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What I Didn't Know When I Worked at Trello | Customers, Etc

What I Didn't Know When I Worked at Trello | Customers, Etc
By Ben McCormack • Issue #45 • View online
Trello recently celebrated 10 years and announced a massive upgrade for the product. To mark the occasion, I’m taking a trip down memory lane to look at some of the things I didn’t know when I worked there.

The basic format of this newsletter is that I take a topic that I find interesting and I write about it. It’s usually about customers, or the work involved in serving customers, and sometimes about something else. So far this approach has produced 45 issues. Hopefully you find the the content interesting too, maybe even useful.
Sometimes I think about what I’ve written over the past year and I contrast that to where I was when I began my first support management job at Trello seven years ago. Most of what I’ve written recently would have been completely foreign to me then. It’s kind of crazy, right? I don’t have a pithy statement to share with you other than “learning is awesome” and I hope I never stop.
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
How I approached customer support at Trello
My experience leading the support team at Trello was shaped by two things: 1) having been a support engineer at Fog Creek Software (Trello spun out of Fog Creek) and 2) my perceptions on what I perceived good support to be, based on my personal interactions with other business to business (B2B) companies.
Fog Creek taught me the value of hiring great people and then giving them the space to do interesting (and hopefully useful) things both in and out of the support queue. I’ve written about the theme of doing work outside the queue a good bit. This post on the FullStory blog even includes a talk that my manager at Fog Creek had given on the topic.
Most of my time at Trello was spent thinking about how to build out a great team (I focused on hiring Support Specialists) and then scaling that team to tackle adaptive problems as the business grew. By the time I left, I was thinking about how to hire internationally, so I focused a good bit of energy on modeling out what the team structure would look like and what our hiring needs would be. This all sounds simple when shoved into a short paragraph, but you can spend a lot of energy trying to get this stuff right (and it’s worth it, because the people on your team stand to benefit—or suffer—as a result of your work).
Although I’m not sure I was aware of it at the time, I viewed support as a function of product, not a function of post-sales customer success or customer experience. This matched the type of company, culture, and product that Trello was, but what surprises me in hindsight is that I had very little frame of reference to think about other ways that support might fit in. There was a whole world of customer experience that wasn’t even on my radar.
What I didn't know that I didn't know
When one of my original support team members accepted an opportunity to join the sales team as a TAM, I had to look up what a TAM was (a “technical account manager”, I learned). I had zero frame of reference for why the business might need a TAM in addition to our support team. This was partly due to hubris (“why can’t they just email our support team? We’re so responsive!”) and partly due to ignorance—I didn’t understand at the time how other post-sales roles helped to fill out needs in the customer journey.
While I had a good grasp of user experience, I’m fairly certain I had very little understanding of users vs customers. Sure, we gave priority support to paying customers, but I’m certain I didn’t give a lot of energy to thinking about the “buyer” and how that might be different from the people who use the product everyday. At some point, Trello started acquiring larger customers that had hundreds of users who were completely independent of the buying process, which is why roles such as TAM were so crucial for onboarding and setting up the customer for success.
Ignorance of the customer journey foreshadowed my ignorance of other post-sales functions, such as customer success (both scaled and account-based), renewals, and onboarding. I was also not focused on retention metrics that are common to many post-sales organizations within companies. This isn’t to say I would have been happy with customers churning! It’s just that I was mainly focused on customer happiness in terms of users’ success with the product, and primarily in my locus of control, which was support.
I could go on. Shoot, even the term “customer experience” didn’t map to any known place in my brain, so a concept like “Is your CX Strategic?” wouldn’t have landed.
Always learning
You might look at the litany of things that I admit to not knowing and think “wow, how was Trello support able to limp along?”, but that’s not telling the full story. Thankfully, at least in this case, we’re not defined by what we don’t know, but rather what we do with what we know. I’d argue Trello support was actually quite healthy within the world in which we operated. The team was small and effective, with high customer satisfaction and low contact rate.
I guess the reason I’m sharing this is because I wish someone had sat me down and talked to me about how my work fit into a larger world, how it’s actually super common to not know exactly where support should live; or the value of customer onboarding; or CX basics like making a simple customer journey map. These topics weren’t obvious to me when I was starting out in management, and they may not be obvious to others, either.
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Ben McCormack

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