Article | 5 min read

Why there’s no substitute for IRL support

By Suzanne Barnecut

Last updated July 14, 2017

Customer service requires agents to keep an eye on the queue, making it tricky to go offline en masse for offsites and team-building or to participate in company-wide events. That’s why it was particularly impressive when, in 2016, Zendesk’s Madison office, with a third of the population, matched headquarters in San Francisco in volunteer hours.

The Madison office has historically served as Zendesk’s largest support hub, so it’s no small feat that 160 employees participated in the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives to log a collective 1129 hours at 28 local non-profits last year. That’s 89 percent engagement from a team that earns, on average, a 95 percent customer satisfaction (CSAT) rating.

As proud as we are of our advocates, and of Zendesk’s commitment to CSR, we wanted to learn more about how volunteering in the community impacts advocates’ work. Through a series of focus groups, informal interviews, and a brief survey, here’s what we learned.

Facetime builds empathy

One piece of feedback resounded loud and clear: Working in the community allows advocates the facetime that they don’t get at their desks. As most customer support happens behind a screen, it can be tough to conjure empathy and build trust, authenticity, and a sense of shared values with customers without being able to meet the person on the other side of a ticket. By taking their problem-solving and soft skills into the community, advocates were able to see the impact of their support efforts firsthand.

At Senior Tech Time, for example, Technical Support Engineer Jonathan Pabon helped familiarise a woman with her mobile phone by drawing a large diagram and writing notes for each button on the phone. In person, it was easy to see how she struggled with the size of the screen and dial pad, and also to how hard she was working at learning her device. She was frustrated but just needed some extra encouragement. An hour later, she was able to successfully call her family—an outcome that was rewarding for everyone.

“Our entire job is helping other people out,” shared Team Lead Cameron Ladd. “Volunteering reestablishes why we got into this gig in the first place. It’s a reminder that the world isn’t full of angry customers—it’s full of other humans, some of whom need some help from time to time.”

Stephen Fusco, an associate customer advocate, added, “Volunteering positively impacts my ability to empathise with others and makes me more aware of my primary duty as an advocate, which is not to just to help, but to empathise with customers.”

Keeping burnout at bay

If volunteering helps to lend perspective and encourages advocates to be more patient and empathetic, it also helps to ward off burnout by allowing advocates to do something different.

Advocates are most at risk for burnout when the queue volume is high and there’s no time to take a break or to reset. The range of questions—and customer emotions—may vary as advocates move through the queue, but there’s always another ticket waiting and it can feel like going nowhere, real fast. Since a support queue rarely hits “inbox zero,” volunteering helps provide a sense of accomplishment that’s sometimes missing on the job.

“Volunteering helps us complete something,” said Ryan Panzer, a support operations training specialist. “Pick three buckets of potatoes? Yes! I did that,” he said of an opportunity to work in a food pantry garden.

Building relationships with teammates

It can be easy to forget that although advocates spend most of their day talking to customers, they don’t always get to stop and talk to each other.

We learned that Zendesk’s advocates primarily volunteer in small groups, often as a team-building exercise, but sometimes also with other teams, which allows them an opportunity to mix with other departments.

Volunteering is not only a great way to get to know people, but also to learn more about others’ strengths and weaknesses. “You learn a lot about your own frustration points, but you also learn a lot about the people you’re with,” said Anna Lainfiesta, a customer advocate, who cited The River Food Pantry as an example, wherein part of the job is handling and sorting out the rotten and overripe produce. Working together through something difficult can be more meaningful than simply grouping to have fun, or at a happy hour.

“I’ve enjoyed team activities the most, regardless of the environment,” shared Jake Bantz, a technical support team lead for Tier 3. “To build camaraderie while also trying to make a difference in the community is pretty special.”

Raise retention rates

Whether as a stress deterrent or as a way to feel more connected to the ethos of Zendesk as a company, our advocates in Madison have been generous with their time and are key to Zendesk’s success in establishing relationships with the local community.

As Mike Bahr, an HR learning specialist in Madison, shared, “Our CSR work helps develop social skills in general, and allows us to work on different kinds of problems with different people. It helps as a way to refocus and recalibrate, and it also helps with retention rates. Work doesn’t just feel like a place where you punch in and punch out; you get a sense of community.”

To get real, impactful value from CSR, it needs to be an effort that’s ubiquitous across your organisation — not just relegated to one or two individuals. “Your support team has the most frequent contact with customers, so if they can use CSR as a vehicle for building relationships with customers, then it becomes a powerful exercise in empathy, authenticity, and trust-building,” shared Tiffany Apczynski, Zendesk’s VP of Public Policy and Social Impact. “CSR can allow support agents to embody the soft skills, curiosity, and perspective that any company dreams their agents can have, grow, and nurture.”