Shadowing Customer Support for a Day

by Zayna Shahzad May 25, 2017 | 9 min read

Zayna Shahzad is a Software Engineer at PagerDuty on the Mobile Team. She works on the Android and iOS PagerDuty apps offered through the App Store and Play Store. In this post, she shares her experience shadowing our Customer Support team. Finder her on Github and Twitter.

Shadowing for Empathy

One of our core values as a company has always been to learn from and teach others. We pride ourselves on building a product on empathy for customers and our coworkers.

In the midst of story-pointing, JIRA-ticket-writing, interviewing, and road mapping, sometimes it’s difficult to remember the things that make PagerDuty special — the people we have and the culture we’ve built!

So, with these values in mind, I set out on a mission to answer some questions:

  1. What does it mean to work as part of a team? Not my immediate team, but as a contributing member of the company.
  2. What do other teams do at the company? Is their mission the same as mine?
  3. How can I help make the lives of others a little easier? Can I understand their role a little better?
  4. Who at the company goes above and beyond the call of duty and eats/sleeps/breathes empathy?

The answers to these questions led me to our award-winning Customer Support team.

It started out with an informal ping to a couple of folks on Customer Support to say, “hey, would you mind if I shadowed for the day…”. In no time, I was given access to Zendesk, set up with the power to interact with our customers, and put on-call. (More on this later…)

A Day Shadowing Customer Support

The day of shadowing was an eye-opener. I came in around the same time as the person I was going to shadow — my “buddy” who would answer all my questions throughout the day, eat lunch with and grab a coffee with me. I would liken the feeling of shadowing in a team (other than my own) to the first day of elementary school, where you’re afraid no one will eat lunch with you and you will make no new friends. It was kind of like that, so having a buddy there made me everything much easier.

I was invited to the secret support channel in Slack and went on the “assigner” on-call schedule for 2 hours. An “assigner” is the person who watches the Zendesk ticket queue and picks up support tickets during business hours.

Some observations and interesting parts of my day:

  • Support has a very wide lens on all that goes on with the company. During my day, I saw the team close out tickets, gather feedback, reach out to users on Twitter, extend trials, create Looker dashboards to help with support requests, clean up old JIRA tickets, debug a customer issue, and more! Some of the support team also went off to attend their team’s sprint reviews.
  • There is a very systematic approach for escalating a ticket from Tier 1 to Tier 2 support. This leaves very little ambiguity and limits bouncing around of the customer.
  • Support will “treat” themselves to a fun looping gif on their support TVs whenever they have cleared the ticket queue. This occurred many times during the day! My favorite gif of the day was:  
  • I noticed that two of my new team members wore the same glasses — Coincidence? Perhaps. I choose to believe it’s another form of team bonding.
  • My shadowing buddy and I had a coffee break and lunch together that day! Now we’re actually friends and there is a better understanding whenever we interact with each other over Slack.

Lessons Learned

Aside from my general observations throughout the day, I walked away with a few interesting learnings about the customer support team:

  • They care for each other beyond a workplace relationship: The team cares for each other and it shows in all the ways they interact and communicate with each other. They are happy to take tickets and help each other when someone needs it without having to be asked.
  • They invest in learning: There was a ServiceNow training session going on the day I was shadowing, and most of the support team attended. I learned that the team also holds a couple internal ‘office hours’ within the quarter to disperse individual knowledge within the group.  
  • They hold themselves accountable: They communicate their breaks and lunch hours to each other so that customers are always covered.
  • They are master wordsmiths: My colleague had to rework my responses to customers on tickets because empathizing with customers, and communicating it effectively is hard. We at PagerDuty are lucky that it that comes so naturally to our support team. My colleague had a way of sounding direct and getting the point across, while also leaving room for feedback and further questions. What resulted was a courteous exchange and a high satisfaction rating.
  • They do more than talk to customers: The support team sits in customer chat, take customer calls, attend scrum ceremonies of teams for which they are support ambassadors, update Knowledge Base articles and integration guides, take training classes on some of our integrations so they can help our customers, share knowledge with each other, spend time in internal data tools, close tickets in the queue, and so much more.

In about 8 hours, I got to see the many sides of customer support. I recommend the experience to anyone who has been with a company for several months and has never ventured out of their immediate teams and codebases.

Tips for Shadowing

In case you end up doing the same thing and shadowing someone on another team, here are some tips from my experience:

  • Don’t watch over their shoulders — actually DO the work as they would do. Be sure to tell your actual team that you are unavailable for the day.
  • Depending on the team’s workflow, go on-call or spend time working through some of their tickets.
  • Shadow for the whole day, not an hour. You will learn so much more about the work they do (and the product!)

A note from Kat, our Customer Support Manager.

We haven’t always brought in other departments to shadow in the same way that Zayna experienced. In the past, many new hires had onboarding checklist items to shadow support for an hour or two, during which I would basically walk them through who we are, what we do, and they would look over an agent’s shoulder for the remaining time. This presented a few problems:

  • It was mostly a “Kat talks at the new hire” experience that wasn’t very interactive.
  • It was also likely a little overwhelming as many of these folks were still very new to the company and wrapping their minds around understanding “What is PagerDuty.”

The idea to change this came after our internal Company Kick-Off in San Francisco. We had a problem facing us before this event: it was unprecedented for PagerDuty Support (but not for support teams in our space) to take a full day or really any significant amount of time away from our core responsibilities of helping customers. After all, the nature of our product is pretty sensitive and this team has set a standard of reliability and timeliness that goes hand in hand with what PagerDuty is.

The Support Team doesn’t have off-sites for this very reason, and even at past company picnics, we took a mifi and our laptops with us and rotated the responsibility of having one or two reps sitting at a table answering tickets while others frolicked in the grass.

Company Kick-Off was different as it was mandatory participation, so I initially reached out to one of our cofounders — the original support guy — to see if he’d be interested in stepping back in for a day (he was based out of Toronto). He one-upped me and offered to not only help but to pull together a crew of other Toronto-based employees in Product and Engineering to help. I jumped at the chance and he quickly got a group together for the opportunity to get to know our customers really really well for a day.

The group went through similar prep to the one Zayna had, at a larger scale with several members of the team acting as resources, and took over answering of tickets through Zendesk for the full day (we added messages to our support site and our auto-responders for the day to note that the team was out and responses may be delayed just in case). We were a little nervous about handing over our responsibilities for the day. However, the crew of substitutes did an amazing job of working together to answer customer queries and looping us in via Slack whenever they got stuck. Many folks who participated in this exercise had great feedback that demonstrated how valuable they found the experience in terms of empathizing with both our customers and their colleagues on the Support team:

  • Jeremy Bourque, Product Manager: “It was a great opportunity to get close to our customers from a different perspective than as a PM. There’s no better way to gain empathy for our customers than to be in support.”
  • Paul Rechsteiner, Product Manager: “I was amazed at how hard it is to track down the right answer to something. I have a tremendous new appreciation for official docs.”
  • Ken Kwan, Engineering Manager: “It seems that there are a lot of “things” that the Support team does for users. I wonder if having more engineers see what these processes are could provide a mechanism to improve on them.”

Empathy is huge here at PagerDuty, it’s baked into our DNA. We encourage everyone to step outside of their comfort zone and learn about what your colleagues do by stepping into their shoes — you might get a new appreciation for them!