Alejandro Escamilla /

Why every new employee should do customer support

I was recently hired at Automattic as a Design Engineer. All new hires are required to spend three weeks as a Happiness Engineer, answering support tickets for No exceptions.

I know what you’re thinking — a designer, doing support? I wasn’t hired for this! That’s not my job, this is pointless!

That’s where you’d be wrong. Do you know why? Doing support is awesome. It’s probably the best thing you could have your new hires do. It’s been tremendously more effective in introducing me to Automattic than any new hire orientation I’ve gone through, and here’s why.

You learn your product faster

Part of any new job is fumbling around, trying to figure out the ins-and-outs of your product or service. Only now, guess what — now you get to do it for someone else! And you’d damn well better do it right!

After two days of training with full-time Happiness Engineers, new employees are thrown right into the fire of support forums and tickets and oh god I don’t know anything about domains, I better figure that shit out asap. No sir, I have no idea why your theme isn’t working, guess I should set up a test blog and try it out for myself.

I’m going to be honest: when I started, I had only used a little bit. I’ve always been a self-hosted user. The ridiculous amount of information I’ve crammed into my skull during my three weeks of support about has transformed me into an expert. I know where everything is. I have whole swaths of support documentation memorized. I can refund a dissatisfied user in 30 seconds. Bring it.

It creates empathy for your customers

Unless you completely lack empathy, seeing someone struggle with a difficult task is painful. You want to help. When they succeed, you feel excited. Woohoo!

While doing support, you actually get to experience your customers, in the wild, interacting with your product or service. You get a sense for their workflows, for their habits, and most importantly: where you fall short.

When your customers have trouble doing something, that’s your fault. But I haven’t even started yet! Doesn’t matter, still your fault. Own it. This is now your company. If there’s something that needs fixing, you don’t shove your fingers in your ears and insist that it’s not your fault, sorry sir but I only just started, I don’t know how to help you. If there’s something that needs fixing, you try to fix it. If you don’t have the power to fix something yet? Bug someone who does.

I think it’s easy to fall into a trap as a designer or a developer where you just design and code in a vacuum. It’s just you, and your product, and what do you mean other people have to use it? I can use it just fine! Doing support shows you who uses your product or service and how they use it. It’s not just you anymore.

You feel a greater sense of responsibility

Every single day of my support rotation I had a ticket I just didn’t know how to answer. I tried looking through the docs, but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to fix a customer’s problem. When that happens, I descended like a starving lion on my support buddy, a full-time Happiness Engineer who was assigned to help me for my three weeks. If he was unavailable, I asked around in our support chat, feeling anxious about not already knowing the answer.

It was kind of pathetic. But that’s okay, because my buddy, and the rest of the Happiness team, are amazing. They are understanding. They are patient. They are my saviors. They are my friends. You don’t want to make life hard for you friends, do you? You’re not an asshole, right?

If I left my support rotation and went on to design something hard to use or broken, guess who’s going to feel the heat first? Guess who will need to deal with my mess? My wonderful new Happiness Engineer friends.

Working support instilled within me a greater sense of responsibility. My actions not only affect our huge user base, but also my coworkers. I better damn well make sure anything I push out is going to make lives easier, not harder.

I’ve officially finished my support rotation. I’m pumped to start designing. I feel like I’m overflowing with all this creative energy that built up over the past couple weeks of doing support. My last week of support was the most challenging, but the experience I gained will help me become a better designer.

I’m pretty damn sure that if you try supporting your customers for a while, you’ll become a better designer too.