The Next Competitive Battleground | Customer Experience

I had the pleasure of discussing the new world of customer support and experience with Gerald Hastie, Head of Global Customer Operations at Pinterest, and former Head of Student Support and Community Operations at MasterClass. His teams always lead from the front, exceeding the expectations of an ever-more-so demanding customer. It was an incredible experience to hear his thoughts on how the world of Customer Support is evolving, and excited to share our conversation below.


Aakrit: Gerald, always a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to chat on this. 

Gerald: Sure, happy to. Good to speak with you.

Aakrit: Before we dive into the details, could you tell us a bit about yourself? What got you into customer support in the first place, how it’s been over your career, and some of the most exciting moments & trends?

Gerald: I actually stumbled into this career as it found me. I was working at Lucent Technologies, formerly AT&T, and became a Computer Technology Integration [CTI] Specialist. This was a new area where companies wanted to integrate the call center technology with their computer systems to leverage customer data. My education as an electrical engineer made it a natural fit as I loved computers and technology. I was immediately hooked.

From those beginnings, I have since worked as a process consultant, a customer service strategist, to my latest roles as an operational leader.

Throughout my career, I have seen a lot of changes. Some of the most exciting have been in  leveraging customer data to segment service, automating services through tools like IVRs and chatbots, or migration to the cloud to enhance how we deliver support.

Aakrit: Those changes you mentioned, what are some of the biggest ones you’ve seen? How have they impacted both the support teams providing guidance to customers, and the overall customer experience?

Gerald: Generally speaking, the biggest change that I have seen over the last five years is the mere fact that customer service is becoming more and more important in the overall strategy and plans for companies. I can’t tell you how many startups reach out looking for a CS leader and have less than a hundred employees. In the past, support was among the last leadership roles hired at startup companies.

From a service perspective, the big change is the need and use for large amounts of data to drive customer support. Support has always had a slew of data, for example,  AHT, Reply time, chat sessions, etcetera. However, now the quantity of the data that is being captured has exploded. This is due to two factors in my opinion.

First, the explosion of access channels plays a role. Previously, it was a toll-free number that was the main avenue to gain support. Today, it comes from everywhere including text, chat, social media, and more. Monitoring who, why, where, and how they are contacting you requires more data to be captured especially if you are looking to provide an omnichannel service.

Second, customer service is more than just answering customer issues but is now an integral part of bug identification and resolution as well as playing a role in product planning. Therefore, the number and types of data that need to be tracked has significantly increased. Now customer service operations capture more information about the customer including data such as: Customer size, Location, Tenure, Number of engaged Products, plus many others data points. It becomes critical to capture this data, to paint a true picture and help create the appropriate level of service, shape bug resolution, and influence product roadmaps.

Aakrit: So there’s much more data to be captured surrounding every interaction, no matter the channel. This is a big lift in many places to get systems in place to capture all this, not just the tickets and issues themselves, but the surrounding data around each ticket or issue, individually. Especially if organizations haven’t started looking into it yet. What do you see as the biggest factor that’s created this push for more data - the catalyst for it - and how does the approach to how service is provided adapt with reference to all this new data being captured?

Gerald: I see customer service as becoming more and more critical to a company’s success which is the driving catalyst for change. I hear people talk about driving to personalized service. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a more specialized service which focuses on the issue more than the person. I make the analogy of migrating from training for a decathlon to just focusing on the 100-meter dash. However, the challenge will be how to do this at scale. Solutions that will allow companies to specialize while building at scale will have the advantage during the next three to five years 

Aakrit: That makes sense. Really, what’s the end goal of anyone contacting a support team? Typically, it’s to get whatever issue they have, resolved. Their overall experience is primarily based on that factor. How quick and easy it is to get there. And it’s really a differentiator, too, from competition. A new battleground. If I’m using something, and something goes wrong, am I left hanging, or is it quickly resolved so I can continue using that something, and do whatever I need to do. In previous roles, I’ve seen this as a major factor determining customer upsells versus customer churn. So with all this - all the surrounding data, issue oriented approach, ever increasing importance of customer service in organizations, and more, how did you organize your current workflow for managing these tickets and escalations, to balance all of what we’ve talked about so far, with a customer-first mindset? 

