This week, I talked to the brilliant Max Bauer!
Max is Head of Customer Service at Space Ape Games, the London-based games studio, creating games currently serving 55 million players and counting! Max has been with them for 2 years, and in leadership about 11 altogether.
Hello Max! Thanks so much for sharing your professional story with us! How did you get into Customer Support in the first place?
Out of pure coincidence, really. I studied genetics (and hold a degree in it) but realised that research is not what I want to do in my life, so I looked at my hobbies and passions. Video games is one of them and I was lucky enough to get into one of my favourite companies, Blizzard Entertainment, in a support role. That’s 12 years ago now. Since, I changed positions and companies, but not the discipline nor industry.
How did you make the move into leadership?
My transition from frontline to leadership was internal. At the time we took on a couple hundred temporary staff and I (among many others) was offered a temporary supervisor position. At the time I didn’t know why I was picked, but after a few months in the role, I realized that I had a natural hang for leading and managing people, just lacking training and experience at the time. Great experience and I am very thankful for my bosses back then who saw this in me early on and gave me the chance to develop!
At the very beginning I found it difficult to let go of my previous tasks. They were structured, simple schedule to follow, and I was good at it! Now suddenly the schedule was gone, the structure was gone, and I had to do things I wasn’t already good at, I was a noob. So I clung to my old tasks for a little too long I think. But the hardest part really was moving from being colleague to being the boss – not many colleagues accept that easily, but even more difficult was the attitude change I had to go through in myself and the resulting, inevitable, slow loss of connection to my team. Once you move from a teammate into a superior position, you’re “out”. Friendships change, you’ll never be “one of them” anymore. They will share less and treat you differently, no matter how hard you try to still be best buddies. In retrospect, I’d even advise anyone going through that transition to not even try. At some point you’ll have to drop the performance hammer, being best buddies will make it just more difficult.
I will say now that I thought leadership would be a lot less work! 😄 Being frontline most of what you see from leadership is your own 1:1s, team meetings, perhaps some stuff on the floor. I would have never imagined how much is going on in the background and how much extra work just a single high-maintenance employee means or how difficult it is to give a high performer the proper attention and development opportunities.
Performance management is always difficult, but it sure doubles down when it’s a friend! Managing that well is important in leadership. What other skills do you think make a good leader, particularly in CS?
Yes. Firing people and coming to terms with yourself that you made the right decision; that’s super hard.
As for CS Leadership skills… I’ll try to stay away from buzzwords as much as I can because who needs those… but this makes it hard for me. My answer is empathy 😄
Leading people means understanding them, their motivation, their aspirations, their problems, to fetch them where they are and help them become better. That’s pure empathy.
You also need a ton of other skills. Maths for KPIs and reports. Discipline to organize a team and their schedules. Flexibility, skills in language and rhetoric and so on – but most of those can be taught and trained. Empathy cannot.
I find it extremely easy to spot a manager who is truly, naturally empathetic and humble versus one who over his or her career simply adopted and trained certain phrases and strategies that appear to be empathetic. And trust me, so can your employees. They might not have the experience and vocab to put it in words, but they know it, feel it, and will express it in their happiness, enthusiasm, and subsequently their performance.
When promoting people into leadership positions, I always prefer someone who can display true empathy over someone who has great operational skills.
How do you measure your team’s success, operationally or otherwise?
When they get their shit done without me having to babysit them.
And if they get shit done by themselves that I haven’t even thought about, I’m happy as a clam 😄
Metrics, though, are a necessary evil. Metrics and reports can be great but they are often not used for the right reasons without looking at side effects. There’s this saying “You get what you measure”. Super true and I’ve seen this done wrong by plenty of CS managers in tons of different ways.
You ask for 20 tickets per hour? You’ll get 20 tickets per hour! Quality might suck and half of them ignore your policies, but hey, the queue is going down!
Or: your CSAT goal is 90% and the product team just shipped something super buggy? Guess what your agents will think if they all drop below the goal and are being punished for it. Spoiler: they’ll not look at themselves and how to improve their interactions.
Or: you give a bonus to the highest performers? Cool, your team is now not talking and helping each other anymore because everyone’s an enemy. Great for team culture!
The point is, metrics can be great, measure anything and everything you want. But think very carefully about what actions you derive from those numbers and what you use them for.
How do you nurture their success, then? How do you help them grow?
I’m gonna refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for this one. Staff growth, development, plenty of buzz words being thrown around there and often companies grasp for these because it’s proven that developing your people increases performance, your talent pool and retention. True, but if the basics aren’t provided then this won’t work.
Development is at the top, part of Self-Actualization. If any of the previous areas is not covered for your employees, forget meaningful development.
From sufficient pay (=security) all the way to a respectful and positive team environment. Cover all those areas well, and your staff will look for development by themselves.
As for my own development… well, let’s just say I foster that badly! 😄
What’s the best resource you might recommend to our readers?
Well, that’s a super broad question. I’d say: “Crucial Confrontations” by Kerry Patterson et. al.
I found that the most common problem in our society, no matter in what area (work, friends, family, love..) is how bad we are at giving feedback and having necessary conversations. I’d rip out any given topic of school curricula if it were replaced by good education on how to have a difficult conversation, how to mentally prepare, how to structure it, how to present it and how to behave during and after it. Immensely helpful for any leader.
Maybe equally helpful for every human being. Honestly, I think the world would be a better place if the content of this book was common practice.
Do you have any stories of great (or dreadful!) customer experiences
Don’t have a great anecdote here but the best experiences I have is when a CS rep does the best for me instead of the best for his company. When they recommend me to go to a different provider, or to get a smaller package because it fits me personally better. It’s real proof that this person actually cares about me as a person. Those are the best!
It’s always easier to find a worst! The worst situation I had was with a mobile network provider. I was double-charged on a prepaid top-up. The rep refused to refund the double payment. Refused to pass me on to someone else or escalate the case and hung up on me mid-call. Had to call several times until I got through to a manager, who still insisted it’s not possible to refund the incorrect payment, even when I threatened to quit, which means an automated payout of my entire balance. After being a customer for 3 years with multiple contracts. Guess what I did … turns out refunding the balance was possible after all!
My favourite question for last – how do you sign off your emails?
Thanks, Max! You’ve shared such great resources, I’ve got some homework to do 🙂
Come back next time for another awesome CS Leadership story!