Thanks for Calling Technical Support. How Might I Help You Understand How Stupid You Are?
Some time before I joined the company, I remember watching Bill Butler take a phone call from a customer. With headphones on, he listened. He listened a little longer. He remained calm. He listened some more. At one point, he interjected, “Do me favor, will you? Stop talking. Just... stop talking. Stop it. You need to be quiet for a moment. Stop talking. Stop talking.” Clearly, the customer on the line did not stop.
“This is not a good role for Bill,” I thought to myself. “He could upset the customer or perhaps make them feel like an imbecile.” I, myself, had wondered if I was in fact going to receive this treatment. The extent of my computer usage was pretty limited and, even then, most of my experience was on Windows. I usually saved files with 6 characters, something Bob explained to me was no longer necessary. Using a Mac required me to un-think my Windows ways. Bill would say, “See, this is so easy. You just drag this here, click here and throw the installer in the trash. Put this in your applications folder and just create a folder for these files. Why did you install ‘Kill Bob?’ You didn’t? Someone must have been playing a game on this computer after you went home.” Truthfully, I thought “Kill Bob” had something to do with our Bob (Collie) and I thought, “”How harsh!”
Finally, one day, when I asked Bill for help on something very simple, he said, “You’re just a victim, aren’t you?”
“As much as you’re a victim of accounting, you smartass! Now help me with this file!” I replied.
Technical support at Telalink quickly went from Bill’s hands to an employee who stayed with us very briefly. He started just before me and left within 5 months. Our approach to technical support, while unintentional, was more like an exercise of letting the customer know how stupid they were.
This is when something truly wonderful happened. I don’t know if it was luck or brilliance but along came Scott Sears: Vanderbilt class of ’92; computer science major; Bill’s fraternity brother; Rio Bravo bartender; member of the band, Room 101; Mac enthusiast.
Since Telalink was practically across the street from Rio Bravo and Scott was always visiting to do something with his Mac or the Room 101 webpage, I saw him frequently. Our need for someone to not only take over technical support duties but to craft a technical support strategy, a customer care philosophy, was starting to grow. Getting connected to the Internet in those days was not easy and the development of customer service with start-up providers was always lacking. This was true for Telalink, until Scott came.
It took a little convincing to employ Scott. He was happy doing what he was doing and was under no pressure to join our fledgling start-up but we all thought Scott was the right fit for the company. I can’t remember what the starting salary was but it couldn’t have been more than $20,000/year. With offer on the table, Scott found me one day and said, “Can we talk? Just the two of us?”
The bottom line for Scott, after talking to his dad, was that he needed some assurances about a few things. First, he needed to know that Tim and Bill, whom he had only known as classmate and frat brother and not colleagues, were going to be serious enough about doing what we needed to do to make the company succeed. He had some suspicions. Second, he wanted to know that he would have a chance at an ownership position. My reply (paraphrased):
Scott, I know exactly how you feel. Tim and Bill are best friends. They don’t really understand everything I’m doing and I really don’t think I even understand our business yet. But I can tell you this- we’ve had to scrape by with some tough cashflow issues these past few months and my greatest fear was that Bill and Tim would come to me and say, "We need this piece of equipment and it costs $30,000,” to which I would reply, "We don’t have the money so we can’t afford it." I feared that they would then say, "All in favor. Motion passes two to one. Now, Thomas, go and buy the equipment!" Not only has this not happened but they have completely trusted my judgment on every matter and supported me 100%. It’s not always been the best news around here. We’ve had some real challenges but I feel like we are a true team and we’re facing the challenges with trust, respect and mutual support. We really need you to make the team better. Even if our plan isn’t perfect, our team will be much better with you. I once learned that it is better to have an A team and a B plan and than a B Team with an A plan. I really hope you will do this. Who knows? We may be on to something really good. If you are as good as I think you are, you will be an owner.
Scott accepted. I think the "A Team with a B Plan" resonated with him. He transformed crappy technical support into a beautiful customer care model. When everyone else was hiring “certified technical support specialists,” we went for the bartender, the guy who could listen to your troubles and help you take the pain away. For Scott, it was about empathy. He once said in a shareholders’ meeting, “We will go to no end to take care of our customer. If we have to get in the car and drive to the customer’s office or house after hours, we will do it.” He meant it. He and the people he hired (a few of whom were musicians) became the gold standard for customer support. Scott watched over the support team and personally appointed that group as the customer’s ambassadors to the rest of the company. I had his back. If Scott ever said to me, “Thomas, this customer had a bad experience with us and they should not pay. Will you refund their money?” I always did. This kind of service resulted in extreme customer loyalty. As it turned out, we were going to need that loyalty. I’ll write about that another day.
Since we sold Telalink (and yes, he was a shareholder), Scott eventually became the Director of Operations for Emma where many former Telalinkers work to this day. Also, he and fellow Room 101 band member Scott Atkinson are the proprietors of Flyte World Dining and Wine where customer care and the very best service are alive and well. Nicely done, Mr. Sears!
AUTHOR: Thomas Conner
Thomas Conner is the co-founder, president and chief financial officer of Sitemason, a hosted, supported alternative to Wordpress and Drupal, built for agencies, freelance designers and developers.