Inside Help Scout: How We Implement Whole Company Support

Help Scout is a customer-centric company. Of course, most companies would claim to be customer-centric, a least in a vague-marketing-term way that doesn’t require any real action or accountability. For us, though, being customer-centric really is core to the way that our business operates.

Our CEO, Nick Francis, has written about how being customer-centric means customer service drives business growth. A key requirement in making Support-Driven Growth really work is that the rest of our business remains truly customer centered, structured in a way that allows our Customers team to drive that value.

Keeping all parts of our business as close to our customers as possible is what Whole Company Support (WCS) is all about. Typically this means everyone, from the CEO to the newest member of the finance team, spends some time in the queue answering customer emails. We see 4 key benefits from that regular support time:

1. It keeps the customer at the center of everything we do.

WCS keeps team members from getting so wrapped up in their individual roles that they forget there are real people on the other end of our business. It contextualizes their work in the lives of our customers.

2. It deepens our team’s understanding of our products.

Being able to support our customers using the same products we sell to our customers is a true benefit. No matter how long you’ve been with Help Scout, the best way to get a better handle on our products is to use them and to help our customers use them, too!

3. It helps us build a better product.

It’s difficult to be in tune with customers’ needs if you never talk to them. WCS means there’s never more than one degree of separation between the people building and designing the product and the customers buying and using them. We can see our product through their eyes.

4. It strengthens our team

When our team is building products for people they have personally talked with, the impact of their work is more rewarding. When everyone feels the customers’ pain, each person can empathize and collaborate on ideas to make things better, and that strengthens the team.

Making Whole Company Support work

There is no single “best” way to implement a Whole Company Support program, and it will look a little different at every company, depending on your company structure, size and culture.

Help Scout is nine times bigger than it was five years ago, so we’ve had to tweak our WCS process over time, learning what does and doesn’t work for us and adapting our approach.

Phase 1: All Hands on Deck

In Help Scout’s early days, everyone in the company, including our three founders, pitched in with customer support out of necessity. Support was truly all hands on deck, and everyone was learning as they went. It was expected that everyone would jump into the queue as needed.

Phase 2: Growing Pains

As Help Scout began to rapidly grow, other priorities started to take precedence. Every new hire would spend a full week in support training, answering questions in the queue to learn the product, just like they would if they were on the Support team. After that week of training, we needed them to hit the ground running in the role they were hired for.

As Help Scout continued to double in size, it no longer felt like there was time for a full week of support training for new hires. We created a new training system that had new hires spend two to three hours on Monday-Wednesday following tasks on a Trello board that guided them through experimenting with our product. Then they spent three hours on Thursday and Friday answering customer questions in the queue, based on hints and feedback from our support team.

Phase 3: Renewing Whole Company Support

Some time into the Trello board system, Abigail Phillips of the Support team began championing for a new spin on those early days of all hands on deck support. We had high-level agreement from everyone that WCS was worthwhile, but practically speaking, it was difficult for people to pull away from the role they were hired for to step into the queue, and participation for these recurring WCS shifts was inconsistent.

The support team took a company-wide retreat as an opportunity to refocus everyone in the company on WCS. We reviewed why it’s so valuable to every person, no matter our job title, and challenged everyone to move forward with a new commitment to WCS.

Our new system worked as follows:

  • Everyone in the company, no matter the team, was encouraged to schedule two hours every week in the queue.
  • During their shift, they could pick out any conversations they’d like to work on, draft a reply, and run it by the Customers team in a designated Slack channel if they wanted feedback before hitting send.
  • We worked with each team lead to customize WCS in a way that would make sense for their team. For example, engineers would reply directly to customers when they were looped in to assist with more technical conversations.

We also realized that many people felt intimidated by the support queue, so we developed a progressive system to ease people into WCS. Everyone starts in what we call Group A, with the goal of eventually moving into Group B. A handful of experienced overachievers are in Group C, but that’s never expected.

