Ash Rhodes

Ash Rhodes

This week I’m joined by my very good friend, the awesome Ash Rhodes!

Ash is Director of Customer Experience at vidIQ, theYouTube audience development and management suite that helps brands and agencies grow their views and subscribers. Ash has been with vidIQ about 14months, and in leadership for about 9 years altogether.

Hey, Ash! Thanks so much for spending time with me to tell a little bit of your CS story (and for being a guest on the podcast, too!). 

Normally, I start by exploring how our leaders got into Customer Support first, but I wanted to talk about your leadership background first. When I asked how long you’d been a leader, you said: “That’s actually hard to answer…”. What did you mean by that?

In my career, I’ve been in some form of leadership for about 8 or 9 years. But my first ever leadership job was as an Assistant Manager at a sweet shop at the age of 17. Then I ran security at a variety of pubs in my early 20s. All told, probably 15 years or so!

That’s a fair point. We are quite often leaders in different spheres, even if not by title! Let’s circle back to Customer Support then. What’s your background there? How did you get into it?

I really believe that there are very few roles anywhere that don’t have an aspect of customer support/service to them. At that same sweet shop in high school, I remember helping customers decide what candy was the right one for them! As a door steward (bouncer) in uni/grad school, it was all about making sure patrons felt welcome and safe. 

There are very few roles that don’t have an aspect of customer support/service to them

With that said, as you and I discussed on the podcast (ed. At time of writing, this is yet to be broadcast, but I’ll push the link in here when that happens!), my first “big kid” support role was at, where I was an inbound sales and support representative. It was soon after I had returned from grad school in the UK. I was going to be a teacher but for one reason and another that didn’t happen, so I honestly just needed a job. Turns out that I was pretty good at it and the rest is history!

And I know it wasn’t an easy transition for you! Can you tell a little of that story here?

It was indeed a bit rocky! At GoDaddy, I was very much promoted internally. From one day to the next I went from being a representative on a team to being a lead. That transition lead to every bit of. . . awkwardness . . . that you might imagine! Later I became the lead on GoDaddy’s sole third shift (overnight) team which at the time didn’t have a supervisor, which prepared me to run my own team soon after.

Now you’ve been in this role a while, do you feel you can distil some key skills?

I almost feel like this gives away some trade secrets or something, but I feel like a good CS Leader is an interesting mix of troubleshooter/detective, writer, orator, psychologist, and politician. Ideally, you want to be able to do at least a base level of the work that your reps are doing, so that you understand things from their perspective. So you KNOW if 10 tickets or 100 tickets are reasonable and you’re not just making assumptions based off of possibly-faulty information. 

A good CS Leader is an interesting mix of troubleshooter/detective, writer, orator, psychologist, and politician

But then you also need to be a decent writer and speaker to be able to communicate well with your direct reports and your coworkers and superiors, not to mention your (usually angry) customers who are writing in to speak to nobody but the boss. 

You have to be everyone’s shrink, not just because they’ll (“they” being both customer and employee) come to you with their problems (which they will) but also because you have to see their problems coming in advance and act to avoid them on an institutional level. 

And politician . . . not just because you have to be able to give bad news and have people thank you for it, but also because you have to be able to strategize on a fundamental — even dare I say Machiavellian — level! 😉

If we can just put your slightly less Machiavellian hat on for a moment… how do you measure your team’s success?

Oh gladly. There’s a reason I do CS and am not a politician! 🙂 In an ideal world, I try to couch success as “Are we doing better today than we did yesterday?” 

“Are we doing better today than we did yesterday?”

…”Better at what?” is the question. 

Better at the department’s KPIs for one. You have to make sure that you are handling your queue at a reasonable speed and that your customers — both internal and external — are happy with your service. 

But definitely not just that. You should also be looking at things like “what is your negative employee attrition rate?” It should be low. 

“What is your positive employee attrition rate?” It should exist (ie; you should be promoting people from within), and ideally be high as possible. 

“What are your employee happiness survey ratings?” Just like NPS scores, you cannot always put a ton of store by these surveys since they are easily shifted by any number of forces, but they can at least serve as a baseline. 

But when it all comes down to it, in general, my team is a success when customers rave about the experience and employees aren’t actively looking for new jobs.

So you do need some numbers then. How do you feel about all those metrics?

Well, I admit that I am not terribly fond of metrics in general. They’re a necessary evil, but that doesn’t change their evil nature! 😉 

I admit that I am not terribly fond of metrics in general

But outside of the pedantic rhetoric, the problem with metrics is that you can end up working with stakeholders who don’t necessarily have the contextual experience within CS to understand that everything cannot reasonably be boiled down to a single (or even multiple) sets of numbers. 

How can you quantify the contribution of someone who goes out of their way to take the hardest tickets because they’ve been lingering in the queue and nobody else will do so? Or the person who makes sure that ALL questions get answered in Slack? Or . . . or . . . or. Now if one person keeps doing all of these things, that’s another problem. They’re hired for a job and they need to remember their own scope. 

But I am fond of looking at metrics more as a plumb line; to be able to tell when someone is deviating from the norm in one way or another so that I can talk to them about it. To really speak about their overall contribution, I like to consider a more holistic, 360 approach. All of the things I mentioned and more. How do they contribute to the customer’s well being, the company’s well being, and the team’s wellbeing? All are important and all determine the value of a rep’s contribution.

I like to consider a more holistic, 360 approach

Looking back, is leadership different to how you thought it might be?

To be honest, I’ve been in leadership for long enough at this point that I don’t remember what I thought it would be. However, I am constantly surprised by how utterly BORING it can be. The number of meetings that I find myself attending that have absolutely nothing to do with me or my team and that will almost certainly never impact any of us in any way. But on the off-chance that something comes up in there that IS impactful or that a new project is started that needs my input, I am brought along. 

