I posted this on our company-internal blog at Travis CI to share progress on goals I've set myself over the past couple of months with my team.

They include some reflection on our development as a business and on what I got done and what I didn't manage to finish.

I figured I might as well publish these here as a public commitment to improving and to give some more insight as to how our company works.

Transparency and openness are some of the goals we aim for, and this fits in well with these ideals.

The Review

For the last three months, starting 1. September 2014, I had set myself three bigger goals to focus on for the following three months, ending on 30. November.

The goals were:

  • Set up our new office and move in with the Berlin team
  • Improve our customer onboarding process
  • Reduce customer churn by 0,5%

Part of setting goals is to have an honest retrospective on what got done and why something may not have gotten done, and what can be learned from that. That's the purpose of this post, to look at the goals, what motivated them, what I got done and where I failed and why.

Another thing about goals is that, while they give something bigger to work towards, their purpose doesn't have to be a finished result, but improvements. If a goal helps improve something, it's been worth setting, whether you've reached the specific target or not. It's not an excuse to set goals and not work towards them, but a guideline to help set and evaluate them.

New office

During our offsite the topic of a new office in Berlin came up. We quickly found a great space and signed a lease starting in September.

The process of getting it up and running has been slow, to say the least. We installed a kitchen, commissioned custom table tops for standing desks, but it took two months to install even a basic set of furniture, leaving the office empty and not usable at that time.

In October we got internet, a kitchen, and meeting room furniture. In November, the couch arrived, more desk frames and the remaining custom table tops.

While I was able to start working from our office by late November, it wasn't nearly ready for everyone on the Berlin team to work in.

Why has this goal not been met? I was travelling for two weeks in October, and I was preparing and giving a total of 8 talks in October and November, which took away a lot of time I could've devoted to the office.

By the first week, there's a full set of desks at the office, kitchen seating and a few monitors, so it's a close call, and progress has been made regardless of not reaching the finish line.

Looking back, we should've hired someone to manage the whole interior and getting everything set up and installed. Even then, it would've helped to be around and help make decisions.

In response to the excessive travel and time required for all those talks, I've also decided to go on a conference talk hiatus in 2015.

Improve our customer onboarding process

The idea was to improve our product's onboarding process to make it easier for our customers to get started, send better lifecycle emails, find ways to proactively reach out to customers struggling to get their builds set up.

I didn't get any idea implemented that I had on this over the last three months.

Why has this goal not been met? Mostly due to travels and conferences, I didn't have enough time to focus on it.

I also realized that this is not a task for one person, it's a product concern, which needs to be scheduled into the bigger plan for our teams to plan and implement. That needs to happen in a team that devotes time and resources towards this goal together.

Reduce churn by 0.5%

By the beginning of September, our churn was at 2.9%, according to Baremetrics. It went up and down since then, going up to 3.4% in late September, down to 2.75% in late October, now going back up to 3.5%.

There were a few things I got done that were related to this goal:

  • Allow resubscribing expired subscriptions. This wasn't possible before, so customers either didn't renew them when their credit card expired, or they had to email us to do it for them.
  • Add more people (admins in the organization) to the email that's send out when a credit card charge has failed. Churn is more than just people cancelling, it's also subscriptions expiring because of failed charges.
  • Visit customers in San Francisco. I met with 20 different companies while I was over there. While that has little direct impact on churn, it can help build a longer term relationship with customers, effectively increasing their lifetime value.

What had I planned beyond these things?

  • Add an upsell to our annual plans to the invoice emails.
  • Send an end-of-the-year email to advertise upgrading to the annual plan.

While the annual plans don't necessarily help to decrease churn, they can increase customer lifetime value and retention due to their annual nature.

The fluctuation in the churn, and it being higher now than it was in September suggest that this goal hasn't been met.

What I did get done makes sense regardless of this goal, though, as it can help in the longer term.

The fluctuation, at least over this short time frame, also suggests that maybe this is our normal churn and the pattern of it, and maybe churn is only one part that can be focused on. There's also lifetime value and monthly recurring revenue, which can be focused on.

Other things play into churn as well, making the current number a bit wonky, like our billing code creating duplicate customer entries in Stripe when a charge or something with the initial setup of the customer record failed.

Over the last three months, our MRR grew by 13.2%, whereas lifetime value is down 10.6%. Lifetime value is tied to churn, but there are other parameters to increase it, including improving your product, subscription plan upgrades, annual upsells, or changing your price structure.

For this month, I'd still like to focus on at least adding an annual plan upsell to our invoices, as the end of the year is a good opportunity to get some tax write-off for our customers with added expenses while helping increase their lifetime value for us.

What are my next goals?

My current time frame runs until February 16, when I'll go on an extended leave. Until then, I'd like to focus on two things:

  • Build a dedicated customer support team

    The motivation behind it has been discussed in a previous post. The goal is to help us define a hiring process, learn more about what it means to hire for diversity and what helps us find the right candidates.

  • Become a better manager

    Given how little experience I have, my assumption right now is that I'm bad at what I do, and that I need to actively work on getting better. Over the past couple of months I've been reading a lot of books on how other companies are being lead.

    But moving forward, I'm going to rely on outside experience to help in getting better in what I do or want to do. This is a long term goal, and one that's hard to measure, but it helps me guide in what kind of work I focus on.

    I'm starting to work with a management/leadership coach in December to help move forward with this goal.

Tags: goals

Listening to the “This American Life” episode on the GM/Toyota NUMMI plant recently, one particular part struck me as interesting when it comes to culture.

Culture is something that everyone would love to be able to easily replicate. Companies like Etsy, Netflix and others are forging ahead with openness, open source and empowering employees when it comes to their production systems.

