This week, I discussed all things customer with Doug Akers!
Until very recently, Doug was VP of Operations, covering all aspects of sales, success, support, partners, and product management for Smile.io, the platform providing easy-to-use loyalty programs for eCommerce merchants. Doug has been involved with Customer Support for more than 25 years, and in leadership for about 20 of those.
Hi Doug! Thanks so much for spending time with me today. Let’s talk about those early days in CS. Where did it all begin for you?
I started my career in support after graduating from McMaster in ’94 (yes, 1994!). I was promoted internally at MKS back in the day and support has been in and out of the portfolio I’ve managed over the years at various locations.
I’ve always been a firm believer that any technical role should start in support for 6+ months. Learn the product, learn the customer, learn the market in the best and fastest way possible. Transitioning out of support and into management I brought that mentality with me and in all my roles have spent some time on the front line directly and encouraged my teams to do so as well whether they are product management, engineering or other functional groups.
It helps the wider organisation connect directly with the customer and understand the value of support, which was my first big challenge in those early days!
Do you think your varied experience has helped with customer support?
I think having performed, managed or both many different functions across the business has given me the ability to see all sides and appreciate the struggles of each function. It has also taught me that support plays a huge part in many of the solutions that other functions are looking to implement. It baffles me why so many organizations still don’t seem to value the role as much as they should.
Looking back, do you think CS Leaders need a particular set of skills?
I do yes. As support professionals, we have empathy in spades. What we need to build is business acumen/awareness to enable us to see the bigger picture, and to work on increasing our influence across the business.
Very true. I think that ‘influence’ is often overlooked.
It is. It’s often about politics… I hate it but have had to learn to recognize it and work with it. I actually never thought about leadership much and to this day still don’t consciously. I try to treat everyone the same and give the same attention. People think leaders have all the power and all the control but one thing I have realized is that there are just as many things that get in the way or impact decisions as any other role.
When it comes to your team, then, how do you measure your team’s success?
Satisfaction/happiness in their contribution and impact. There will always be KPIs – they are necessary to understand progress towards a goal… but everyone has to believe in them for them to be useful. On top of that, the overall “feel” of the team is how I think it is best measured.
Part of that “feel” is to do with their personal growth, too. A lot depends on the individual. Each person needs something different from gentle coaching to reward or incentive to a kick in the butt. The trick is finding it for each person and tapping into their possibility.
Don’t get me wrong it’s not all about feelings and happiness — as a function and as a business you have to achieve the goals that help the business strategy move forward. It’s just much easier to do that if you take a people-first approach to leadership.
What about your own professional growth? How do you work on that
Lots of conversations with differently-minded people. You can learn something from absolutely everyone. Your network is absolutely the best resource available, so put yourself in new and different environments, meet people everywhere and as A LOT of questions.
What’s the best customer experience you’ve ever had?
I find great satisfaction in helping others achieve their goals so it’s difficult to pick out a “best” experience because most of them are great. It’s the little things that I think mean the most; so there’s as much or more joy in helping single person entrepreneurs as there is in helping multinational organizations.
Conversely, there is definitely a worst! I was in charge of this product line and we had sold into a tier-one automotive supplier several years ago. They have lots of requests, which we logged of course and at some point, they got the impression that logging them meant we were going to implement them.
So one trip to Germany I was confronted by the 17 leaders of the various business units of this company and raked over the coals for several days. It was the worst trip and balancing what is best for the customer and the company was excruciatingly painful… I don’t think anyone left happy (which probably means it was the best outcome).
Lesson learned — say no, upfront, for all those things you don’t plan to implement in the current planning window. Set expectations early.
I always like to finish by asking, how do you sign off an email?
I think this is an area that is very situational and specific to the person you’re communicating with. It is an often-overlooked way to add a bit of personalization to your communication.
Thanks so much, Doug! Good luck with your next role, too!
Watch this space for another CS Leadership story very soon!