Valentina Thörner Interview
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Hi everybody, we took a one-month break from publishing interviews on this very blog but we are back now with our guest Valentina Thörner tackling customer support, a discussion I personally enjoyed much. Our colleague Chris chatted with her at WordCamp Europe in Berlin and, after posting the video on Twitter, we also wrote up all of Valentina’s answers to share in this post.

Just a quick heads-up, during this one-month break, we temporarily moved to the other blog of ours where we did an interview with Cory Miller about the block editor and mental health awareness in the WordPress community. Don’t miss that one. Also, if you’re interested in hosting-related topics, Joshua Strebel – the CEO of Pagely – answered our questions here.

Valentina Thörner Interview with Themeisle

But right now, let’s focus on customer support and its puzzling secrets. Valentina Thörner is here to tell us more about it by sharing her insights gained from working as a customer support lead for Automattic, the company behind and WooCommerce.

When we met Valentina in Berlin, she was part of the Automattic team, but she has since made a leap into the product management world, where she coordinates the people behind the Klaus app, which is a conversation review tool for support teams.

Below, you’re going to learn about unique methods to handle angry customers, how to maintain tight communication with your development team, how to make the most of customer feedback, and how to help your support team grow. You’ll learn from this interview no matter what department you work in.

The interview below is written but you can watch the interview via Twitter if that’s what you prefer (click on the link to the right to expand the Twitter thread and see videos of all the questions).

Valentina Thörner Interview – “Validate the customer’s feeling even if they are wrong”

How do you manage to work remotely when you have kids?

Valentina Thörner:

Well, I love kindergarten! With kids, what you need is clear structures. For example, working remotely I can actually put my day into different batches so I work from 6:00 in the morning to 7:30, then the kids wake up and I’m there for the kids. At 9:00 I bring them to kindergarten and they only come back at 4:00 so that’s kind of the core part of my day. Then, some days I’d log back in when they are in bed after 8:00 to get in touch with my colleagues in the US.

Were they the perfect training for dealing with unruly customers?

Valentina Thörner:

Kind of. What you learn with kids is that, when they have a problem, this is the most important problem in the world for them. And with customers, it’s the same.

Like whatever they are complaining about, whatever they need help with, this is the most important thing in the world for them because all their focus is on this. So in order to actually get to a solution, you first need to empathize with this – “Okay, I hear you, I know this sucks” or “This is a problem” – and only when you get past this you can actually move forward to a solution and kids are again great training ground for that.

Now, don’t have kids just because of that!

Why is customer support such a big missed opportunity for businesses?

Valentina Thörner:

Oh yeah especially nowadays because it’s very easy to compare products with each other so it’s very easy for me to find a product or a service that does something very similar and then how do I compare these two if the price is very similar and the offer is very similar? In the end, I’m going to look at ‘okay, if I have a problem, who gives me more security in terms of they will work it out with me?’ and their customer support suddenly is a big selling point.

And how can business owners take advantage of these opportunities?

Valentina Thörner:

Don’t look at customer support as something like “Oh my god, I have to do it because they’re asking for it”. Have a strategy around it so decide what can you offer in terms of customer support, when can you offer it, on which channels are you offering it.

It’s absolutely fine to say “Look, I cannot offer phone support because we don’t have enough people”. But in that case tell the client “Hey, you can reach us on Twitter or you can reach out in this support forum”. Explain exactly to the client where they can reach you and what they can expect in return.

So let’s say you ask for a refund and it’s super unnerving because it feels like they are holding onto your money but if you get an autoresponder that says “Hey we have received your email, we are going to respond in the next 48 hours”, then suddenly it’s like “Okay, I can wait for you, at least I know it has gotten somewhere”. So by having a clear framework and telling customers “Look, this is where you can contact us, this is how long it will take and this is where you can see the stages of your ticket”, you can calm down this fear because the customer doesn’t know that you have 33,000 other things to do, they only see their problem.

So basically creating that safe space where they know “Okay, I’m being taken care of” really helps to de-escalate this.

How do you help your support team become growth experts?

Valentina Thörner:

Customers talk to each other and, of course, usually talk about what didn’t work if you look at the shout-outs on social media. But if you manage to keep the number of screw-ups to a minimum while being very consistent on delivering what people expect, you can actually turn your customer support into a feature for your product so that people come to you because of the product and the customer support.

And then suddenly it’s something very distinctive and your product will always be something not very personal; but your customer support will always be very personal because it touches on a personal connection. So even to people that do not use the customer support, knowing that it would be there if they needed it, it gives a lot of acknowledgment to be valued as a customer.

It’s like people who say “I want to have a house with a beach view” and you’re like “You hate the beach, why do you need that?”. Yeah, but I could go if I wanted to and it gives the house a higher standing because you could if you wanted to.

With customer support it’s the same; it shows that you value not only your product but also value the customer.

What is the best way to help get feedback from customers?

Valentina Thörner:

It depends. It really depends on your business model and it depends on how big your business is. If you are only one person you probably want to keep to one or two channels where people can contact you, where you can also then process it on the same channel.

For example, you can say  “you can contact me via Twitter and this email form”; or you can say “hey, if you have a very tech-savvy audience, we are in this Slack community so get in touch there”. But keep it very, very small in scope and make it very clear where they can contact you.

Now, if you have a support team with ~50 agents it’s a different conversation because then you can say “okay, these people will take care of phone support, they will be there for Twitter, and those will be there for live chat or whatever”.

So it depends very much on what you can do and what you won’t do. And when it comes to customer feedback, you can ask for feedback after each interaction and, in that case, you need to be very careful what the customers are actually giving feedback on because very often the feedback a customer gives says more about the day that the customer had, about the agent that worked with this customer.

