Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with Help Scout’s huzzahs. If you’ve reached inbox zero in a Mailbox, you’ve seen ‘em. Some (amazing) people have even dressed up as huzzahs for Halloween!
In an effort to spread more huzzah joy, we thought it was about time to create a huzzah sticker pack. If you head to the App Store on your phone and search for “huzzahs,” you’ll find 24 downloadable stickers. Press the “Get” button, and you’re off to the races.
Need to text someone a piñata to remind them that they’re the life of the party? What about a donut? Everyone deserves a donut. Just think . . . a trophy sticker could turn someone’s stressful Monday morning into a “heck yeah, I can do this” kind of day. Huzzahs to the rescue.
In support, little things can make a big difference — even seemingly small changes can save your whole team some precious time. In this section, we highlight the maybe-overlooked (but very powerful!) changes that are making our own customer champions cheer.
Up this month: Shaun writes in from Portsmouth, England.
One of the most common questions I see from our customers is "How do I keep track of priority messages in my mailbox so they get the fastest responses?" If you’re shouting "YES!," then check out our handy Workflow Templates and Scenarios guide. It's chock full of tips to help keep track of priority conversations using tags, folders, and more!
For many businesses, it's a slow season for incoming support requests. If your team is at inbox zero more often than not and you've got some gaps in your schedule, it’s an opportune time to reflect on how you can improve proactive support! Check out these recommendations for how to turn seasonal downtime into a fun, morale-boosting experience for all.
You’re crushing the inbox (even more than usual), and you’re eager to take advantage of a slower season. Learn new ways to make your Help Scout account and your team more efficient so that you’ll be in great shape when the inbox gets busier!
Beacon 2.0 Preview — It's Chat and a Whole Lot More
This is for you if …
You’re eagerly awaiting (or just curious about) the powers of Beacon 2.0. Live chat, email, and Docs — oh my! Come find out what everyone’s chatting about, and see a full demo of what's coming to Help Scout. Lower support volume and happier customers? Huzzah!
It’s common to feel like you’re “bad at negotiating” — the idea of negotiating makes many of us feel uncomfortable, awkward or anxious.
I believe those feelings come from a misconception around what it takes to be a good negotiator. In our lives, we’re negotiating all the time — at our jobs, with our friends, in our families (as a mother of four, half of my daily conversations are negotiations).
Negotiation is fundamentally about human interaction. It’s not about dollars and cents, deal terms, or winning — negotiations are about creating relationships that get everyone to the best result.
Negotiation is best understood not as a face-to-face confrontation, but as a side-by-side, problem-solving journey.
The problem we’re trying to solve is this: How can we work together to arrive at a better understanding and better agreements?
12 tactics for successful negotiations
I learned about negotiating first by making a lot of mistakes, then by listening to what a number of brilliant people — two in particular are Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Harvard professor Deepak Malhotra — had to say on the topic.
The list that follows is a compilation of strategies I’ve learned from the experts, plus things that have worked in my life. These are the tips I’ve been most successful with — keep these in mind the next time you enter into a negotiation, with the overall goal of building relationships and solving problems together.
I can’t believe how often people enter a negotiation without a strategy. They haven’t thought about the person they’re talking to; they haven’t done any research or come up with a plan.
When you’re coming up with your strategy, talk to your teammates, talk to your coach, talk to your spouse. You’ll be amazed at other people’s perspectives and how they’ll suggest good arguments and approaches you never would have thought of on your own.
2. Know the walk-away point
You have to know what your deal breakers are. Think all the way through what will happen if there’s no deal on the other side. So often, we get caught up in what we need and what we want. But think about what the other person’s walk-away point is, too — think about what’s going to happen if they don’t get this deal done, because that allows you to find out where they’re flexible and where they’re not. Not all deals are meant to get done. It’s smart to know your walk-away point, and if that point is reached, it’s OK to walk away.
3. Negotiate process before substance
Understand how to get where you need to go. So many people enter into negotiations so focused on the result that they don’t think about the process: How will you get the deal done? Who are the stakeholders who need to be involved? Who are the decision makers?
The last thing you want is to think you’re done, show all your cards, and give your best offer, only to hear the other party say, “OK, I need to take it back to my boss and we need to see if . . .” Whoops — there’s another decision maker, another process. Always make sure you understand the entire process going in, before you get too focused on the result.
4. Be an active listener
When you want your point of view acknowledged, acknowledge theirs first. Don’t go into a negotiation feeling like you should do all the talking. You should be listening and asking lots of questions.
Try to understand what the other person’s scenarios are. What are their constraints? What are their timelines? What are they up against? It’ll help you frame how to get to the right results. When you acknowledge the other person’s point of view first, it helps bridge the gap and they’ll be more receptive to hearing your point of view.
5. Have a ‘Plan B’
Always ask yourself: If this doesn’t work out, where do we go next? What’s the next step? That’ll allow you to be prepared for tough situations or outcomes you didn’t expect. Expect the unexpected, and that way the element of surprise won’t throw you off your game.
6. Give the narrative
Don’t let the numbers speak for themselves. You only have so much to give in any situation, whether it’s budget or time or some other constraint. If you just lead with the result and you don’t give the other party the narrative around it, you might appear adversarial and inflexible. A narrative can help everyone come to a good place and a better conclusion. If you send an email that has your final offer, give the narrative, do a final phone call, and have the conversation, because it really helps you get to a better conclusion.
7. Be flexible
Make this your negotiating mantra:
“I know where we need to get; I’m flexible how we get there.”
When you give people choices, they feel involved in the decision, versus feeling forced into something. So have multiple options — maybe you can’t be flexible on price, but you can be flexible on terms, on a start date, or something else. Be creative — there are lots of ways to get something done.
8. Be aware of gender bias
Gender bias is real, and it sucks — but by acknowledging that out in the open, we start to make things better.
When you feel like a woman in a negotiation is being “aggressive,” ask yourself whether you’d feel the same way if a man were saying the same things.