Here’s what those groups look like:

Group A Group B Group C
You’re working on building confidence in your product knowledge and ability to communicate effectively with customers. You’re increasingly comfortable in your product knowledge and ability to communicate effectively with customers. You’re very confident in your product knowledge and ability to communicate effectively with customers.
The Support team looks through the queue to pick out questions for you to answer and leaves hints in notes to get you started. You’re comfortable looking through the queue to pick out questions to answer. You’re comfortable looking through the queue to pick out questions to answer.
You’ll run most, if not all, of your drafts by the Support team in Slack before replying to customers. Sometimes you’ll run product questions by the Support team in Slack, ask them to double-check your writing, or ask where to get started on a conversation you're curious about. You’ll occasionally run product questions by the Support team in Slack, but you feel independent in the queue most of the time.
You might be interested in taking on a unique customer-centric project based on your unique skill set. You might be interested in taking on a unique customer-centric project based on your unique skill set.
You might do some live chat support.

Having this progressive system empowers the support team to know how each participant can best be supported. Some people want more help and guidance than others. Clearer communication around this allows us to all be on the same page, which prevents participants from feeling overwhelmed.

Adding flexibility to WCS

We’ve made taking part in WCS more accessible by adding additional options for the team to choose from. For example, every couple of weeks I offer WCS Office Hours, an open video call where anyone can join me to work through customer conversations in real time in lieu of their next WCS shift. This is great for learners who want a bit more hands-on support and thrive on discussion and collaboration.

Everyone has autonomy to choose a method that suits their skills and situation. Some people do two hours a week, some do one full day per month, and others do a few hours every few weeks. We keep a shared WCS shift calendar, but everyone has access to edit their shift as their schedule and other projects demand. Over the last year, we’ve worked to bring all of our engineering teams, as well as our VP of engineering, into scheduled WCS shifts, too.

Continuing to grow and adapt

Help Scout isn’t going to stop growing any time soon, so we’ll need to continue adapting WCS to fit our team’s changing needs. It’s hard to say exactly how it will look a year from now, but here are two areas I’m focused on:

1. There are only so many customer questions to go around each day.

As the team grows, we’ll have to find a way for everyone to have enough meaningful customer interactions that their WCS shift is valuable. That could mean less-frequent shifts or shorter shifts so there aren’t too many people overlapping in the queue at any given time.

2. We may need to get more creative about how WCS support looks.

We can engage with customer feedback in countless ways besides replying to support emails. For example, Eli Overbey on our Marketing team has spent some of his WCS shifts doing proactive outreach to engage with existing customers. A couple of our engineers have thought about doing mini-bug fixes or product improvements that customers are passionate about on the fly. We’d love to see more people tapping into their unique skill set for WCS like this!

We will continue to observe and adapt to reach that goal as Help Scout grows and changes. If you’re interested in trying (or perhaps re-trying) Whole Company Support for your company, here are our top tips.

Help Scout’s top tips for rolling out Whole Company Support

  • Set some specific goals.
    Make sure you understand why WCS matters to you, and then set goals based on those factors. Don’t use someone else’s goals!
  • Get buy-in from the top.
    It’s much easier to make time for your WCS shift when you see your coach doing the same thing! This helps reinforce the principle that WCS is enhancing everyone’s job, not taking time away from it.
  • Be flexible.
    WCS doesn’t have to look the same for every person. Look for different ways to get people involved, and give people autonomy over their style and time of contribution.
  • Have an owner (or two).
    Ownership helps people be accountable for making WCS happen, and it gives them authority to work with all the different teams to secure and support their involvement.
  • Always be selling.
    Keep WCS visible across the company by using a little creativity and taking opportunities to share your wins. We love to share screenshots or fun videos in Slack of valuable customer interactions to keep the momentum going and the morale high. Slackbots also remind people publicly when their shift starts.
  • Iterate.
    What works now won’t always work, so don’t be afraid to change the system. Every few weeks or months, we reach out to some WCS participants to ask for feedback and see how they’re feeling. WCS continues to evolve based on what we hear.
  • Document.
    We’re always building our internal knowledge base so people can find answers to customer questions on their own and share troubleshooting tips in Slack.

Remember, success in Whole Company Support isn’t about having a particular system in place or hitting particular metrics. Success is about every staff member being able to use their skill set to connect with, assist, and understand your customers.

Kristi Thompson

Kristi Thompson

Kristi is on the customers team at Help Scout and enjoys shaping company culture through projects such as Whole Company Support. She loves to dogsit, travel, and visit coffee shops while working remotely.