Gerald: Wow that is a good question as the service model is always evolving for me. I am trying to reach utopia and frankly not sure it exists, but that might be ok, as the joy is in the journey and as long as you take that journey, I believe you build a wonderful experience for your customers. Sorry to get philosophical on you.

Aakrit: Don’t be. I love it. Never a bad time for an Emerson reference.

Gerald: You asked what I am doing to balance everything given a customer focused mindset. Although I can’t give you the secret sauce, what I can say is that we are looking at several different things. We are looking at segmenting tickets by product as our products and services are becoming more complex and thus having generalists becomes less of a reality. Escalations are important to us and thus we are looking at ways to identify and quantify them quicker so that we can provide feedback to both product and engineering teams. There are several other areas we are focusing on as well. 

Aakrit: Well it’s obvious it’s working. Pinterest continues to see major success, with revenue and active users continuing to grow, and beating revenue goals quarter over quarter. A testament to your customers having a wonderful experience. With things working so well, what’s the next point of focus to continue to level up your approach from here? 

Gerald: Next will be to continue to find ways to build to scale. We don’t expect or want to grow at the same rate as revenue, but we still want to provide the same if not better level of support for our valued users. We are also growing globally so we need to think through how we manage that and deal not only with language challenges but cultural and time zone issues if we want to continue to provide around the clock support.

Aakrit: On that around the clock portion, I saw your post recently about the amazing work in how you’ve set up your forum for customers to help support one another, which was really cool to see. I can imagine that would be a huge help to many in different timezones, even considering some language barriers. Also for your teams as well - another knowledge source to help find issue resolution details. In terms of all the content from that forum, plus internal documents, knowledge sources, slack, previous tickets, and so on, how important is it to not only have a single place where agents can find all the information they need but, if the answer is already documented, to also automate some of those responses with the proper help articles to customers to get them resolutions, faster?

Gerald: The forum is very important and aligns with our overall strategy. As mentioned before we are looking to build at scale and the forum is one cog in the machine that will help us get there. In terms of one place for agents to find information, that’s also very important for two reasons. First, ease of access will increase speed to resolution which helps to create customer loyalty. Second, ensure that we are providing the latest and most accurate information. As you are aware, when you have multiple sources of data, it becomes challenging to ensure that information is consistent across all sources.

Aakrit: What happens if systems like this aren't set up?

Gerald: What would occur is that there’s information that isn’t in agreement. Different answers, so it’s a lack of consistent messaging. It’s more difficult to sync across different sources. Does that make sense?

Aakrit: It does. From those successes, scaling, and within the realm of how customers are supported becoming more and more important to sales, product decisions, and really the entirety of all organizations, what excites you the most about how AptEdge has been approaching this new world of support modernization?

Gerald: I think this aligns very nicely with what I’ve said in the past. What excites me is its ability to not only help us identify bugs and get them resolved faster, but also where customer support is getting more involved in the product roadmapping piece. Insights we can provide to the product team that then leads to an improved product roadmap.

Aakrit: Within Pinterest, those insights to an improved customer roadmap and ultimately improved customer experience, how does AptEdge fit into this?

Gerald: Firstly, what are the key attributes of good customer experience? In its simplest form, it is to reply in a timely manner and with appropriate answers. AptEdge helps in both areas - the understanding that this customer ticket is related to a specific bug and identifies that quickly and responds accordingly. Plus the ability to link with the help center in AptEdge, the agent can provide better and quicker answers to their customers.

Aakrit: Before we wrap up, one last question. If you had a chance to rewind time to when you first started, what are some things you wish you knew, or any advice you'd give to folks just starting their careers?

Gerald: Good question. Embrace the data and use it to your advantage. There’s a lot of data incorporated into customer support, use it to build a case as to why customer support builds value to the overall company. No matter what you do, you’ll have to build a case around it. My advice would be to always be thinking about the data and how to build a strategy, how to communicate that to the leadership team, and ultimately get the resources you need to be successful in the role and for your customers.

Aakrit: Gerald, as said at the beginning, always a pleasure. Thank you again for taking the time to share some knowledge here.

Gerald: Sure, anytime. Thanks.

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