Stay mindful that gender bias is real, and women deal with it every day. Make sure the women in your organization are encouraged to negotiate and are applauded — not penalized — when they do.
9. Find leverage by reframing negotiations
Leverage — when you use something to maximize your advantage — is a part of every negotiation. There are times you have it, there are times you lose it, and there are times you can get it back.
The best way to regain leverage is by listening and asking the right questions, keeping the other party’s goals in mind, and framing the negotiation not as a contest, but as a way for everyone to reach the best possible outcome.
10. Avoid backlash
Backlash happens when you over-negotiate and the result isn’t good for either party. “Winning” in a negotiation can lead to being on the losing side of an important relationship.
People get resentful when they feel like they’ve been taken advantage of. If you come in too hard at someone, they’ll remember that and carry that resentment forward in the relationship. To avoid this kind of backlash:
Deliver good news in stages, but bad news all at once.
Accept thoughtfully — accepting too quickly can lead to regret.
Temper your excitement when a deal is working in your favor.
Balance the desire to meet high goals with the need to foster a good relationship. In the end, building strong relationships will put you in a better position overall.
11. Write their victory speech
“You’ll be a hero in front of your boss.”
“You’ll save your company $2 million over three years.”
“Your team won’t have to deal with clunky old tools anymore, and they’ll have you to thank for it.”
When you write the other person’s victory speech, you show them what accepting this deal would look like for them. Focusing on what’s good for them (versus what you want) helps them arrive at the conclusion that it’s a good deal.
12. Tell the truth
It seems simple, but it bears mentioning when your brand and your reputation are on the line. People like to do business with people they feel are honest, so don’t try to get creative — simply tell the truth. It leads to better deals, I promise.
Build relationships as you negotiate
The other party in a negotiation isn’t your adversary — they’re your partner in achieving the best possible outcome for everyone. Once you reframe negotiations in this way, you’ll stop feeling uncomfortable, anxious or awkward about them, because you’ll realize you already have the internal skills you need to be a successful negotiator.
Beacon aims to answer at least 30% of your customers’ questions instantly, via suggested answers or search. In other words, when your customers use Beacon, 30% of the questions they ask can be addressed right then and there on the page they’re visiting, rather than having to contact support or search for answers elsewhere.
That 30% goal is critical because it reduces chat volume, making chat a feasible support channel for small teams. The ability to instantly answer 30% of all customer questions without a support team member stepping in is what makes Beacon unique compared to any other chat tool.
We’re working on three different modes for Beacon: Self Service, Neutral, and Ask First. The Self Service mode is built for a 30% or higher answer rate, and the other modes make getting in touch with a human progressively easier.
These different modes make sense in different use cases. For example, an online shop might enable the Ask First mode, so customers are only a couple of clicks from chatting with a human being. For products like Help Scout, the Self Service mode is ideal because it has customers search the Docs before reaching out to the support team.
Even in Self Service mode, a human response isn’t far away. When the customer opens an article and can’t find the answer they need, there’s a clear escalation path.
What will Beacon pricing look like?
Chat is a customer service channel that’s not going away any time soon. Email remains a great way to talk with your customers, but chat should be treated as a first-class citizen in any customer service tool.
As a first-class citizen, chat shouldn’t be offered as an add-on or separate web app, inflating the cost. Chat should be a core part of the product every customer can use. The added benefit is that it allows us to offer the simplest pricing around (and in most cases, the most affordable as well) — no add-ons or upsells.
Other chat products charge $15 per user or more for chat as a standalone product or add-on. Our chat pricing will be a fraction of those options, ranging from $3-$5 per user.
Current Price (per user)
Price including Beacon 2.0 (per user)
$8 annual / $12 monthly
$12 annual / $15 monthly
$15 annual / $20 monthly
$20 annual / $25 monthly
$27 annual / $35 monthly
$35 annual / $40 monthly
The updated Beacon pricing includes a 20% discount for annual payments across the board. It’s another way we’re trying to keep the pricing as simple as possible.
As for current customers, our aim is to give everyone at least a couple of months to try the new Beacon for free. If it adds a lot of value, you can choose to upgrade. We’ll be sure to provide more specifics when the product is launched.
If you choose not to opt for a Beacon plan, no problem! Your current price will be grandfathered in for two years, even when it’s not available to new customers. We now grandfather in all legacy plans for two years after we stop offering them publicly.
OK, I’m excited, but when will it launch???
We’re at least a month away from being able to announce a launch date, maybe longer. I’d love it if we already had one for you, but I don’t want to speculate — it’s more important that we get it right and ship something we feel amazing about.
We’re pouring our heart and soul into Beacon, and we can’t wait to introduce what we see as a game-changing way to talk with your customers. And what I’ve been previewing in these posts is only the beginning — you can expect a bunch of exciting new features throughout the year as we help you make your customer service even more excellent.
If you’d like to join those in the know, sign up to receive further updates here.
Even if you run a business people love, difficult customers are a fact of life. They may be a small percentage of your community, but in the moment, they can feel impossible to handle.
When you work in customer service, figuring out how to deal with difficult customers is part of the job — but it can also be the hardest part of the job. As humans, we’re hardwired to care about others. That’s what customer service is about, right?
To do the job well, you need to balance this innate caring with strategies and skills that help you diffuse rude customers in the moment.
Sometimes, it’s clear that a customer’s woes have nothing to do with the issue at hand , and there’s a way to tackle that, too.
9 tips for dealing with difficult customers
We spoke to several experts who have moved up the ranks of customer service in different industries, so we could learn from their examples of dealing with difficult customers. It turns out there’s more than one way to transform these cringe-worthy moments into mutually beneficial experiences.
1. Prepare in advance
In any customer service role, knowing how to deal with rude customers depends directly on your knowledge of the product or service. Building a strong foundation — and working toward mastery — becomes even more essential when you’re dealing with someone who’s testing your limits. The sooner you can get the mechanics of your role down, the more effortless and nuanced you can be throughout these charged moments.
