This week, I talked to the brilliant Zeni Bandy!
Zeni is currently freelancing in Customer Support, having moved last year from the US to Paris, France. She’s been consulting for just a few months, and in leadership for 4 years altogether.
Hi Zeni! Thanks so much for sharing your story today! Let’s start at the very beginning: what was your first Support role?
I took a part-time role (on Upwork) in order to make money and learn about startups while I worked on building my own. Honestly, I thought customer support would be something easy and mindless. I never intended for it to be a career. I started as a part-time support agent at 10 to 15 hours a week. As the company grew I was working with an increased number of customers, so did support demand. I was at 30 hours a week 3 months later and could clearly see that demand was going to continue to grow.
That’s awesome! A surefire way to get a lot of experience is when growth is fast! How did you make the move to leadership?
I was promoted internally. Our company was fully remote and I was extremely self-directed. I saw more things that needed to be done and did them without prompting. My progression in the company wasn’t planned by the founders so I was the one who broached the topics of raises and title changes at every stage. I sought outside resources in order to keep levelling up and ensure I could solve any problem presented. My progression was most likely a surprise to everyone. Because of my strategic thinking and deep desire to help I naturally sought after a seat at the table.
Did you get that seat at the table?
My company wasn’t specifically customer-centric and my role was never intended to be strategic but because of my nature, I turned it into that. I don’t know if it was due to my own insecurities, the perspective of the company, or a combo of both that meant I felt that I had to prove my value and fight to be recognized as a strategic leader in the company that greatly impacted business goals. I was creating my own career path within the company and was my own advocate which is a mixed bag of experiences.
What did you find challenging in those early stages?
Once I took a more significant leadership position (i.e. started managing people) there was a lot of learning on the fly. Prioritization was an area I struggled with for some time. One of the symptoms of this was that I was bad at replying to internal emails which made me appear that I lacked accountability. I was so focused on external customers that I forgot about the internal ones. Over time, I figured out what was most important and how to get those things done but it didn’t happen overnight.
Another challenge that arose as my team grew from 1 agent to 5 was setting benchmarks and recognizing when someone was really not a good employee. In my second hiring cohort, I had an employee who was not actually working when she said she was. Overall I was slow to take the needed action, I kept wanting to help her improve and gave her the benefit of the doubt.
In retrospect maybe I wasn’t as slow as I thought but also still see how I could have been faster. And I think this is something I still struggle with, knowing how to balance compassion and willingness to help people grow and knowing when that is a wasted effort. I hate to even say that but sometimes it is because people aren’t committed.
What skills do Customer Support leaders need to particularly foster?
CS leaders need to be strategic and have the ability to think outside the box. They need to have a hunger to continue to develop their leadership skills as well as business acumen. They must be people-centric (not customer-centric). They need to be able to understand how their function contributes to the larger business goals and advocate for their team as players on the strategic business chessboard. They should easily switch between being quantitative and qualitative, structures and spontaneous, and logical and empathetic.
It’s such a balancing act, isn’t it, to work in a part of the business that is so focussed on people and numbers in equal measure! How do you measure your team’s success?
I use a combo of tracking KPIs, personal dev, happiness, and engagement. If KPIs are good but the team isn’t seeking new problems to solve and increasing their desire to contribute to the business, it’s a failure. In that case, it is easy to predict that KPIs will soon be off-target. Success only comes from sustainable team progress.
It is always important to take the time to understand team members’ personal goals, not just within the company. But, this is not just a one-time conversation, it is something to talk about regularly and incorporate into feedback and growth exercises. Each month we would spend time talking about their growth and we would make it as quantitative as possible to make sure they could track progress. We would put a number, 1 to 5. This way it is easy to look back and understand what was happening.
I believe in writing everything down, not just talking about it because when you look back 6 months later you need to see progress, not just remember it. We can tell ourselves stories about things but the human mind doesn’t remember things as clearly as we think it does. Each month we set personal goals which team members should normally pick for themselves. I often encourage these goals to include soft skills and milestones that hold personal significance. For some people that is KPI’s but for others, it is not. It is important to not push either on people but let them decide that for themselves how to help them grow.
How important are metrics, in terms of the operations?
I always think metrics are important. If you have no metrics you have no way of knowing if things really improve or change. However, I think they only tell have of the story. For example, you may have data that says the most common reason people cancel is because of price. If you stop there and focus on that alone it is easy to miss the mark, instead, you have to dig deeper. Perhaps the customer is not as price-sensitive as they appear but the price to value is off. Metrics tell you what but not why and that is important to remember.
Four years in, what’s the biggest gap between what you thought leadership would be like, and what it’s actually like?
I didn’t truly understand how much of a journey it is. I looked at leaders and thought they had it all together, that they knew exactly what they were doing. The reality is that none of us do, especially in startups. As leaders, we quickly become blind to our biases. One thing leaders don’t realize is that they create an inner circle and an outer circle. The consequence for this always results as those in the outer circle failing which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is essential to continue dedicating real time into learning about being a leader of people and overcoming our own tendencies.
Managing up has been the most difficult thing for me to learn. I challenge things that I don’t agree with at times when my input wasn’t even welcome in the first place. I have trouble with reading the room (likely because I am on the Autism spectrum). I constantly am improving in this area and mindful but it is a journey.
Do you find time for your own professional development? How do you build your skills?
Reading, listening, and being humble enough to know we all have a long way to go. I go through phases where I focus on specific skills or and so the media and form of learning will change. I think the most important part though about fostering my own personal development has been about meeting myself with compassion and being patient. There are so many great resources out there, that it’s hard to choose a single favourite, but I will recommend the Support Driven community, because there you can get help with any topic.
Thinking about your own experience as a customer, then, do you have any stories of a great experience?
There have been many. One recently was with Upwork. They needed to verify my identity. I was incredibly fast and easy. I wrote in chat what I needed and the agent immediately sent a Google Meet link and they saw me on video and it was done. I was so surprised! It wasn’t that they were super nice and friendly, they just truly thought through an experience from the perspective of what is best for the customer while still getting what we need.
What’s been your correspondingly worst experience?
Moving to Europe there are quite a few! Two come to mind as tied for the worst… Orange and a furniture company called Sklum.
Ultimately both were clearly company culture issues. In both cases, agents simply don’t care about helping you or even trying to solve your problem. In the case of Orange, I was hung up on, lead in circles, and simply struggled to get service (both help and internet!). With Sklum there was just not company accountability. Everyone seemed incapable of accepting responsibility for CX.
Both companies made me feel I was the problem for expecting help and expecting to be important. Maybe more than companies in the US, these companies really saw themselves as the hero in my life which results in a subpar experience. Companies need to see themselves as the Merlin to my King Arthur. If they did that there would be a dramatic shift!
Ha, I like that! My final question for everyone is always… what’s your favourite way of signing off an email?
Best, Zeni …not sure why, haha!
Thanks Zeni! It’s been great to get your story. I totally think more organisations should see themselves as Merlin!
Watch this space for another story from an awesome CS Leader!