This article was originally published on Medium.
The software company I work at had a system slowdown today. Our average response times jumped from 100 ms to almost 900 ms.
Within 45 minutes of this spike, my customer experience team had fielded 21 emails and a few handfuls of phone calls from frustrated customers. This may not seem like much, but my team is currently two people (okay, we’re short-staffed right now; usually, it’s three).
You heard that right: two people, supporting over 13,000 subscribers. On days like today, we often say that it feels like “everything is on fire.”
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You’ve almost certainly had a frustrating experience, maybe with software or maybe something else, when a tool is not working like it’s supposed to. It’s just the worst, isn’t it? This thing is supposed to be helping you and it’s actually causing you more grief. Maybe you’ve even gotten to the point where you called a company and complained. I wouldn’t blame you. I think we’ve all done it.
The software I support is, at its core, an efficiency-promoting tool for salespeople. When things slow down, we’re costing them a lot more than time. Every person that reaches out to us is experiencing their own personal frustration and urgency, which is all completely valid and understandable.
As empathetic people, we customer support folks hear and absorb our customer’s feelings: their urgency, their frustration, their confusion. It’s what makes us really good at our jobs. But when we start to feel that urgency compounded ten times over with unbridled force, it becomes unmanageable. Knowing how to field this urgency with compassion is perhaps the single hardest part of doing support work.
(How it feels when things stop working.)
When the phones start ringing again as soon as I hang up with one upset person and the emails are coming in two minutes apart, I get stressed out. My heart starts beating faster and sometimes I can even see it beating beneath my t-shirt. Heat burns along the high spots on my cheeks and I know that the accompanying redness is an exposing tell-all for my team.
Today we fielded calls and emails for an hour while our engineers worked on getting things back on track. My cheeks were burning and my heart was racing, but that universal maxim “this too shall pass” is just as true when things break or software slows down. The emails stopped coming in, the phones stopped ringing, and everything returned to normal very quickly.
Everything except for me. “I’m just a complete stress ball right now,” I told a coworker. As soon as I heard the words out loud, I thought but why, Madi? The fire was out, the problem had passed, and no one else seemed as if their hair was on fire.
I realized suddenly that I am a person who identifies with being stressed and I let it affect me much more strongly than I need to.
Stress is an operating mode that I’m used to. When I was a student at the University of Michigan, I was constantly anxious about school and I believed that urgency made me a better student. In a way, graduation validated that. After I graduated, that urgency felt like the thing that would get me a job. In another way, getting hired continued to validate this idea that stress equaled success.
When things flare up at work, I latch onto that stress. It feels like palpable evidence that I’m working hard at my job, which means I’m doing a good job — right? Not in the support world, no. My job is to care for our customers and to support them and to help them be successful. If I’m stressed out and focused on my own stress, I can’t do my job well.
I need to hear our customers out and understand their urgency. It’s the very first rule of support when things go wrong. What separates me from a customer, however, is everything that comes next. If I match their frustration and stress, who on Earth is going to get things fixed?
The second, more important rule, is to take my understanding of someone’s problem and combine it with my understanding of our product, our engineers, and our entire team’s bandwidth. After we hang up the phone, I have to take a deep breath, shake it off, and get to work. I have to support those frustrated customers and I can’t do that if I’m stressed.
This was such a liberating realization today. It’s helped me realize that feeling stressed out at work isn’t successful. I used to think that if I felt truly calm in the face of all those upset, urgent people, then I wasn’t being empathetic and I wasn’t doing my job.
Now I know better and I can feel calm without any accompanying guilt. That’s how I know I’m really doing a good job. If I’m calm and collected, and I have my wits about me, I can actually support our customers by hearing their concerns and working with our team to get things fixed. I can be successful only if I’m not stressed.
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In his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, This is Water, David Foster Wallace gets to the crux of this kind of personal urgency with his trademark candor. He calls it our “natural default setting” and goes on to say that it’s the automatic way that we experience frustrating parts of life.
He explains that in this default mode, we operate on “the automatic, unconscious belief that [we are] the center of the world, and that [our] immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”
This sounds a little accusatory at first brush, but he goes on to talk about how we always have a choice between that natural default setting and something much harder and much more rewarding. That is, to think about each person and their feelings independently of one’s own.
This speech has become immensely relevant as I’ve worked in customer experience, where I work with people every day who are operating in their natural default setting. I can’t control how they feel, but I can control how I perceive their feelings and actions.
If I operate in my natural default setting and think about their actions in relation to myself, I might think they’re being unfair and unreasonable. They called me to gripe and yell for 10 minutes about something we both know I can’t fix? Honestly! This kind of thinking just leaves us both upset and frustrated.
On the other hand, if I choose to think about their actions in relation to them and the fact that this issue has caused them time, money, and grief, then it makes perfect sense. They don’t seem unreasonable at all, I understand where they’re coming from, and I know it isn’t personal.
This line from Wallace’s speech, in particular, stuck out to me today.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in.
It feels like a lot more than petty, frustrating crap when it takes the form of 30 upset people all expressing their feelings to you at once. It feels overwhelming, stressful, and impossibly urgent. But this is when choosing becomes exponentially more important — in the times when it’s harder to do so. You can get frustrated and angry and stressed out, maybe even have a cry in the first-floor stairwell.
Or you can choose something besides your natural default setting.
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As customer success specialists, our job is to support our customers. This means helping them be more successful with our software, answering their questions, and providing them with the information they need to keep working. Sometimes we joke that our job is to make ourselves obsolete.
I think many people believe that support stops there, but this is where that work of choosing really comes in. I believe that real support starts when we’re listening, absorbing, and focusing on people’s needs and feelings. We’re choosing to support them as a fellow human, not just as someone who uses our software. It takes a lot more emotional effort and it can be draining for the empaths and introverts. But we do it because we value this choice we can make to truly care.
"I’ve got your back."
We talk a lot at my company about our core values. One of these values is “I’ve got your back.” It means that we are there for each other as teammates, colleagues, and humans. It means that we look out for each other and have each other’s best interests at heart. We say it often in our office and I used to think that eventually, it would stop feeling so comforting. I know now that it won’t; it’s such a meaningful expression of care and solidarity.
This value — and its power — extends to our customers too, and I always smile when I hear someone say it during a support call. “We’ve got your back” goes a long way when things get dicey. It helps our customers know that we hear them, that we care, and that they aren’t alone. It helps them feel supported.
* * *
Wallace ends his commencement speech with this uplifting promise. He claims that our ability to choose something other than our natural default setting takes hard work, but is truly a gift of freedom.
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
Even on days when it feels like everything is on fire, I have this capital-T truth to ground myself. I am grateful for the fact that my work allows me this freedom, over and over again, to pay attention, to truly care about other people, and to sacrifice for them every day.