This same “prepare in advance” ethos extends to educating yourself on customers. Katherine Yasi, Director of Customer Support and Onboarding at Zaius, always dives into the customer’s profile before stepping onto a call. Are there any open support tickets, negative customer NPS surveys, or notes connected to this customer? These details give you context and a sense of their likely response.
2. Recognize the opportunity in failure
The good news about dealing with difficult customers is that, if you do a good job, you can more than make up for the issue that started it all. The service recovery paradox states that, in every customer service failure, there’s an opportunity to transform rude customers into loyal patrons. So, you can actually benefit from higher customer satisfaction levels than you would have if nothing went wrong.
Lindsay Howard, the Wine Director at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, says she’s learned the same thing in her 10 years in the hospitality business.
“My biggest successes have been when someone is really upset with my selection from our wine list, but I still happen to find something special from my cellar to offer them. Those moments are when I feel like I have done my job right.”
When you enter a tough situation, take a moment to make a mental shift. If you can remember that every difficult customer is a worthy challenge, it will be easier to manage it step-by-step.
3. Change channels
Sometimes, it can be tempting to try to contain a customer interaction to emails or cut off a conversation for time’s sake. That’s especially the case if you’ve experienced a glitch and your team is stretched as it is. But doing the opposite, and giving customers the space they need to vent, can actually be the more efficient, effective solution.
Nathanael Newby-Kew, the Associate Director of Customer Support at Skyword, believes that increasing the level of interaction brings a sense of concern to the conversation that people appreciate:
“If you’re communicating over email, hop on the phone or escalate to the next level of support to show them you’re taking the situation seriously.”
Next time you’re dreading a tough call, remember that it’s always going to be better than handling difficult customers over email. Here, customers can have the space they need to vent, and they know they’re being heard, which sometimes is a resolution in itself.
4. Adapt your approach to the customer’s personality
We all have different personalities, and the same goes for rude customers. One way to make tough interactions better is to adapt your approach to their approach. The Disc framework, which is often used in sales, is just as effective in customer service.
You start by identifying the customer’s personality type (one of four) and offer a solution that is catered to the way they like to problem solve.
Tyler Haire, a marketing strategist who worked in bilingual customer support and success for eight years, says using this framework revolutionized his day-to-day. “I could really help difficult customers in a way that they could accept. It was remarkably spot-on.”
At Skyword, Newby-Kew took a similar approach to an extremely detail-oriented customer (definitely a C personality). The customer kept submitting separate tickets for every issue he came across in their platform, and it became a tangled mess of complaints that frustrated everyone on the support team.
“We ended up hopping on a call and sharing a spreadsheet that detailed which of his issues had been resolved and which were in progress. We then had him rank his priorities and created a new email chain for each issue with a reference number he agreed to include.”
By tracking and documenting the issues, Newby-Kew tailored his approach to the customer and came to a resolution.
5. Find your balance between empathy and boundaries
Even if you have your approach to rude customers down, it’s still not easy to experience abrasive language and even abuse. Everyone has a horrific example of dealing with difficult customers. Howard has had people yell curse words in her face, stomp like children, and threaten to have her fired.
To do her job well, she needed to walk a fine line between expressing empathy and maintaining boundaries — and you need to, too. Here’s what our four experts say about the importance of striking that integral balance:
“It’s really easy to identify with the customer (especially if you’re empathetic), but you have to limit the extent to which you take it on to be effective in your job. Getting emotionally involved is not going to help you or help the customer. It’s a quick way to get burned out.”
“I have dealt with a lot of uncomfortable stuff. First, I stay calm and listen. Sometimes people just need someone to listen. I hold my ground if it is very uncomfortable and get back up when needed.”
“A lot of customer service is just having empathy for your customers without letting it consume you. Everyone has bad days — just because a customer is having one doesn't mean you have to share that burden.”
“I honestly used to approach these situations with a lot of anxiety. Over time, I have learned to take a calmer approach. Let the customer vent and actively listen to them. Every once in awhile it can be good to stop and summarize what you’ve heard in your own words.”
A perfect apology meets a few key requirements: It’s short, sweet and sincere. But when you’re dealing with rude customers, it’s easy to veer too far in one direction or the other. You can react to their negativity with an insincere “sorry” or over-apologize and ramble way to much in reaction to their distress. Work on getting comfortable with your own middle ground, so it feels natural even in a tense situation.
Don’t: “Hmm, that’s not good.”
Don’t: “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry — how did that happen? Yikes! What a terrible mistake. I just can’t apologize enough … this is absolutely horrendous. I feel awful. What a mess you’re in.”
Do: “I’m so sorry that our team fell short yesterday. We have high standards, and we didn’t meet them with that delivery time. Let’s get this sorted out right now.”
When you do apologize, own up to any shortcomings on your company’s end. Even though it may be hard to do when you’re up against an irrational reaction, it’s the honest way forward.
Once you’ve apologized effectively, get to the crux of the problem. Sometimes, there isn’t a solution yet. It’s really tough to be the bearer of bad news, but lying to difficult customers never helps the ultimate goal: driving customer loyalty.
In situations where you don’t have a resolution just yet, be transparent and clear. For example, Yasi needed to navigate a software integration issue with a customer. He demanded a concrete timeline, but her team didn’t have that information. “I looped in our VP of Engineering, and we had to have a very direct conversation with the client that a timeline was unrealistic. We shared that were committed to resolving all the issues and providing a timeline when we had the data we needed.”
Even if you can’t deliver a solution, create a plan and deliver that plan with confidence. Ultimately, customers want to know that you’re putting in the effort to meet their needs for the long term and you’re willing to follow up until it happens.
8. Lean on your team
Even when you’re putting all your skills to work, you can be in way over your head. That’s natural — you’re not supposed to know everything. Figuring out how to deal with difficult customers often requires that you ask for help. When Haire worked in healthcare support, he connected people with mental health challenges with treatment options — all in Haire’s second language, Spanish.
