said during your talk that the most important skills you are looking for while hiring for support is writing. There is this quite unambiguous slide you showed : Hire writers. How do you explain that this oh so important skill is neglected in most digital companies ?

I think people in general and executives and managers in particular are obsessed with coders. They surely are needed in nearly every company, but those coders need to also be effective communicators. At Basecamp, we focus on the way we communicate with each other. We’re a remote company, so we communicate internally in writing, often in longform, with people all around the world. If someone struggles with their written word, then they’ll struggle to communicate with their team. So, when we talk about customer support in particular, we need to hire folks who love to write all day, since their goal is to communicate with customers all day. We know our customers, and so we also know that they are each individual humans who deserve individual respect and attention. And this is what support is all about : writing with empathy.

In your talk, you stated that the “bar is so low in support and treating people with humanity is enough.” Could you please elaborate ?

When I read what customers say about us, the fact that they are surprised we are not robots is kind of terrible. They approach us as if we are not human. They ask us to prove we are humans. This is scary! We shouldn’t have to convince people that we’re sentient! It often feels like our humanity has been removed.

You talked about understanding customer problem and process as one of your main objectives while talking with them. It seems so obvious when you say it. Yet, how would you explain it’s not the case in support teams in every company ?

When I started at Basecamp I was nervous that I wouldn’t seem like enough of a product expert to our customers. But customers didn’t really notice that, because they are simply looking for people with empathy. It took me a while to understand customers are also learning about themselves when they speak out loud about their processes and goals. It’s a feeling like no other to help people realize what their needs are and how to achieve their goals. That’s what we’re really doing!

What is the magical trick that let you take care of more than 2.8 million users throughout the world with a support team of 15 people, all the while treating everybody with humanity ?

First, as Nigel Thurlow from Toyota Connected recommended : don’t have a buggy app. Make it easy for people to understand. If you’re flooded with customer interactions, fix the issues. It’s not luck that we don’t get 5000 messages a day — it’s because our product is straightforward and easy to use. The magic trick also is understanding your capacity, how many emails you get.  Listen to your support team and find out how to make it easier for customers and for the team. If your customers don’t understand something or are not able to figure something out, then it’s because you’re hiding the information, not because they are idiots. You need to design the application so that they don’t have to send a query.

Catherine : One thing that intrigues me is the information on “We are each able to use our own voice and make our own decisions”. Can you tell us more on the kind of decisions the support members can make by themselves ?

Customers come to us with all sorts of problems, and it’s up to the team to solve them creatively. There isn’t one way to use Basecamp, so we don’t tell users one way to solve their problem. Our reps will problem-solve for our customers on an individual level.

Our reps are also allowed to give as much of a refund as feels right. We can also extend free trials, credit accounts, send gifts, and thank-you cards, set up calls to learn more. There isn’t an end to how we can individualize the help for our users.

You insisted on the need to train support people. I imagine they all somehow are in this company delivering dreadful service. So how would you explain they still are demotivated in many companies ?

I think it’s a trust and autonomy issue. Besides, they are not hiring people who love to write. You have to hire better and look in areas you’ve never looked before. Writers, waiters, people who love to help people. Additionally, it’s essential to maintain the training documentation. Documentation becomes stale and old, not maintained. We have specific modules and when we hire people, we are the experts training them. They go through modules (blog posts, videos, reading customer successful and challenging customer conversations, writing actual support emails …). We take breaks and discuss with them on what all of us have learned and update the documentation on the spot to make sure it’s all accurate and it reflects the latest evolutions.

What is the one advice you would give to a support manager to make her work and her team’s work more meaningful ?

She could meet with her team and ask for direct and honest feedback on how they all can improve. She should lead by following, so that the team can let her know what they need in order to improve the work. Then, the manager can create systems and culture that will give the team what they need to succeed and feel pride in their work.

Thank you so much Kristin !

Below the slides of her excellent talk at Lean Digital Summit 2018.

Support in action

During her talk Kristin suggested we reach out with Basecamp support, which Catherine did. Here is the mail exchange we get :

Catherine : I am in the Lean Digital Summit in Lisbon and Kristin Aardsma suggested we test your reactivity. What would you say makes a real difference between Basecamp support versus any other support team ?

Hi there, Catherine!

Thanks for getting in touch and I hope you’re having a great time in Lisbon.

One of the main things that I feel makes a real difference here at Basecamp is that we are able to be ourselves. We’re not a default corporate voice, held back by excessive rules and restrictions. We are each able to use our own voice and make our own decisions. That allows us to provide much better support with a quicker turnaround. We are treated like real people and given the support that we need in order to support others.

And we also get to spend the day with our pets, which is a bonus! Luna says hi!

Enjoy the rest of your Friday!

Chris Joyce – Basecamp and Highrise Customer Support – Manchester, UK

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