User Research and Support: Do you really know your users?

When I worked in support for advertising products at Google we decided to do a round of user research leading up to a revamp of our help centers. The revamp involved re-writing all our content, restructuring our multiple help centers, and building new UIs for the help centers and troubleshooting tools that were available to advertisers. Since it was such a large and global project we wanted to get a better idea of how advertisers used AdWords and the self-help tools that were available. So we visited advertisers to talk to them about their businesses and to do some user testing at their computer to see how they actually used the products. The story is about one of those visits the team did and why that visit became important to our team and has stayed with me since.

On one of the visits three of us went to visit a local small business that used AdWords as one of the main channels to bring in new customers. They all spent some time in the shop with the owner of the business talking about the products they sold and the story of the business. All very helpful to help build profiles of the different types of users we worked with.
And then they asked if they could sit down with him and take a look at how he used AdWords, talk about how often he logged in, look at which reports he used, and so on. Which was really the main point of the visit. And his reply was, “Sure. If you just get in your car and follow me, then we’ll go over to my uncle’s place, because I don’t own a computer, so I use the computer that’s in his garage.” The person they had been picturing spending a good chunk of his time at the computer poring over his AdWords reports to dream up new advertising strategies did not own a computer!

As the enlightened product and support people we were, we had all learned (through painful mistakes mostly) that our users weren’t all exactly like us. We knew they didn’t all spend all day sitting in front of two 24” monitors using the newest browser. Some used an old version of Internet Explorer with 17 different pre-installed toolbars covering most of their 14” CRT screen. So our adjusted worldview was something like “some users have smaller screens”. But what my colleagues realized while driving over to that uncle’s garage was that we still weren’t even close to grasping the complexity of the reality of our users. And that we still made major assumptions about our users. And finally, that that would always be the case. Knowing more about our users would always be possible and we needed to always assume that there was something we didn’t know that would impact how people used our products.

One thing we realized was how counter-productive it was to our learning that we kept calling our users “advertisers”. It made sense, they used the advertising products we built, so that was what they were to us. But that’s not how they would describe themselves. They would describe themselves as shop-owners, guitar teachers, garden fence makers etc. Some of them would think about advertising for maybe 30 minutes in a given week. Our referring to them as “advertisers” lead to a certain kind of blindness to the reality of who our users were. By thinking of them as advertisers, we didn’t keep an open mind to the diversity and reality of the people who were using our products.

Your customer’s reality is different than yours, so learn to identify your hidden assumptions

You are missing things because of your frame of reference. That’s not a bad things, that’s just reality. But if you’re aware of that fact you can intentionally work towards discovering bits of information that you otherwise wouldn’t know to look for. Benefits of developing that sensitivity is that you develop a new sensitivity to discovering aspects of your users’ every day experience.

You have a unique access to learn about your users’ experience – be the user researcher

No one else is having the conversations you are. You talk (whether it’s phone, email or chat) to users at so many different points in their lifecycle as users of your product. And each of those conversations is an opportunity to take the conversation a little further. Some of this new information you can glean from what users are already telling you. Other things you can get at by asking a simple question over the course of a conversation. User researchers look for a variety of things when they study a culture or a social group: artefacts, language, what time is spent on, relationships. When talking to users that can translate into looking for what other tools they use, how they themselves describe the work they’re doing, when they’re busy and when they’re not, who they work with inside their company or outside.

Help the rest of your company do better work based on what you learn

Are users talking about other products they use? That is information that will be relevant to your product team for possible integrations, and to your marketing team for cross-promotion or channel partnerships.

Constantly developing your understanding of your users is valuable for what you’re working on right now and is a skillset that will benefit your career regardless which direction you choose to go in.

User Research and Support: Do you really know your users?

Make Your Insights Impactful

A critical component in making support conversations useful to other teams and finding the right format to deliver the information in. Get this wrong, and all the other work will be wasted despite all good intentions. We will want to find a way to communicate that is both efficient and effective. Efficient, so it requires the least amount of work on your part. And effective, so it has the maximum impact for the receiving team. Once again we have to step out of our own situation and into the mindset of the person who we are trying to get to understand and internalize the information we’re sharing with them.

Be Boring

When sharing information with your colleagues you ideally want to be brief but comprehensive, which is not simple to do. In fact, it’s really hard. One way to help yourself in the beginning is to be as simple as straightforward as possible. In other words, be boring. Don’t worry about the aesthetics of what you’re trying to do for your colleagues here. You’re literally just trying to find the smallest piece of information that will be useful to them.

So find that information and then find the easiest way for you to repeatedly produce it and deliver it to them. A simple email may be the way to go. Or adding an agenda item to an already existing meeting. The point is that it’s something you need to figure out. That’s where the context of your team comes in. If you’re talking to a product team, they’ll often have a stand up. Maybe that’s the right place to deliver the information, so you would just go and tell them in a couple of sentences, whatever it is they need to know.