One day, a man called in for help who was experiencing suicidal thoughts. “It was difficult at first to understand what was going on because I thought the client was under the influence of drugs, but once I identified the situation, I was able to escalate the conversation to a clinician. We got him the help he needed,” says Haire.
The biggest takeaway Haire remembers from that tough situation: Even though you’re on the front lines dealing with customers in the role, there is a team behind you that can give you support. Never be afraid to ask for what you need.
9. Get creative when making things right
In the hospitality industry, the traditional “fix all” for big goof-ups is to take care of the meal for the guests. In e-commerce, it’s a whopper of a discount or an exchange. Going beyond these industry norms, though, makes it more likely that customers have a change of heart.
When Howard encounters a tough scenario, she sends cards, emails, delivers gifts to customers’ homes, or gives disappointed customers bottles of wine. “I get more creative than I used to. I’ve even called ahead to other restaurants where a customer regularly dines and purchased a bottle of champagne for them in advance,” says Howard.
People love it. Not only is her approach generous, it’s unexpected. Give it a try. Over time, you’ll become an expert at turning a terrible experience into a reason for a customer to love you forever.
Free PDF: How to Talk to Your Customers
Communicating with customers is an art, a science ... and a competitive differentiator. Get your own free copy of this comprehensive guide to talking with customers.
Like it or not, what you pay people is personal. What coworkers get paid and why they get paid what they do is also personal.
And yes, coworkers often talk about what they get paid, so having a rhyme or reason behind why people in different roles and at different stages in their careers make what they do is smart.
Think about it like this: If you inadvertently shared your payroll doc with the whole company, could you stand by it with a sound explanation as to why people get paid what they do compared to each other and to market data?
If the answer is no, you have work to do. At Help Scout, we strive to answer that question with a confident yes.
5 ways to nail your compensation strategy
Compensation is complicated, and it can get messy when you don’t have a good plan in place. And it happens to be something that impacts every person on your team, not to mention those future hires you have your eye on. Here are several approaches we’ve taken, and lessons we’ve learned along the way, that will give you a good start when you dive into creating (or improving) your compensation strategy.
1. Dig for that data
First things first — round up some data! Plenty of resources out there (such as Radford, Payscale, and Glassdoor) offer compensation data, and some of them, like Culpepper, offer a price break for new and emerging companies.
It’s a lot of work (and not always possible) to match roles to the surveys, but it’s worth it to see what percentile you’re paying compared to other companies of a similar size and/or region.
HR groups like OrgOrg or VC groups often share salary data with each other for free if you’re looking for other cost-effective data points.
And don’t discount specialized salary-related resources — every data point can help inform your own compensation strategy! Help Scout, for example, partners with Support Driven each year to publish the annual Customer Support Salary Study and accompanying salary calculator so that managers, employees, and job seekers can have more informed conversations about compensation for customer support work.
We love constraints at Help Scout, and our salary formula is one of our self-imposed constraints. It helps hold us accountable to our team with a structure that’s fair and transparent.
A handful of companies take the transparency a level further and share what each specific team member makes — we don’t do that, but our formula numbers are available internally for team members to see. For example, everyone in Marketing can see what an Engineer at level 3C earns.
Help Scout’s salary matrix is made of levels and bands:
An awesome but relatively inexperienced customer support person might be hired at Level 1, Band E, and then move to the next level as their skills improve.
Each of the five levels is broadly defined across the company, including competencies we’d like to see at each level, like “skills & experience,” “impact” and “leadership.”
For example, here’s how we define level 2:
Skills & Experience: You have a sincere passion for your craft and have demonstrated success in your experience up to this point. You can sustain day-to-day excellence in your role with little direction from others, working toward complete ownership over your role.
Impact: Your skills and knowledge enable you to own a complex project or area of the business and serve as the “go to” resource on its implementation.
Leadership: Team leads trust you to own specific tasks or projects and carry them out with excellence while improving your skills. You’ve established yourself as an expert others can lean on with regard to certain areas of the product, architecture or business.
Those competencies manifest differently across roles and teams, but all generally map back to these level descriptions. The level descriptions are a tool that both coaches and players can use to help support raises.
It’s hard to remove all subjectivity from the matter of raises, but a structure helps. Plus, transparency helps build trust between the company and the team. It encourages players (individual contributors) to talk with their coaches (managers) about what they need to do to make it to the next level, and it keeps growth in all different areas in mind.
Within each level there are five bands, which we use to help show progress in that level. Maybe someone is making a strong impact on the business in terms of delivering great code but needs to work on leadership skills in order to get to the next level — the bands are how we can help measure that progress.
We don’t conduct annual performance reviews. This progress is measured by milestones that players and coaches map out together and revisit on a regular basis in one-on-ones.
3. Put your money where your mouth is
Each role has a different scale and matrix associated with it that roughly maps back to market rate salaries. This is where you can be opinionated as a company, and this is where I’ve learned that compensation is an art, not a science.
As a company, you can decide which roles to pay above market rate for. You can also decide which roles you’re not going to pay above market rate for.
With a more purposeful and opinionated approach, you’ll more easily find values-aligned, talented people that meet your needs . . . and they’ll be paid properly.
“People’s happiness in their work is not about gourmet salads or sleeping pods or foosball tables. True and abiding happiness in work comes from being deeply engaged in solving a problem with talented people you know are also deeply engaged in solving it, and from knowing that the customer loves the product or service you all have worked so hard to make.”
Help Scout is not a family. It’s a group of values-aligned people who want to do great work together, then go home to their families, friends, side-hustles and hobbies. We want people to work smarter and not harder, so our benefits include things like a “learn something” stipend, professional coaching sessions, home-office furniture, and a co-working stipend.
We’ve chosen to be as generous as possible when it comes to fully covering our employees’ and their families’ basic needs. We offer 100% coverage on monthly healthcare and dental premiums, pay for long-term and short-term disability insurance, and offer a basic life insurance policy. We have a modest 401K match and offer an HSA, FSA, and HRA (all the acronyms)!