Don’t get me wrong, I would infinitely rather be bored for half my day and know that I’m not missing anything than have that time to myself and run the risk, but I genuinely had no idea that being in charge would involve listening to other people talk so much!

As a leader, there is a lot of time wherein you serve as a buffer between upper levels of the organization and your team. It has been really difficult for me to learn just how much of a buffer and when it is best to take those proverbial “bullets” for each party. It’s a difficult line to walk and depending on the situation, the answer is frequently different.

How do you stay on top of your ‘game’?

As strange as it sounds, I spend a lot of time thinking. I mark time off in my calendar that is specifically for introspection: About how the team is going and where it needs to go, how my own performance is and what needs to be done to improve it, etc. During these times I also try and spend some time reading from a seemingly never-ending list of books, articles, blogs, etc on a variety of topics. Everything from leadership to project management to HR best practices (I’m also [slowly!] working on my SHRM certification). Throughout my day and week, I also chat with other experts in the CS field. There’s no substitute for experience!

There’s no substitute for experience!

You’re right, there’s no substitute for experience, but do you have any good resources for folks just stepping into this role?

Well, since I haven’t written a book, I can’t suggest that yet! 😛 Really though, I can’t possibly recommend enough that folks join a group where they can speak with others who are in a similar boat. I personally enjoy the Support Driven Slack group, but there are tons out there for a huge variety of employment types, including operations and HR and remote-first employees. Look for what interests you and find other people who share those interests! 😄 

Look for what interests you and find other people who share those interests!

Have you had any particularly great experiences as a customer yourself?

I do, but it’s kind of a weird one. Once upon a time, I was heading to Los Angeles, California to interview to be the Head of Support at a company. It was over a weekend so I had my wife with me, and I had reserved us an Airbnb. Spoiler: I did not choose wisely.

I have no idea what went awry, but somehow we ended up not with a room or a whole space but rather with a “Shared Room”. I had no idea that was even a THING. 

So we end up in this high rise apartment complex, and you can tell that the person knew we would not be OK with this. The apartment had 2 bedrooms which were already rented out, and we were being told that we would be staying in the living room on a single-mattress “bed”. There was a thin, non-opaque curtain for “privacy”, and that was it. It felt like a drug den. 

Needless to say, we noped right on out of there and while we were in the car and while my wife was looking for an actual hotel for us, I was on the Airbnb app trying to get a refund of the not-inconsiderable amount of money that we had dropped. 

It took a while to even find a way to get in touch with them. But once I did, they launched a full investigation . . . and found against us. Seriously, I’m counting this as a good experience AND THEY STILL SAID WE WERE IN THE WRONG. But it’s because the person who we dealt with was amazing. They were empathetic, they gave us a very paltry sum of credit towards a future visit (seriously, something tiny, and not at all a refund), and they took the time to explain what had happened and why. They agreed that this was on the shady side, but still technically within the bounds of their TOS, and that they would be reaching out to get the owner’s listing revised to make it more transparent, but still . . . no. We weren’t getting a refund. 

They took the time to explain what had happened and why

Honestly, it was frustrating and expensive as hell. But they did everything they could possibly do. It was my own mistake. And again, they were simply awesome. What else could you possibly ask for?

Wow. What’s your *worst* story like!?

Oh, man. Americans can testify that walking around almost anywhere they will be accosted by people selling memberships to DirecTV. 
I feel sorry for them. Because those who consider themselves “salespeople”

and try to go in hard on the sale with my wife find themselves hearing AT LENGTH about how awful a company they work for. If they had just left her alone, they would have been fine. 

Several years ago, we had DirecTV. At the time, they had a contract which said that you were locked in with them for XX time as long as you lived somewhere that you could still receive DirecTV service. But if you moved outside of DirecTV service, you, of course, were able to break your contract with no fee (this is required for members of the Armed Forces and people who were forced to move for work). 

Well. My wife and I were moving abroad and so we contacted them to get our service cancelled under that clause. We were moving out of their service area. It was for work (which is true! My work was having me speak at a few venues). 

It should have been an easy process. Except it wasn’t. 

They full-stop refused to cancel the service. 

When I eventually went high enough to have it cancelled, they demanded a FOUR. HUNDRED. DOLLAR. cancellation fee. They explicitly told me that if I didn’t pay it, they would send me to collections (which would tank my credit). The person would not send me higher, would not help, would not waive it despite me quoting their own TOS saying it was not allowed. They simply screwed us over because they could. We now have a saying in our house. No matter how bad the service or situation, it’s “still better than DirecTV!”

It should have been an easy process. Except it wasn’t. 

So, the last couple to close out… You said I should have asked you “How do you relax after one of THOSE days?”…. how do you?

If I have a good fiction book that I’m reading, I settle down and let the prose wash over me. But if not, some good mindless television is excellent. Anything to just NOT think about work. I am a remote worker (and have been for 8ish years) and so on those rougher days, I will go out of my way to tidy up my entire desk and put all of my work accoutrement away, relax all evening, and start the next day with a clean slate.

And the best for last… what’s your favourite sign-off?

I used to sign everything with: 

Best, ~Ash. 

However, my dear friend Charlotte pointed out that this comes across as fairly aggressive in the UK, in the same way that “Regards” can be in the US. 
This has gotten me thinking again about how widely differing idioms can be even between the two supposedly closest countries (a topic which I pondered a lot during grad school). So now it depends on who I’m speaking with. With clearly American audiences I still use “Best” in casual conversations and with the British, I use “Cheers”. For both, I tend to use “Sincerely” to close more formal conversations.

Well, I thank you sincerely, Ash! I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with you today. 

Watch this space for another awesome CS Leader next week!