This week I spent time with the ever-generous Josh Magsam!
Josh is Director of Partner Operations at PartnerHero, an organisation which builds fully-integrated remote support teams for startups and growing businesses. Josh has been with PartnerHero for a year, and in leadership for about six years.
Hey Josh, thanks so much for joining me to share your particularly unique story!
Can we start at the beginning? (It’s a very good place to start, according to Julie Andrews…) <side note – it’s the holiday period, and I may have been watching a lot of musicals on TV>
Ahem. How did you first get into support?
My first role in customer support specifically was as an entry-level support agent at Discogs. A good friend of mine was the CS manager there at the time, and I was looking to transition out of academia back into the private sector. She invited me to apply and about a month later I started as a CS agent – the day after turning in grades on my final day of teaching!
And what about moving into leadership?
I was operations manager for my family’s business for a few years after college, then left to pursue graduate school. I loved academia – particularly teaching! – but it took a major downturn in the recession and if anything, has simply kept going. I decided it was time to pivot back to the private sector in 2013, after about 7 years of teaching.
Truthfully, I expected to start at Discogs and then pursue a management position a year or so down the road, but a few factors came together and I was offered a promotion into management about six months into the job. A short while later, I was added to the leadership team and then promoted to Director about a year after that.
What else can you tell me about that transition? What was your first challenge?
It was very fluid, very organic. The company was small and growing quickly – decisions had to be made, goals had to be set. I just started getting things done. I made sure that if I had to ask a question, I didn’t need to ask it again – I developed a set of acting principles and started making decisions accordingly.
My first big challenge was building a case to expand the support team. We had fewer than five people, but I knew just based on the raw volume that we needed more. How many more people – that was the tough question. There were great people in every department, but still some skepticism about whether CS could actually become a numbers-driven team. And as a trained humanities scholar, I think many people simply expected I wasn’t a “numbers” person! So I had to find the right numbers to make our case to expand, while also showing how serious I was about putting the team on the track to long-term success.
Our home-brew support system didn’t have great reporting built-in, so I was relying on a database query that our CEO had set up several years prior. I spent a week or so pulling data out, then slicing it into ISO weeks, quarters, years – from there I could track week-over-week and year-over-year deltas, showing that support request volume was growing at ~25% year-over-year, when the projections I had inherited showed 10%.
I was able to use that first presentation to leverage an increase in the team’s headcount, as well as access to a few more data points. Eventually, I was able to make the case that purchasing an external helpdesk system would free up our internal engineering resources for customer-focused projects, while giving us access to better data to continue expanding and evolving the support team. That really set the tone for the next ~5 years and my evolution from Manager to Director.
I often try to tell people who are new managers or trying to transition into leadership – it’s about making decisions. Decide on a course of action, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, try something different the next time. Seek out advice, seek out coaching – but don’t look for someone to tell you the right thing to do or to confirm your best guess will be 100% successful, because that’s the opposite of leadership.
Do you think that’s what makes a good CS leader? Being a firm decision maker?
Confidence in decision-making, empathy, and knowing when to delegate are all important. But, yes – I’m going to keep stressing the decision-making aspect of leadership! You have to be confident in your own ability to make primarily good decisions that benefit your team, your company, and your customers – I say “primarily” good because you’ll make mistakes at any level, but over time, you’ll refine your instincts and make better decisions more efficiently.
You do need to empathize with your team, get to know them as individuals and understand what they want to accomplish. I tell my direct reports the same thing I used to tell students – “life happens.” We have this training that tells us “life shouldn’t affect your education/job/etc” – that we should somehow perform at high level even though we have a sick child, our car didn’t start, a recent dental bill came in higher than anticipated, and so on. No – that’s life, and it happens no matter what else is going on. Make sure your team know that you understand this, that you’re there to help them figure things out when a parent’s illness means they need an accommodation for PTO, or some other stress point is temporarily affecting their performance.
Have these conversations frequently – and be transparent about your own challenges! Be respectful about it, don’t feel pressured to overshare – but letting your team know you’re having to adjust your time off to accommodate an operation, etc, reinforces that you’re working through the same struggles they are and will understand when they need help too.
