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How Providing Customer Support is Like Defusing a Bomb

I recently read How To Be Calm Under Pressure: 3 Secrets From A Bomb Disposal Expert (via Swiss Miss) and immediately connected its 3 secrets with 3 guiding principles for providing customer support. I recommend you read the full article, but here’s a recap of the 3 secrets along with my observations about how they connect to support:

  1. Do a threat assessment. While you may not be defusing a literal bomb, a customer in distress can make you feel like you are. Don’t panic. Assess the customer’s problem and try to think of a similar problem you have handled in the past. This makes the problem less intimidating and gives you a place to start troubleshooting or resolving it.
  2. Emphasize the positive and what you can control. Is the customer facing a bug? Did they experience a serious problem with your product? Focus on positive aspects of the situation and actions you have the power to take for the customer. That could mean providing workarounds that you know about, making small fixes you know will help, or even bigger solutions like proactively offering the customer a refund if something went really wrong.
  3. Focus on the next step. Don’t try to solve the entire problem in one shot. Focus instead on just the next step you need to take. Did you just uncover a giant bug in the product? Set that aside for a moment and focus on this one customer and how to help them first. Not sure what went wrong or how to help the customer? Focus on talking through the problem so you understand it fully. In other words, think about just that one thing you need to do next, to avoid getting overwhelmed.

These general guidelines have helped me handle any number of stressful situations with apparent ease, including the pressure of being on the front lines of customer support. I hope they serve you well!

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Work, Time, & Capitalism

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that within a century, economic growth would mean that we would be working no more than 15 hours per week – whereupon humanity would face its greatest challenge: that of figuring out how to use all those empty hours. Economists still argue about exactly why things turned out so differently, but the simplest answer is “capitalism”. Keynes seems to have assumed that we would naturally throttle down on work once our essential needs, plus a few extra desires, were satisfied. Instead, we just keep finding new things to need.

Why time management is ruining our lives | The Guardian

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Innovation v. Maintenance

Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there?

Innovation is overvalued. Maintenance often matters more | Aeon Essays

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Sharing User Feedback from App Reviews

Over the past year, I’ve been working fairly closely with the mobile app team at Automattic. As I got more involved, I tried to help close the feedback loop with the team by taking advantage of the feedback our users were already giving us — so of course I took a look at our app reviews.

It’s hard to look through app reviews. I mean, on one hand, it’s just emotionally draining to be hit with that barrage of unmediated criticism (although the unmediated praise is wonderful!). But it’s also hard to grok all that feedback when it’s just a stream of comments. So I decided to collect that feedback and present it to the team in an easier-to-digest format. I’ve now gone through that process several times and want to share it in case it helps you process reviews or other feedback from your customers.

Collect and Organize the Feedback

The first step is to gather up all the feedback. I used App Annie, since our mobile app team was already using it. I decided to identify all the reviews from the latest version of our app (in my case, it was the WordPress app on two platforms, iOS and Android) and export them. This conveniently dumped all of the ratings, reviews, and user details into CSV files (one per platform).

Then, I set up a spreadsheet for each platform and focused on a few key details:

  • The user’s rating (from 1 to 5)
  • The review’s title and content (adding a translation where the review was in another language)
  • The main issue in the review
  • Any secondary issues or notes about the review

How did I identify the main and secondary issues? A little analysis.

Analyze the Feedback

To find the main and secondary issues, I read every single review from that version of the app. I picked keywords to describe the main issues users described and assigned one of these keywords (categories) to each review.

If you’ve ever coded survey responses, this is a similar process. If this is the first time you’ve done this, here are some tips:

  • Read through all or a representative sample of the reviews. (For your first time, and especially for an unfamiliar product, you might need to read all of them.)
  • As you read, make notes about the topics or keywords that come up (more is better at this stage).
  • Pare down your list to a subset of more general keywords. For example, for the WordPress app I used keywords like “Editor,” “Login,” and “Media upload.”
  • Go through the reviews one by one and assign a keyword for the main issue the user described.
  • If the user mentioned more than one issue, or there is additional detail that you think will be helpful later on, add it in the field for secondary issues or notes. For example, I found a number of reviews with the “Editor” keyword that specifically mentioned “limited features” in the editor, so that went into the second field so I could keep track of that sub-issue.

Pro tip: To keep my sanity, I worked from 1-star reviews to 5-star reviews, so the toughest criticism came when I had the most energy and the work got easier and more cheerful as I went.

Once I was done assigning keywords to each review, I organized the spreadsheet by those keywords so I could see which issues were most commonly reported. I made adjustments to the keywords, looked for subsets of related issues, and checked everything for consistency. Finally, I got ready to share my findings.

Share the Feedback

I had a few self-imposed guidelines for what I wanted the team to get from this user feedback:

  • Praise for the things we are doing well
  • A clear picture of the top pain points our users experience
  • Suggestions for what action could have the biggest impact

Here’s a template showing how I organized my report:

Overview:
- Number of reviews
- Average rating
- How ratings are weighted (evenly spread? split between 1 and 5 stars?)

Highlights:
- Features or experiences that our users enjoy and appreciate
- 2-3 quotes from positive reviews

What did users mention in their reviews?
- The top three issues mentioned in reviews
- For each issue, an explanation of its impact (how many or what percentage of reviews mentioned it? what were the star ratings for those issues?) and a little context about what exactly users discussed and your interpretation of the source of the problem
- Links to any open bug or enhancement issues the team is already tracking, or any ongoing work related to the issue

Suggestions for followup:
- One or two projects, or open issues in the bug tracker, that the team could make a top priority to help address this feedback
- Any other user feedback (for example, from customer support interactions) that could shed additional light on the feedback in the reviews

I shared this with our entire mobile app team (along with the spreadsheets with the raw data), inviting questions and discussion. Although we haven’t taken action on every single issue, it has led to some quick wins, reprioritizing, and planning ahead with our users in mind.

I hope this is useful to you and your team! If you try it out, let me know how it goes. And if you have ideas for how to improve this process, I’d love to learn from you.