We might consider layering on more benefits in the future, like reimbursements for healthy activities, CSAs, or mindfulness programs, which help us all maintain a balanced life — but you won’t see any foosball tables on that list.
The money you spend on benefits is part of the compensation puzzle, and what you decide to spend it on reflects your values as a company. Choose wisely, and you’ll attract candidates who value what you value.
5. Expect change
The market is going to shift, and you don’t want to miss out on top talent. You’ll want to keep your finger on the pulse. And your company will change! When I first joined Help Scout, we only had 10 people. Our salary structure had four levels of pay and zero bands, which meant that if you were hired at a level 4, you’d never get a raise. Imagine telling that to a candidate!
Over time, we gathered more data and have been able to shift that formula to help promote growth in all areas and roles while still maintaining consistency. In fact, we’re currently in the middle of another compensation revamp.
When it comes to compensation, keep an open mind and expect it to evolve. And don’t be afraid of soliciting feedback from your team! It’s a sensitive topic, but when you encourage transparency and openness, you’ll be more likely to land on a strategy that feels more than fair to everyone.
One of the best decisions we’ve made at Help Scout is to build a remote culture.
The 75 people on our remote team hail from more than 50 cities in over 12 countries around the world. While the benefits of a remote culture are tremendous, being successful requires radical commitment from leadership on your team.
As a founder or manager, this isn’t a decision to take lightly, because it will undoubtedly make your job harder. Remote teams require more structure, better communication, and a high level of proactive transparency from you.
We’ve made our fair share of mistakes and learned a lot over the last seven-plus years. My goal is to share the most important learnings, along with the data, so you can apply at least one insight (whether you are remote or not) to your team.
Remote company culture
There are a number of reasons why I’m passionate about remote work, but the most important reason is talent. What’s most exciting to me in life is working with people who are a lot better than me and who force me to learn at a high rate. I can’t get enough of it, which is why I’m so fiercely committed to this way of working.
Think of it this way: Do you think more talent exists within a 20-mile radius of your office, or on planet earth?
Like a lot of other small businesses, Help Scout is in a market surrounded by companies with more influence, more people, and much greater resources. The only way we can win is to use constraints as an advantage, to invest in things you can’t write a check for, and to build a team of people who can punch way above their weight. Doing remote well gives us a considerable advantage that you can’t buy: We have access to people most companies don’t.
But access to a broader talent pool has to be earned. You have to build a company people want to work for and a culture people want to be part of. It’s been a journey, but our 2017 eNPS score was 81. Among women it was even higher, with a score of 87. Identifying and embracing a few key principles, along with a lot of hard work, enabled us to get to this point.
‘Remote first’ or don’t bother
I’m not a hard-liner who believes remote is the way every business should work. Let’s be honest: Each way of working (remote, co-located, multi-office or mixed) has pros and cons you need to be mindful of. It’s less about the philosophy and more about how well you can execute it.
That said, if you want remote company culture to be all or part of your culture mix, you have to be “remote first.” Remote culture has to be an inalterable part of your company’s DNA, which is why it’s hard for companies to change once they’ve chosen a way of working.
A culture’s effectiveness revolves around how information flows. Everyone needs to feel like they have access to the same information, but remote and co-located cultures share information differently.
For example, let’s take the common trap a lot of co-located cultures are falling into today, where they make exceptions for certain people to work remotely so they can dip their toe into the talent pool. This is a recipe for disaster because the company hasn’t changed the way they share information. Once someone goes remote, they miss out on information in impromptu meetings, on whiteboards, at the proverbial water cooler, and when grabbing drinks after work. Very quickly, they’ll feel out of the loop and unhappy, unable to do their best work.
When a company doesn’t change the way it communicates when the first person goes remote, it will fail to realize the benefits and likely alienate those people. And when it fails, the company will ignorantly blame the remote philosophy for being ineffective even though it’s their own fault. It’s like going on a diet, not changing any of your habits, then blaming the diet for not working.
At Help Scout we have two offices — one in Boston and one in Boulder. Neither has a kegerator, a ping pong table, a whiteboard, or office perks. Every room is wired for one-click video calls with teammates, and you’ll find the ambiance to be more like a library than an office. We do this intentionally, so that even in an office, it’s the same environment our remote colleagues have, with the same benefits.
What needs to change for a company to be remote-first? I could write a whole separate essay on this, but here are some of the key high-level tactics:
Managers have to work hard to build and maintain great relationships with their teams. It’s a lot harder being a manager in a remote culture than it is in a co-located one.
Most information needs to be written or recorded, available for people to consume it on their own time.
You’ll have to adopt a level of transparency that feels uncomfortable at first, so everyone feels connected with the business.
Most of your communication is written and you must be excellent at it. People who aren’t excellent written communicators will struggle on remote teams.
Hiring for remote teams
When Jared, Denny and I founded Help Scout, none of us had ever hired anyone. Ever. And it showed. Not only did we have a lot to learn about hiring, we also took too long to recognize a misalignment and part ways with people.
From 2011 through 2014, we hired 17 people at Help Scout. Eleven of them (65%) were eventually let go. Of the people we let go, their average tenure was 19 months.
From 2015 through April 2018, we hired 75 people, and only 13 (17%) of them have been let go. In 2017, the average tenure of the people we let go was 8 months, and has gone down every year since 2014.
I take 100% responsibility for every hiring mistake, but it’s still no reason to keep someone on the team who could be doing better work elsewhere.
So what did we learn? And for the love of all things, how can you avoid having to learn this the hard way?
Seek people in love with the work
The two things I look for when hiring for our remote team are:
a track record of excellence, and
a love for the craft.
We’re looking for someone who knows exactly what they want from their career, and who just needs a culture that will give them enough ownership to do their best work.
While I’d like to think of Help Scout as a collaborative environment, a lot of people on the team spend 4-6 hours heads down every day, working on hard problems. We need folks who can make the most of that time and require little to no direction to do great work.