For your sales team, they may have one weekly session where they iterate on their pitches, and it may just be 30 minutes. It may be very helpful for them to have an email with a couple of sentences that they can copy paste directly into their pitch and test the next week. By matching your insight and delivery to where you’re hoping your insights will have an impact, you increase the odds of that actually happening hugely.

 


Interested in what support can do for the rest of your company?
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Make Your Insights Impactful

Find Out What Your Colleagues Really Need

What we’re interested in here is to take support conversations and make them useful for other teams. To do that effectively we need tools we can use when we go talk to those other teams. The first thing we will look at is empathy. If you work in a support team empathy probably comes fairly natural for you. And empathy and the ability to listen without judgement are the most important skills for you when talking to the other teams in your company about how support conversations can help them. Since we’re trying to figure out how support conversations can help these other teams we need to truly understand their goals and the reality they operate in.

That also means that you need to forget about tickets for a while. Because as we’re talking to other teams we need to let go of what we’re trying to achieve. At least for a while. We’ll get back to it, but for now, you’re not trying to convince anyone of anything. You’re only trying to learn. So before you go talk to anyone it’s a good idea to do a quick mental check of anything you need to put aside for a while. Like that one billing bug that keeps sending you into the red zone because the product team never seem to understand that it obviously needs to be fixed. That bug is not important right now. What’s important is to have a genuinely open conversation with the people you work with.

And that conversation starts with a simple question: “what is your biggest challenge right now?” That question works very well, whether you’re talking to customers or colleagues. It works so well because you’re trying to understand what’s most important to your colleagues and the most important thing or the thing that’s top of mind is most often the biggest challenge, the thing that keeps people awake at night. And that’s also what people love to talk about.

You may think of a better version of that question. You may want to get more specific, but you can pretty much walk up to anyone in your company right now, ask them this question, and in five minutes you will have some very valuable information to help figure out how you can help.

 


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Find Out What Your Colleagues Really Need

What Types of Data can you get From Support Conversations?

Support conversations are a unique source of information about your customers. Information that is both rich in detail and messy in structure. And information that the support team is uniquely positioned to access and understand.

Support teams have a special relationship with customers stemming from the simple fact that the support team’s role in this world is to be helpful. Even when a question doesn’t have a clear answer or the answer isn’t what a customer was hoping for they should still walk away having had a positive experience. If that is not the case, then you have other issues for your support team to work on. Assuming you have a high functioning support team, let’s take a look at some examples of the type of information the support teams can produce.

The real strength of having a close relationship with customers is the type of qualitative data we get access to. We get an understanding of their experience as we talk to them. An understanding of the reality they live in, which in turn helps us interpret in a much broader way the questions they ask us. And it also gives us knowledge of different facets of them and of what they do. Knowledge we can put to use in giving them a better help or in finding more customers like them.

Tools

Understanding what tools customers use can tell us quite a bit about what their day-to-day looks like and what their priorities are. Here we are looking for things like areas where they used very expensive tools and areas where they seem to use no or only free tools. Getting an understanding of how they allocate their budget is relevant for us in terms of product strategy. Is our product moving in the direction where customers have a history of making new investments? If so, are we prepared to convince them to start making those investments?

It can also help give us ideas for where to look for other businesses similar to our current customers who might be interested in what we have to offer.

Challenges

What do they spend most of their time worrying about? And not just in relation to the tool we are providing them with, but in terms of their business in general. Knowing this is helpful to us in a few different ways. We are interested in knowing because we are empathetic people, and actually care about what is important to the people we interact with. It is also relevant from a business perspective. How does the problem our tool helps them solve relate to their main challenge right now? And is there anything we can do from a product or service perspective to help address those challenges? This is information that is highly relevant to both a product team and a sales team in terms of conversations they are having with potential customers right now and initiatives they will start in the future.

Wow moments

As the flip side to their main challenges, we are also interested in what there positive experiences have been with our product. What did we help them do that was awesome? Hopefully there is something.
Wow moments are gold for sales teams. They can use these examples when talking to potential new customers, to help paint a picture of what we have helped other, similar businesses to achieve.

So some of the questions we want to ask are:

  • What other tools have you been using today?
  • What are your biggest challenges right now?
  • What would you like us to help you do more of?

 


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What Types of Data can you get From Support Conversations?

What Can Support do for Your Product Team?

Let’s look at what information is useful to product teams and how to best deliver it to them. It is important to understand both the goals and the reality of the other teams in your company. For product teams that is often a reality that’s shaped by backlogs and code. The same way a support team’s world is often shaped by tickets or phone calls. They also worm in a reality of constant time and resource constraints, which leads to them having to make trade-offs.

