I’ve been very fortunate to work at Safari for the last ten years in the Customer Support department. During this time I’ve been able to watch our company grow from a small joint venture between O’Reilly and Pearson, to a much larger company that continues to keep up with the changing times.
Among the most significant changes for the company itself has been to embrace the Agile development philosophy that has become very popular in recent years. I am not a developer and before I volunteered to write this post, I did not have a tremendous amount of knowledge about Agile development itself. In fact, when I started I expected my writing to focus on how a compressed time schedule created both positive and negative impacts on customer service. However, as I looked more deeply at Agile, I realized its impact is more complex than simply compressing a time schedule.
To get myself up to speed on Agile development, I found the four values of the Agile Manifesto, as well as the Twelve Principles behind it. I read parts of a few books in Safari, but I haven’t yet studied them in depth. However, my appetite is whetted to learn more about this philosophy.
This Agile philosophy resonates well with me and matches aspects of my regular life. I think the key to much of Agile is summed up in the first value among the four values found in the Agile Manifesto “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”
Below I have picked out four ways in which customer support has been impacted by Agile. I am sure there are many others. As it turns out, only one of these is related to the pace of development. The other three are a result of placing emphasis on what the customer needs over some archaic process or tool.
Compressed Time Schedule
The most obvious change to support is that with Agile, everything is compressed, especially preparation time for releases. In the old days we had weeks or even months to get ready for whatever software releases might occur. However, in the Agile world, releases occur much more frequently.
For most of my time in support, we have always had tons of time to prepare for an upcoming software release, whether it was physical boxes being shipped to customers or a software update being promoted to the production server.
Now in the Agile world, we work in two week sprints, so changes to our site are happening on an ongoing basis. Certainly, support reps have always had to be responsible to understand and support their product. In the Agile world, more of the initiative of this responsibility has been shifted away from management and toward the support reps themselves.
It is not ideal to simply wait for the next department meeting to teach all of the new features that are coming in the next “shipment.” While we do discuss the improvements and changes we can no longer rely on this as the best way to convey new information.
In order to aid the reps on their quest for more information there is a more open atmosphere to request information, and more access to all people in the company.
In the earlier blog post by Loz Gray, Working in the future, he made mention of HipChat as one of the tools that is used in Safari for our distributed workforce. We also use this tool in the Customer Service Department to allow for cross company dialogue and to allow the support reps to reach anyone in the company for questions about Safari.
We have also created a “Customer Service” room that allows cross team discussion and also great location for Product Managers or anyone in the company to share important information with us.
In a way, this shift is emblematic of the larger shift of how information is consumed in an Agile organization vs. a pre-Agile organization.
Information is no longer held
In the pre-Agile world information could sometimes be held by managers and developers and dispensed downward to the support team as the release date grew near. I don’t think this was intentional but I think there was a tendency to think of ‘information’ as something to ‘dispensed’ when the time was right.
In my observation, in the Agile world, information is not ‘held’ in the same way, so there is really no concept of that information being distributed downward. There is also no concept of ‘downward.’ Things seem to be more egalitarian in the Agile world. And that is certainly a nice change.
Certainly, in an atmosphere where Individuals are emphasised over process, holding information sacrosanct really should not occur. There seems to be a practical nature to this a well. Since things are constantly changing, it can no longer be just one person’s or a few individual’s responsibility to share that information outward. Each person MUST to be responsible for their own level of knowledge, and this includes the customer support reps who support the product.
Support is no longer compartmentalized
In the pre-Agile world, having a PM, VP or CEO reach out directly to end users was rather uncommon. There was a hidden or perhaps not so hidden wall between those creating our product and those consuming it. Customer Service was often the conduit between the two groups. In the Agile world this wall has been shattered. I am sure the regular readers of this blog are well aware of the support senior members of our company tweeting responses to users as we release new aspects of our site.
A recent example of this was with our Safari Queue app for iOS. The first public tweet about our long anticipated app was actually in reply to someone asking about when it would be available:
Having Andrew Savikas and other senior members of the Safari management team respond directly to end users is a very obvious example of how Safari is emphasising people over process. And it is darn neat to get a personal tweet from a senior someone from the company you do business with. As a customer support professional I think this is awesome.
If you are not already following some of our senior managers, I suggest you add them people you follow on twitter. I think you will be pleased with the level of engagement coming from Safari management.
Customer feedback is eagerly sought
While not explicitly stated in either the four values of the Agile Manifesto or the 12 principles, feedback is an important part of Agile development. In some of the books I read, feedback from the customers was a key part of the process. What is explicitly stated in Agile is responding to the customer’s needs. The best (and really only) way to continuously respond to customer’s needs is read, consume and address feedback that is received.
Safari has always been a company that has tried very hard to respond to the needs and feedback of our customers. However, today there is even more real life experience that our management team is actively seeking out feedback from our customers and implementing this feedback into our product on a continuous basis.
We do receive a fair amount of feedback via email, phone, chats and we watch your tweets. All of this feedback is provided to the Product Management team where all of the members of the PM team are able to gather and collaborate. It is very gratifying for those of us in the Customer Support department to see that feedback is both sought after, and also used to plan future improvements to the service.
Much of the recent development and prioritizing of improvements to Safari has come from the feedback submitted. So, when you see a posting from Peter Collingridge or other PM members asking for feedback, this is a real request, and your feedback will be read and digested by the management team.
As I have mentioned above, the more I learn about Agile development, the more I appreciate its approach not only to development, but to other aspects of business. Safari has quite a few books on Agile, and not all of them are software development books.
I have to admit that some of the changes I’ve seen over the last year or two have sometimes been a bit of a surprise to me. I had to get used to providing support in an environment that was in constant flux again. I was even more surprised when senior members of the company were directly involved in supporting users. However, it doesn’t take very much reflection to realize that this open atmosphere of communication and knowledge transfer is very good. I think as Safari continues to grow following the Agile principles of growth and openness, I think we will continue to do some very amazing things.