NUMMI was an attempt to bring Toyota’s principles in building cars to General Motors, the automotive giant that was struggling hard in the eighties and was eventually bailed out by the American tax payers in 2009.

Toyota’s production line is famous for a simple tool, the Andon cord that allowed every worker on the factory floor to stop the assembly line whenever they encountered a problem. This empowered every employee to work towards a single goal: quality.

At NUMMI, this same system was implemented, and very successfully so. Every worker in the factory initially worked for two weeks with a team at Toyota in Japan to fully experience how teamworks looks like. It didn’t exist inside GM before NUMMI was conceived.

The Andon cord is an essential tool in learning and improving quality continuously. Every stop of the production line is an opportunity to learn and to improve the production process.

Before the NUMMI experiment, and in the rest of GM, the one goal is to never stop the production line. Quantity over quality, at all times.

Quality at NUMMI thrived, and GM looked into implementing this in more of their factories.

This experiment failed as there was a lot of resistance in management, amongst the workers and in the unions (all of whom had been fully onboard at NUMMI).

One bit in particular was interesting about the adoption issues.

The Andon cord was installed in other factories too, but when workers used it, they were reprimanded for stopping the production line. Managers were paid by volume of cars leaving the factory. In other factories, the cord was cut down so it was harder to reach.

I found this bit fascinating in so many ways, and it made me think about culture.

We’d love to just take a blueprint from another company and apply that to ours. But culture is something you need to work hard on, something that takes years of learning and improving to bring about, and it requires continuous nurturing to stay healthy.

You can’t just replicate culture.

Portland I

When we set out to build Travis CI into a product and a business, I had one thing on my agenda that I wanted us to be good at, and that's customer support.

Offering an infrastructure product, we knew upfront that customers are going to have problems setting up their projects, and we knew that there'd be the occasional hard problem to solve.

Customer support turned into our number one priority to get right, and here's how we approached it.

Below are the simple hacks we've learned and applied over the last two years to make sure customers have a good experience when they interact with us. You can apply any and all of these steps instantly to improve your own customer support.

Remember Your Last Bad Support Experience

The simplest thing to help you how to do great customer support is your last bad experience with another company.

We've all had them, responses with blunt links to knowledge bases, canned responses seemingly matching keywords, and a customer support representative who's driven more by the number of calls he's making per hour than by the amount of happiness he's brought a company's customers.

If I'd ask you to sit down and jot down your last five bad experiences with a product and their customer support, the last tweets you fired off into the ether about a bad experience, you'll have a useful list in no time.

All you need to do now is figure out what annoyed you about these responses and incidents and figure out how you'd do it differently, how you would've wanted to be treated.

Great customer support people go out of their way to help a customer, they're the frontline of delivering happiness directly to people beyond simply selling them a good product.

First, Admit You're the Problem

When a customer is frustrated, you can read it in their emails asking for help. Some customers prefer to be snarky, others can say things that aren't very nice. People will say negative things about your product. We may not like it, and we may get easily offended when they do, but that shouldn't impact a positive response.

When your customer is having troubles, you need to think about their pain. When they're frustrated, it's because of your product and your decisions. Always assume that the problem is on your end when a customer is having troubles.

Adopting this approach makes you think twice about your response. It removes a barrier, it frees you from responding with a snarky email or tweet and helps you focus on the problem.

Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

The most important value of interacting with customers, heck, with people, is empathy. Understand that your product is getting in their way rather than solve a problem, and really think about the issue.

It's okay to take a step back, look at all the details you have available and consider the view of the customer.

Empathy means taking the time to understand other people's emotions, their train of thought.

Empathy is the core value of customer support. It's the one thing that makes you great at customer support.

Just coincidentally, empathy also makes you a great customer to work with.

We're all humans, we're all driven by our own goals, and customer support is your one means to align them.

And Honesty Too

If your product can't do something your customer wants, or you can't give them a solution right now, be honest about it.

There's nothing wrong with saying "I don't know", as long as you're willing to take more time to investigate a possible solution.

If you can't find one, it's okay to admit that. We're all humans, and not every problem can be solved. Not every problem should be solved, at least not by your product.

Offer Solutions rather than Excuses

Customers aren't interested in hearing excuses, they're interested in one thing and one thing only, a solution to their problem.

If you can't offer one, that's okay, but a great customer support person goes out of their way to find one, even if it means using another product.

Giving a customer a solution, even if it doesn't involve your product, will make them happier than giving them none, than giving them excuses.

Learn How to Talk to People

You won't turn into a great customer support person overnight, but you can give your brain gentle nudges on how to talk to people better.

For me, reading a few books has helped a lot in shaping my languages. Two in particular have been invaluable, and I'd recommend them to anyone. They're useful not just for customer support interactions, but for all kinds of people interactions.

"How To Win Friends and Influence People" is a timeless classic, and it taught me a lot about empathy and how to approach people in general and disgruntled customers in particular. It's the one book you should read no matter what you do. It shaped my interactions a lot.

"Drop the Pink Elephant" is the perfect companion. It teaches you about saying what you really mean rather than focus on things that remove clarity from a conversation. It's shaped customer interactions and the way we write our public postmortems.

Customer support is your number one differentiator as a company. It takes a lot of work and effort, but it's your best way to make your customers happy, to have meaningful interactions with them.

It pays in the long term to make sure you're doing it right. Great customer support experiences can't be measured in money or in any meaningful way, but it'll help you get loyal customers. Knowing that you're willing to help no matter the problem gives every customer the incentive to come back for more.

But most importantly, great customer support makes your customers feel like they're treated as humans.

Tags: smallbiz