Delegate, delegate, delegate, too. And if there’s still too much work to be done – prioritize. I think a lot of first-time managers believe they need to be able to do ALL the things they used to, PLUS new operational / managerial tasks on top of it all. No. Don’t fall into this trap. A great example came up in my own experience, shortly before I moved to my first Director position. I knew our team was still struggling with a few areas of workflow, so I was pulling tickets on that topic and covering final escalations as well, which amounted to 10-15 hours of my time each week. Meanwhile, I had a larger strategic initiative that was suffering as a result. My manager at the time challenged me to immediately pass that back to my Team Leads, then guide them in helping the team level up to handle that workload. That was absolutely the right move – after a little hesitation, the TLs felt empowered and the team overall were able to handle the more advanced workflow in short order.
As you became a more experienced leader, how did you nurture development in the team?
Fostering development in support teams can be very tricky. Everyone wants to be challenged and to improve, and to grow their careers. But not everyone will be able to transition to a team leader or manager, the numbers just don’t work!
So instead of focusing on a specific position as an end-goal, I like to focus on projects or tasks that need to be tackled. I look for people excited by having a challenge, then let them take a small project and run with it. Once they start digging in, it’s a lot easier to see what motivates them and what kinds of tasks or projects interest them. Some people find that management isn’t what they wanted anyway – they ultimately find a tech-focused position or a sales position to be more to their liking. I’ve had CS team members transition to project management, app development, knowledge management, marketing, and so on. CS is the best place to learn who your customers are, what they want to accomplish, and how the product fits into that equation. People who understand how to do more for the customer while helping the company grow will always find mentors, advocates, and eventually, new teams or positions.
The book “Tribal Leadership,” by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright is the best resource I can recommend. It had a profound effect on my approach to management overall, both in terms of how I coached my team and how I made decisions for my own career. I recommend it, I pass out copies (when I have them) – it’s my go-to and trusted starting point every time I grapple with a team management conundrum.
A lot of new CS leaders also struggle with what to measure, and when. How do you approach metrics?
Metrics tell you a lot about baseline performance, but they’re really most powerful when stacked up and measured over time. An agent’s performance can shift from one week to the next – but when I can step back and look at a full quarter of results, I can better track how they are performing overall.
You need to look across a broad index, and you need to really dig in to any single metric to fully appreciate what it represents. Customer satisfaction is a great example. It’s only a useful indicator of employee performance or customer sentiment IF you look deeper. Verbatim analysis helps you understand if a specific customer category or type of issue drives higher negative CSAT ratings, which highlights where to train your team or possibly even change your product. Meanwhile, comparing CSAT with another indicator, such as first response time, allows you to begin looking for correlations in your data. Does high FRT coincide with negative CSAT? Ok – now compare with average handle time or time-to-resolution to see where you can narrow the field down even further.
If you’re looking at just a single metric, you’re missing too much of the overall picture to make truly impactful decisions.
Do you have any stories of great customer experience?
Yes! I ordered gifts for my wife from Cotopaxi during the holidays a few years ago. Shipping seemed to be taking awhile – turned out they had been trying to reach me but their emails were getting caught in my spam filters. They were out of the main item I ordered and were offering alternatives. So I selected one – and they promptly called me back to say it had sold out while I was deciding, but they had yet another alternative for me. When the package arrived, they had included a number of additional items plus a hand-signed note apologizing for the difficulty, while thanking me for my patience.
What made this memorable for me was that they had reached out to start the conversation and were going full-stop trying to resolve the issue before I even noticed it. And when my delay caused further problems, they continued to offer solid alternatives, all with a friendly and positive attitude. My wife loved her gift and the additional items as well, and we’ve remained loyal customers since.
What’s the worst experience you’ve had as a customer?
A recent experience with Frontier is my new go-to. I’d been experiencing connectivity issues for a couple of weeks, which was particularly frustrating since I work remotely from home. When I finally navigated the labyrinth of Frontier’s support hotline to talk to a rep, he kept me on the phone for over an hour, repeatedly asking me to try simple troubleshooting tactics even when I had already ruled them out.
Eventually, he agreed to put in a request for a work order and “expedite” it to three weeks out. The result of my call was that nearly two hours were wasted and I had to wait the better part of a month for a field tech to arrive, replacing the battery box in the garage. Best part? The Frontier field office is less than a quarter-mile away and technicians have often been able to visit within 1-2 business days in the past.
None of this was really the agent’s fault – they were running through scripts and checkboxes as fast as they could. Instead, it was the perfect example of a support process that was designed to limit the company’s costs instead of actually resolving an issue.
And I can’t let you go without asking – how do you sign off?
Thanks for your time, Josh! Always a pleasure chatting to you. I think you’re right there, that having confidence in a decision to try and see if through is critical in any form of leadership (not just CS!).
Watch this space for another interview with an awesome Customer Support Leader soon!