Hiring aspirational candidates — people fresh out of school, or doing this type of work for the first time — doesn’t work well on remote teams. As much as we’d like to hire more junior folks and see them fulfill their potential, it’s much more challenging in a remote culture for both sides. Several of our early hiring mistakes had to do with hiring aspirational folks, who were great people, but who weren’t going to do their best work at Help Scout.
By not hiring aspirational candidates, we’ve realized the benefits of surrounding everyone with high performers who continue raising the bar.
Optimize for work-life harmony
Remote work skeptics often assume people work less when they aren’t going into an office. My experience has been quite the opposite. When you hire people who love the work, they might end up doing it for 12-14 hours before they even realize it. Obviously this isn’t sustainable or healthy, which is why we look for a high level of self-discipline and work-life harmony when hiring people.
Remote workers need things pulling them away from work, like family, hobbies, and other passions. When people are disciplined about maintaining work-life harmony, three great things happen: They don’t burn out, they do their best work, and they’re happy working at your company.
What if potential hires haven’t worked remotely before?
I’ve talked with a lot of companies who aren’t interested in hiring remote folks unless they’ve worked remotely before. I don’t understand that train of thought. If the person is qualified and excited about the prospect of working remotely, it’s your responsibility to make them successful. Have you ever heard of a co-located culture screening people based on whether they’ve worked in an office before? Of course not.
This isn’t a metric we actively track, but I’d estimate that roughly 50% of the people we hire haven’t worked remotely before. We’re still confident about hiring them because we believe we’ve created a culture in which they can be happy and successful.
How to hire remotely
As a result of our early hiring mistakes, we’ve put countless hours into refining the hiring process. Not surprisingly, as we got more thoughtful and structured, we made fewer mistakes. For all the details, be sure to check out our 12-step remote hiring process. That article is a great overview of the tactics, but there are also a few strategic adjustments that have made an impact.
Make remote part of your brand
From January through April 2018, 2,898 people applied for roles at Help Scout. Of that group, we hired 11, which is a 0.38% acceptance rate. For comparison, Harvard accepts 6% of applicants, and Google hires 0.2% of applicants.
It’s also worth noting that we only post our jobs on one or two highly targeted job boards (if any). We never use the larger sites, where you can easily get hundreds of unqualified applicants. The quality is quite high for the roles we post.
I say this not to brag, but to demonstrate the importance of making remote work synonymous with your brand. On this blog, you’ll find more than a dozen posts about all things remote. It’s clearly part of our DNA, something we’re passionate about, and it’s obvious to people considering a role with Help Scout. It’s taken seven years of investment to see this level of quality in our hiring pipeline.
Experienced remote people are well aware that the “remote first” philosophy must be adopted in order for them to be successful. If they don’t see that in your company, they likely won’t take the risk. That’s why a lot of co-located companies underestimate the talent pool. Not only does it help them rationalize their chosen way of working, but by dipping their toe in, they really don’t see the quality candidates that a remote-first company does.
Our goal is that when a super talented person wants to work remotely, Help Scout is in their top five. No doubt we have stiff competition with great companies like Zapier, Automattic, Buffer, Trello, and Basecamp, but we invest significant time and resources to remote culture to be among those top choices.
Change the hiring process
When I lived in Boston, I noticed that a talented person would be on the market for a matter of days before being scooped up. It’s incredibly competitive, and in my experience, it’s easy to make mistakes when hiring this quickly.
Hiring remotely is different. On average it takes us about 40 days to fill a role and roughly three weeks for a candidate to go through the full process. Every role includes a project, which is designed for the person to spend 4-8 hours showing us what they can do (remotely, of course). We like to go back and forth, giving folks critical feedback and simulating what it will be like to work together.
A longer hiring process is also a wonderful candidate experience. It gives both sides a lot of time to carefully consider whether this is a perfect fit, and it gives the candidate the chance to get to know several people on the team. When the process is more thorough and involves more people, it’s also easier to steer clear of unconscious bias. I can only remember one time in seven years that we lost out on someone for not moving fast enough. That’s a risk we’re willing to take in favor of making the right decision.
Recruit to diversify the hiring pool
The data is abundantly clear: Diverse companies are more successful. As noted in our first Diversity and Inclusion report (we’ve made significant progress since then that we’ll share soon), we do proactive recruiting to even out the hiring pool. Without proactive efforts to make the applicant pool a reflection of the general population, it’s almost impossible to build a team with varied opinions, perspectives and experiences.
Unfortunately this wasn’t always a focus for us, and we had significant “diversity debt” to account for when this became a priority in 2016. But I can say that changing the candidate mix in our hiring pool has transformed our team in unbelievably positive ways. Becca Van Nederynen and Leah Knobler from our People Ops team deserve tremendous credit for pushing this effort forward on our behalf.
Why am I talking about this in an essay on remote culture? Because every team needs to be doing it if they want to build a great business. As a remote team, by way of having a larger talent pool, your opportunity to hire people from underrepresented groups is far greater. It’s important to make the most of that opportunity and to hire a recruiter to source diverse candidates as soon as you can.
Investing in remote team culture
Remote or not, the culture you build is a direct result of the time and effort you put into it. In hindsight, one of the smartest things we’ve done as a company is invest in People Ops. Compared to co-located cultures, we’ve always needed a disproportionate number of people focused 100% on the team and the culture. We had a two-person People Ops group at 20 people, and today (at 75 people), we have three people on the team.
A lot of the issues faced by co-located companies at 50, 75 and 100 people actually have to be addressed in a remote culture at 10, 20 and 35. For Help Scout, those smaller numbers were much more challenging than growing to 50 and 75 people.
Another common misconception is that remote teams don’t scale. But we don’t have to worry about office space, the talent pool is always large enough, and we addressed a lot of the structural and communication challenges early on.
Our retention and engagement numbers show the ROI of our investment in the culture over the years. In our history, we’ve hired 92 people and only five have left voluntarily.