Support teams can help product teams with things like identifying bugs that need to be fixed, channeling feature requests from customers, and other explicit feedback users have. But the real value comes in understanding the users’ context and reality and bringing that richer information, those stories about the everyday challenges of a customer, to the product team. Because that’s helpful when they’re trying to figure out what to prioritize next. They’ll probably be looking at feature usage and things like that, but giving them that richer understanding of what a feature actually means to a user can be very impactful.

So the first objective is going to be to get an understanding of how we can really help the product team:

  1. Go to them and ask for their roadmap
  2. Ask what their biggest challenge is right now

 


Interested in what support can do for the rest of your company?
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What Can Support do for Your Product Team?

Working With Small B2B Customers

There are many differences between working in B2B and consumer software but a few interesting things stand out from having the smallest of businesses as customers. B2B typically deals with a lower volume of customers and have a closer relationship with them. Which is related to the fact that the acquisition channels tend to be different and the sales cycles often much longer for B2B. Use of products are often more casual and ad-hoc for consumer versus more structured, goal-driven, and often 40 hours per week for B2B. Or at least that what is tends to look like at the ends of the spectrum. So pure consumer entertainment software versus enterprise level deeply integrated software. I have mostly been working with small and medium-sized businesses, in some cases even tiny businesses. And they sit somewhere in the middle of the scale on many of those dimensions. Which makes for an interesting set of challenges and opportunities borrowing from both consumer and enterprise-level B2B software.

Some of the challenges in working with very small businesses come from the consumer side of the scale. An owner or employee at a very small business will most likely cover multiple roles and responsibilities. Which means that their time and attention is split across multiple priorities. Which again means that whatever tool or service you are offering them most likely only related to one of their priorities. In a enterprise setting it is more likely that the person who will be using the tool is fully focused on one area of expertise, which means your tool or service helps them with the one thing that is most important to them. So when approaching small businesses about a service, understand that they have many things to do. On the flip side, in a small business you are more likely to be talking to the person who can make the purchase decision. You won’t usually need to wait for the supervisor meeting and budget reviews for someone to OK a purchase.

Build the tool with a casual gaming mindset. It is unlikely that your user will be spending all day every day in your tool, so it needs to be very simple to jump in and get work done whenever some time frees up. Whether that is once per week or every other week. Consider when your users will most need help from you. Any tool that is not the top 3 most used by a small business, are likely to find usage on evenings and weekends when other priorities have been taken care of. So consider whether you need to be available on the phone outside of business hours, or if you need to build really good self-help content that can cover during those times.


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Working With Small B2B Customers

How Can Support Conversations Help Sales Teams?

Sales teams constantly need to update their knowledge about customers to do their job better. And that is knowledge that support teams often have through their daily conversations with customers. But sales teams live in a busy world of sales targets and goals that they have to hit right now.
Because of that they don’t have time to go look for information that’s useful to them in other teams. That is where support teams have an opportunity to proactively help their sales colleagues by getting that information to them.

“Getting insight into what users use or like the most, and where they see the highest value for the product. There is always a WOW moment with a happy customer: ‘Wow that’s gonna save or make me so much time or money’. If you are able to identify those moments and give that to the sales and marketing teams to shape the sales message… it will really help!”

Jorge Bestard, Growth Manager, Olapic

One of the most common questions a sales person will get when talking to customers about a tool or service is “how do other businesses like mine use it?” Support can help answer that question because they have those conversations every day.

Stories about what other customers have found valuable once they geo up and running with the product are extremely useful to both a sales person and the potential customer they’re talking to. Those stories can help move the conversation from a discussion of features to using the real world examples to talking about what business results the new customer can reasonably expect. So if you hear about a wow moment from a customer two or three months in, that is something you want to pass on to your sales team.

Another thing to consider is whether any of the onboarding material that is used after a customer signs on could be used as part of the sales process. This can play out in a few different ways. If your onboarding material helps customers get their business in better shape so they can get the most benefit from your tool, then getting that process started before a sale is closed is to everyone’s benefit. The customer improves their business, the sales rep has actual value to offer even before a contract is signed, and the support teams gets customer that are more likely to be successful with the product who have already completed part of their onboarding.

Some sales teams are aware of these things and some aren’t. In either case they often don’t have the time to go find it. They typically operate in a hectic environment and rarely have time to look beyond the targets they have to hit today. Even if there’s information sitting in the next team over that could help them hit their quotas for the month or the quarter. So much time is spent putting out fires and managing urgency that they are rarely able to put in the time to go talk to support teams about things that could help them close deals. And that is an opportunity for other teams in a company.

So go talk to your sales team today and figure out what types of customers they are talking to. Look for places where insights from conversations with current customers can be helpful to them. And then start passing that information on to make your support conversations helpful to your sales team!


Interested in what support can do for the rest of your company?
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How Can Support Conversations Help Sales Teams?