This week I spent some quality time with Kristina King!
Kristina is Senior Manager of Customer Care at Jama Software, a platform for requirements, risk and test management. She’s been there for six years, and in leadership for a little over two of those.
Hey Kristina! Thankyou so much for joining me to talk about your life in CS. Can you tell me how you got into Support?
I started out in Support in 2013 as Jama Software’s first tier one support engineer. It was an amazing opportunity because I really got to define the role and build out the training plan for the next hire.
This was five years after I earned my Master’s in Education and taught English, so it was a huge change, career-wise. I had taken a one-year detour in between to work in financial services, which I hated. But so much of teaching is translatable into other roles: the communication, the public speaking, the impromptu lessons…
I like to say I lucked into a career in Support, really. I worked in retail during high school, then in a credit union call center in college, so customer service has always been the go-to job for me. I absolutely loved teaching but graduated at a time with little opportunity available, so I when I pivoted careers I knew I still wanted to do something with learning.
I originally applied for a Training position at Jama Software. The recruiter told me they were looking someone with more experience teaching adults, but she thought I could fit in as a support engineer. She was definitely right!
I still feel so lucky that a creative recruiter pointed me in a direction I never would have considered. CS wasn’t really on my radar.
That was a great recruiter, absolutely! So, once you knew Support was the place for you, how did you ultimately move into leadership?
After working as a support engineer for about a year and a half, I was promoted to Community Manager (talk about opportunity!). I built and launched our support community and was successful with that, but at the same time realized that working as an individual contributor wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term.
My manager at the time suggested I would like people management. We talked a lot about it, and when she was promoted to Director I was promoted to work with her as a supervisor.
There were moments I found difficult. The hardest part for me was managing people that I didn’t hire and I didn’t work with previously, so I didn’t know what to expect. When I first started managing, a couple of my reports had just been hired (while I was on vacation), so it was a bit jarring. Initially I did not have to manage my peers, so I missed out on that sort of awkward transition.
And now, two years down the line, do you think CS leadership is different to what you expected?
Yes. You’re not just serving your team, but you’re serving a customer base. Each one of those by itself requires a massive amount of empathy. Every decision has at least two beneficiaries, so you have to be a bit more careful when making considerations. I’d say it’s more emotionally challenging than I expected, but because of that, it’s also more fulfilling.
Honestly, though, the move to leadership has been incredibly positive. I would say the perception some have of management is…interesting. For example, my partner is an individual contributor somewhere and doesn’t understand why I give so much (energy, emotions, time). But to me, I have to give in order to receive. And right now the team is performing well, they have a good reputation in the org, and our CSAT is solid. I’m receiving all the things a leader needs.
What do you think a great CS leader needs to be able to do?
It’s a constant cycle of empathizing with any situation (no matter how ridiculous it may seem, it might make or break another person’s day/week/month); communicating clearly, knowing multiple languages & timezones need translation; creative thinking because Support is never over-staffed; staying abreast of current tech topics so you can have accurate conversations and make the right decisions; owning decisions and mistakes, and so much more besides.
How do you measure the success of your team?
We use some typical KPIs (CSAT, SLA adherence, etc.). Metrics are important because we have made promises to customers and metrics prove those out, but on the other hand, metrics are not the only measure of success.
For me, it’s the softer stuff that counts, too: did we smile and laugh during stand-up? Do people actively want to work together? Do we compliment each other? Do we feel comfortable enough to criticize? Do other teams think we’re performing well?
What’s been your toughest lesson?
OH WOW. What a question. I honestly don’t know where to begin. I would say, the hardest thing to learn is to just *say it* and be candid. If something (or someone) isn’t working out, ignoring it won’t resolve the problem. Letting it fester is not a solution. Everyone is better off if we give honest feedback or have tough conversations. (I wish I had read Radical Candor before managing people!)
I’ve also learned to just say what I want, rather than hoping someone will pick up my hints. They won’t.
Do you think CS leadership is a misunderstood discipline?
Yes, people sometimes think that the work is entirely transactional—it’s not always (we have a very technical app). I’ve had people suggest strategies that are very call-centerlike, but as a team of 15, we don’t need that kind of structure. I’ve worked at more than one call center and while I learned a lot and had some great co-workers, it killed my spirit. I don’t want CS to be that.
What’re you’re favourite books or other resources?
In terms of books, I really enjoyed Radical Candor, and I feel it can benefit all sorts of relationships, not just working ones. My favorite leadership blog to read is Ask A Manager; it’s obviously very funny, but it also makes me consider what I would do in certain batshit situations, and thought exercises are good!
What are your customer highlights and lowlights?
There are so many great experiences! About six months after launching the community, we had steady engagement from several people I called “The Jedi Council.” I ended up flying from Portland to SF for a conference and met up with one of the Jedi Council members. It’s been a couple years since he moved roles and stopped participating in the community, but people in the office still know his handle.
There have been no real lows, really. Things have always worked out in the end, or so it seems—I haven’t been directly tied to a particular churn even, so ask me again in a year!
You also said I should ask you this… so, what are you doing with your career to make the world a better place?
I’m trying to leverage my career to bring people into tech that are underrepresented. This obviously includes women and nonbinary folks (shout-out to PDX Women in Tech!), as well as people who have served in the military and those who don’t have college educations or experience but have the skills to make it in CS, such as empathy and technical curiosity.
We’ve been successful in building a customer care team with a myriad of origin stories (life experiences, work histories, socioeconomic backgrounds, educations…). It enables us to not only be more creative but also to more effectively help our customers. A big part of this is an internship program we created.
Anything we can do to spread jobs with good pay and benefits around to those less likely to have access to them is important.
And my signature question…how do you sign off emails?
Thanks (I prefer to keep it simple)
And thanks to you, Kristina! Simple is often the best! And that constant balance of serving both the team and the customer base is one I’m sure many other leaders out there will recognise.
Look out for another CS Leaders interview next week!