(Three of those five were already on a performance plan of some sort and were likely going to need a different fit anyway.)
While we are working to improve areas such as cross-team communication and acting when someone isn’t delivering, our other employee engagement numbers speak for themselves:
In areas such as Management, Leadership, Work/life balance, and Feedback & recognition, I’m especially proud of what we’ve accomplished as a remote team. It’s incredible to see 98% of people strongly agree that their manager genuinely cares about their wellbeing.
I mentioned that different work philosophies aren’t right or wrong; they merely have different tradeoffs. There are two common remote tradeoffs that we have to be very intentional about:
In a remote culture, it’s easier to get a productive 4-6 hour block of work done during the day. But one of the tradeoffs you make is that it’s not natural to develop close relationships with your teammates. Aside from work-related discussion, there are no social outings, no casual lunch conversations, usually no friendships that also exist outside of the workplace.
I mentioned earlier that it’s harder to be a manager in a remote culture, and I’ve only realized this in the last year. I’m a huge believer in the Players and Coaches philosophy, which dictates that people be in a dedicated Player (individual contributor) or Coach (manager) role. Player-Coach (a little of each) doesn’t really allow someone to be at their best, and this is magnified exponentially in a remote workplace.
It’s a lot more time-consuming for Coaches on a remote team to keep up with all the information streams. Someone is always working, even when you sleep. In a co-located company you may have a morning stand-up meeting for 15 minutes. In our company, stand-ups are written updates in Slack, and they appear at all hours of the day. I’m sure it’s easy to see how having people working all hours of the day can create an additional burden for Coaches. So we try to make it so that Coaches have no fewer than four and no more than 10 direct reports.
While it’s more challenging to be a Coach, the tradeoff is that Players really shine in a remote company if you do it right. The right culture and Coaching can free up a Player to do measurably better work if they are remote. Fewer interruptions really are a magical thing in today’s workplace.
FAQs about remote company culture
Where can I read more about building a remote team?
I highly recommend the book Remote: Office Not Required, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp. They’ve been blogging about this for more than a decade and are a sincere inspiration to us.
Do you pay people differently based on geography?
No. Any remote company will tell you that it gets super complicated, and great work has the same value to the company, so we should be happy to pay the same amount of money for it. Our salary formula is internally public to employees, and it’s the same no matter where you live.
Is there a cost savings?
No. What we save on office space, we spend on company retreats. Our overall headcount is lower because we only hire high performers, but the average salary is higher than most tech companies. (We seek high performers for the team, and it’s only fair to pay them like high performers.) When it comes to benefits, we work hard to give people inside and outside of the U.S. equal treatment. If your primary motivation for experimenting with remote is cost savings, don’t waste your time.
What other questions do you have? We’d love to hear them.
No doubt you’ve heard of Equifax. The credit reporting company experienced one of the biggest data security breaches in history last summer when hackers exploited the company’s known security vulnerability and stole over 150 million customers’ information.
But Equifax is even more notorious for how they handled the crisis than the fact that it happened.
First, Equifax broke data breach notification laws by waiting a month to send a security breach notification and failing to disclose an earlier breach. Executives also sold off almost $2 million in company stock at the time of this second breach, leading the public to believe company leaders offloaded their shares before the their value tanked.
Equifax then built a new site for customers to check in on their data, which hackers quickly replicated. The company’s own social media team went on to tweet links to phishing sites, leading to more stolen data! Since then, Equifax has accidentally sent consumers affected by the breach the wrong notification letters and has given their former CEO Richard Smith a $1 million raise for his leadership.
This escalating series of missteps goes to show that data security breaches are treacherous ground for companies and customers. Beyond the breach itself, the mishandling of a data breach response plan can exponentially complicate a crisis.
As breaches increase in their scale, sophistication and frequency, it’s never been more important that your team takes a proactive approach to security infrastructure and — if necessary — to rebuilding customer loyalty after a data breach.
Create a data breach response plan
Just as in any crisis, you need a plan to minimize potential harm and prevent the same crisis from reoccurring in the future. A data breach response plan, or the process your company follows in the wake of a breach, requires company-wide accountability, the promise of transparency, and an overarching willingness to make things right.
When you tackle the response to an overwhelming customer service crisis like this, remember the “service recovery paradox”:
“Research shows that when a company recovers well after a significant service failure, it can benefit from higher customer satisfaction levels than before the crisis.”
Rebuilding trust requires that you go above and beyond — here’s how to start one step at a time.
Research data breach notification laws
If your company has been at the center of a data breach, it’s also subject to intricate, complex regulations that protect customers around the world. These security breach notification laws are becoming more rigorous as data breaches far exceed the rate that legislators expected. All 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, legislate data breaches. Other countries do, too, and their laws vary in severity.
As a business owner or leader, you need to understand the nuance of how the laws affect your data breach response plan. If you have customers across multiple states, you’re bound to comply with the laws of those states. For example, Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against Uber for violating a data law protecting Pennsylvania residents. (At the time of this writing, there are no relevant regulations at the federal level, although a bill on data breaches was recently introduced in the Senate and there could be a national consensus soon.)
While you could try to untangle these laws on your own, your company would benefit from an attorney who understands the ins and outs of data breach notification laws and stays up on the latest changes in legislation. An expert can help you understand the granular elements of your responsibilities, especially if your company is based online and needs to adhere to multiple sets of regulations.
Assess the scale and source of the data security breach
A thorough assessment of the scale and source of a data security breach starts with a simple question: What data do hackers or inside leakers want and why? Audit the sensitive data your company keeps to understand how deep the breach could go. For example, maybe you keep addresses and credit card information of customers but never social security numbers. A simple rundown of the data can help you understand the severity of the breach for your community.
The same way that an expert can help you navigate security breach notification laws, a data security expert can also help you discover exactly what happened. Because hackers are becoming increasingly adept at breaking through security systems (and you weren’t able to prevent the breach on your own), you benefit from calling in the help of a consultant to complete a full post-mortem.