So these metrics can be very helpful but you need to critically look at them from time to time and maybe experiment with the kind of questions you ask. My current pet peeve is “How was your servant? Please rate from zero to ten!”. But where is the seven and where is the six? So as a customer I’m so confused by what I should answer and, in the end, I just choose anything which makes the metric pretty much useless.

So, in that case, take a fourth step like “was it okay, was it better than okay, was it amazing or was it crap?”. Everybody can answer that. Make it very simple, make it very quick so that the customer doesn’t have to think too much about it.

How do you get useful information out of angry customers?

Valentina Thörner:

While the customer is still talking to us, the most important thing is to first validate that feeling even if they are wrong. The feeling is real, they are frustrated whatever the reason so first you need to tell them you understand they are frustrated. Like I can feel why you are so frustrated.

And then in the next step go towards a solution. It’s always helpful. For example, I get triggered if I get emails that are all caps.

My mom writes all caps because she thinks that’s easier to read. So I know that there are people who write all caps because culturally or whatever they think this is makes it easier for you to understand. In this case, I usually pass the ticket to somebody else who can read it and together we find what is actually the content of this email without just directly going into panic mode because usually if we feel attacked we’re going to start a fight and that’s not something that you want to do in a ticket.

So sometimes it even helps when you answer a customer to never write just the answer; always write first what you understood and that we have to take note. If you get a half-page all caps screaming at you, you reply “Thank you for your message, I understand that you’re currently having trouble with your check-out because the money is being taken from the credit card of your customers but it does not arrive in your bank account. Is that correct?”

This makes the customer say “Okay, they have understood my problem”; or if you didn’t understand it they won’t scream but they’re like “This is almost correct, actually it’s not even taken out of it” and they give you more information than you need. So always make sure that you reflect back at the customer and then they can come back clarifying what you’re talking about.

That way you can move them from all caps to a similar conversation without telling them “hey you need to calm down” because that never works.

How do you help your team deal with frustration and burn out when they are dealing with angry customers?

Valentina Thörner:

What helps in terms of how to learn the strategies or the practices is to do role-playing from time to time. And it’s really great if you are a frustrated customer, it’s fun. And one person is the agent, you play the customer and then you just see what happens and everybody else can also chime. It’s a real visceral experience, people will remember these lessons much more than any training will ever do.

And then what we do a lot in my team is reviewing each other’s tickets, we do peer reviews. I review my people but I also make them review each other because it’s nice to actually get lots of positive reinforcement. Like I’ll review ten of your tickets and nine and a half of them were amazing and there’s this one little thing that you should tweak a little bit.

If you do that constantly you get this small incremental improvement that with time made a huge difference.

So whenever I hear from a company “we have a 10-day training at the beginning and that’s so amazing”, I always ask “oh and what is your ongoing training?” Because customer support is something that you learn and it’s a craft that you need to practice and actually look at over time, and if you don’t have these small improvements over time you cannot just do a seven-day training course and that’s it. You need to constantly work on it.

And I think as team leads we can really facilitate that by helping people to be comfortable with receiving feedback and receiving input both positive and negative. I always look at the negative because it’s very rare that somebody actually answers a question wrong. It’s more like maybe the tone wasn’t really right or they didn’t really validate what the customer said, and these are things that you can work on.

And you can work on them while you’re working. So look at what you’re doing. If you are an agent, look at your own answers that you sent out last week, which means that you had a little bit of space to get your brain out of that problem and look at it again with fresh eyes and be like “oh I did this amazing” or “oh maybe this turn of phrase, now that I’m reading it, doesn’t really sound right so I’m going to use a different phrase next.”

What stops companies from turning customer feedback into growth?

Valentina Thörner:

I think because customers tell you what they think and not what you need. But the product team at the moment is working on something completely different. So the customer feedback, because it comes whenever the customer feels like it and not when you are actively querying for it, sometimes falls into this void because it’s there and everybody’s like what do we do with this now.

So you need to find a way to actually keep this feedback so that you can use it in a later cycle. And you can use the feedback to actually inform what you’re going to work on. But make sure you store it somewhere accessible and if you scale and get so much customer feedback that you don’t know how to handle, put it into buckets: feedback about this product, feedback about this feature, etc.

It’s like your new neighbor comes over and brings you a kilo of strawberries all of the sudden, but you had planned to make lasagna for tonight. And now you’re like “Okay, what am I gonna do with these now? I need to find a good use for them.”

Then see if you can somehow find the common denominator and use that for the product. And you need a really close look at the product. Customer support should never be part of the company that’s somewhere out there because they talk to your customers and the customers pay everybody’s salary. There needs to be a feedback loop.

And, at the same time, the product team can also go actively to support “Hey, we’re currently working on this new feature, if you feel that customers have something to say about it, you can channel it to us directly instead of only in the monthly report or a quarterly report to make this communication flow quicker.”

So you guys have these feedback loops in place? What do you do exactly?

Valentina Thörner:

So we have two parts. In one part we regularly review feedback and then we do a monthly report with the biggest pain points and channel what we can’t solve to the product team.

On the flip side, the product team also tells us “we are now working on this feature, what do you know about this feature?” and just by telling us what they are working on, we can redirect the interested customers to them every time we hear something about this feature.

So it’s like a double strategy: from one side we proactively channel it to them and from the other side they proactively ask us what they need. And that kind of works. It’s an ongoing experiment and we are still iterating on the processes but it has helped to move the two teams closer together. It’s an ongoing conversation and it needs to be a conversation.

That sums up our Valentina Thörner interview. If you enjoyed it and want to learn more, please leave your comments in the section below. Also, if you have any ideas for who we should talk to next, feel free to share your suggestions with us!

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