With the eyes of an expert, you can see any vulnerabilities that led to the breach and build a comprehensive data security plan from there. Be aware that you may need to completely redesign your security infrastructure to protect customers’ data. Other situations, like human mistakes, are just as important to pinpoint, because you can address them with education and training.
Security best practices are numerous, but they include two-factor authentication, tiered access to sensitive information, encryption programs, monitoring software, automated detection, employee education, and regular testing.
Security breach notification laws list the bare minimum requirements for honoring the rights of customers, but they don’t show you how to win back the trust of your community. Doing the right thing in a data breach scenario means going beyond regulations to make things right.
J.J. Thompson, CEO at Rook Security, told Forbes there’s a “magic seven-day window” to present customers with a clear assessment of what happened and how you’re going to fix it. Your company needs to act efficiently to meet that deadline — it’s an all-hands-on-deck scenario. Although a week may seem like a short time frame, it’s a long time for customers whose credit card or social security numbers were leaked.
How to draft a security breach notification
A “data breach notification” is a formal term for the email you send to let customers know that there’s been a security breach. This is when it’s really important to follow the letter of the law. But even when companies follow data breach notification laws with exacting detail, they often fall short in multiple ways. There are a few keys to getting a breach notification right, and the most important one is to treat your customers as humans first.
1. Empathize with your customers
A data breach can lead to an escalating series of disasters for customers, like identity theft and credit card fraud. When you write to customers, imagine how they’re feeling about this breach. Empathize with their sense of powerlessness and their sense of frustration that they have to take steps to prevent real-life consequences. After all, they didn’t make a mistake. Apologize sincerely and specifically for what unfolded and take complete responsibility for the breach.
2. Be transparent about what happened
These breach notifications are not a time to be vague. Describe what happened with transparency and without jargon. For example, you could say, “Last week, a hacker made it past our extensive security (including a firewall and two-factor authentication) and stole the credit card information for 1000 of our customers.”
Also include clear directions on how customers can check in on the status of their personal data. People who want to know more about what unfolded beyond a brief description also have the right to that information, too. Direct customers to more documentation that details the breach and the company’s response in depth.
3. Outline the ways you’re fixing the vulnerability
If you’re managing the data breach response plan well, your team will be working around the clock to fix any vulnerabilities and make it up to customers. In the notification email, describe the ways the company has created internal accountability and collaborated with external experts to drive actionable change.
To trust your company again, customers need specifics about the strides you’re making to update current security infrastructure.
4. Pay for an identity protection plan
Data breaches are particularly challenging because the damage is already done. One of the most difficult things about breaches is that there’s not much you can do to make customers’ lives better. Offering to pay for an identity protection plan is a small but meaningful way to reduce the fallout for each and every customer. Make it easy for people to take you up on it — this step shouldn’t be an extra hassle for them.
5. Give an incentive for loyalty
Loyal customers always deserve a “thank you” when they choose to stick with you through thick and thin. At the end of the email, be generous and offer customers a discount on their next purchase or for their monthly service. This small token can help tip the scales in building trust, reassuring customers that you are willing to take a revenue hit to make the experience better for them.
Data breach notification example
The following (real) example of a data breach notification email may follow data breach notification laws, but it doesn’t speak to readers — i.e., customers — as humans. Let’s explore how this letter could have made better use of empathy, clarity, and follow-through.
NOTICE OF DATA BREACH
To the MyFitnessPal Community:
We are writing to notify you about an issue that may involve your MyFitnessPal account information. We understand that you value your privacy and we take the protection of your information seriously.
On March 25, 2018, we became aware that during February of this year an unauthorized party acquired data associated with MyFitnessPal user accounts.
What Information Was Involved?
The affected information included usernames, email addresses, and hashed passwords - the majority with the hashing function called bcrypt used to secure passwords.
What We Are Doing
Once we became aware, we quickly took steps to determine the nature and scope of the issue. We are working with leading data security firms to assist in our investigation. We have also notified and are coordinating with law enforcement authorities.
We are taking steps to protect our community, including the following:
We are notifying MyFitnessPal users to provide information on how they can protect their data.
We will be requiring MyFitnessPal users to change their passwords and urge users to do so immediately.
We continue to monitor for suspicious activity and to coordinate with law enforcement authorities.
We continue to make enhancements to our systems to detect and prevent unauthorized access to user information.
What You Can Do
We take our obligation to safeguard your personal data very seriously and are alerting you about this issue so you can take steps to help protect your information. We recommend you:
Change your password for any other account on which you used the same or similar information used for your MyFitnessPal account.
Review your accounts for suspicious activity.
Be cautious of any unsolicited communications that ask for your personal data or refer you to a web page asking for personal data.
Avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from suspicious emails.
For More Information
For more information, please go to https://content.mY.fitnesspal.com/security-information/FAQ.html.
An annotated example of a recent data breach notification email. (Data breach notification laws differ from state to state and country to country — consult an attorney before drafting your own.)
Empower your support team with the right information
Data security breaches are a mess for customers, but they’re also a nightmare for support teams. Customer support professionals can (understandably) expect a flurry of urgent requests from furious customers who want to understand how and why this happened.
Give your support team everything they need and more to help customers understand the situation. Create clear guidelines about what and how support should talk about the breach, and give them all the context they need to understand the importance of every dialogue.
Near-constant complaints of this magnitude can test the patience of even the most experienced support professionals. Offer ample breaks and extra recognition to the team for rebuilding customer loyalty after a data breach.
Continue the conversation with customers
Even the most thoughtful and effective security breach notification isn’t the end of a successful data breach response plan. One point of communication will never be enough with a customer support issue this huge.
If you want to woo customers back, you need to follow through on the dialogue you started. Keep your community up to date on new security measures and become an advocate for taking preventative steps in your industry — after all, you’re in the best position to help educate the public on a topic we just don’t talk about enough before it’s too late.