How we Scaled Customer Success from 20 to 55 people during COVID

Alexander Burlingame
Sep 30 · 6 min read
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Map showing states with stay-at-home orders by April, 2020. 0.5 = partial order; 1 = complete order

Panic in a pandemic

I stared at the map of the US, anxiety racking my body. Dark red represented a complete stay-at-home order; light red meant a partial order. Almost the entire country was blanketed in red.

I shuddered as I thought of the barbershops, restaurants, & retailers — the businesses on main street that give a city life — closing their doors.

What did this mean for the people who ran those businesses, their families, and the people they served? How were they going to weather the storm?

Working for Bonfire, a fundraising platform, I was pretty confident that we’d make it: In times of crisis, communities often flock to our site to raise funds and awareness for those in need.

I was not prepared for what happened next.

An unexpected surge

Suddenly, those barbershops, restaurants, and retailers that had closed? They were now using Bonfire to create a new stream of income. They began raising money by the thousands. And my team began receiving emails by the thousands.

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Anxiety now racked my body a second time: how were we going to keep up?

At first, we stumbled our way forward. We posted jobs on every hiring platform we could think of; we worked overtime; we enlisted colleagues—from C-suite executives to designers and marketers—to help answer emails.

Then, we started to think strategically. Over the course of two months, we more than doubled the size of Customer Success from 20 to 55 people. Here are the three tools we used to do that:

  1. Organized Abandonment

1. Organized Abandonment

Experiencing hockey-stick growth overnight quickly taught us a lesson in the difference between essential vs. important work.

  • Essential = work that must get done for the organization to exist

To explain this distinction, consider car ownership. There are essential parts to owning a car—like having a driver’s license or renewing your state inspection each year, and there are important parts—like replacing the windshield wiper fluid. You can own a car and not perform the latter; but own a car and neglect the former long enough and you won’t have a car.

To scale a team quickly, one must take an honest assessment of the work being done. How much of it is actually essential? For Bonfire, delivering orders is essential. Offering custom design service, in-app messaging, and replying to customers in 1 day are merely important.

It’s difficult to stop doing things that matter, but in times of crisis, neglecting the important in the short term is how you ensure the essential for the long term. We had to say “no” to important things so that we could say “yes” to essential things.

We started calling this process of shifting resources from important to essential commitments “Organized Abandonment”. Any important activity that we abandoned was added to a list and assigned the status “offline”. We then monitored that list and waited for resources to became available before turning them back online.

2. Hiring Scorecard

At Bonfire, we believe our “X factor” is our people. We only hire the most amazing people on the planet and so we tend to value quality over speed when it comes to recruiting.

But that wasn’t an option during Coronavirus. We needed quality and speed. How in the world do you get both?

Guiding Questions

As I pondered this question, I remembered a conversation I had with our CEO back in 2018. “Brian, how do you know if a candidate is the right fit?” I wondered. “There are only three criteria”, he said,“(1) Do they fit our culture? (2) Do they want to be here? (3) Are they a lifelong learner?

It then occurred to me: these criteria, what I now call our Guiding Questions, were they key to unlocking both quality and speed in recruiting. In fact, all of the uncertainty, risk, and complexity of finding and hiring amazing people could be reduced to a simple formula: a “yes” to the Guiding Questions meant the candidate got a job; a “no” to any of them meant they didn’t.

My team and I took this realization and systematized it. We made a list of every question we’ve ever used in interviews and considered, Which of the Guiding Questions does this help answer? We then tagged it “(1)”, “(2)”, or “(3)” accordingly. If it didn’t help answer any of the Guiding Questions, we got rid of it. Finally, we looked at our new list of questions with tags and whittled it down into our favorites.

Armed with this list, we pulled out a spreadsheet and started interviewing.

Creating a system

After every interview, we scored candidate answers on a scale of 1–5. To assess if a candidate was a lifelong learner, for instance, we would ask them to tell us about the last book they’ve read. If they said they haven’t read a book since middle school, we’d give them a low score; if they talked endlessly about what a sci-fi novel taught them about human nature, they received a high score.

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Scoring, “Are they a lifelong learner?”

Next, we compiled candidate scores for each of the three Guiding Questions in one place—a Scorecard—and made the hiring decision based on the composite score.

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Customer Success’ Hiring Scorecard

Once the Scorecard was formed, we not only reduced our time-to-hire from 60 days to 6 days, we also eliminated bias and created transferability.

  • Eliminating bias. By evaluating candidates against the 3 Guiding Questions, we removed any possibility for subconscious favoritism. In our rubric, charisma, attractiveness, and I-could-see-myself-grabbing-a-beer-with-them didn’t have scores and therefore wouldn’t receive any weight.

3. Flex Program

The last tool we used to scale our team was the Flex Program. Once order volume soared, we knew that it was incumbent on us to not only scale up for the new demand, but also to retain the ability to scale back down once things returned to normal.

To create this flexibility, the first thing we did was figure out the relationship between order volume and support conversation volume.

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Figuring out the relationship between order volume and conversation volume

Once we found this ratio, we were then able to determine exactly how many reps we would need at various volumes. We modeled out forecasts for the remaining months of the year and saw that we would need almost three times the capacity at our busiest month from our slowest month.

Rather than hire for the busiest month and then rightsize for the slowest month, we shifted our hiring model from looking for full-timers to part-timers. Later called our Flex Program, this strategy enabled us to flex our capacity up or down by merely changing the amount of hours we scheduled to our part-time, Flex team. This idea, something that would feel obvious to any retailer, completely changed the way we thought about operations.

Heading into the “new normal”

It’s been almost 6 months since I stared at that map of stay-at-home orders. I remember looking at that screen and imagining the day this would all be over—the day when Bonfire and the rest of the world would be back to normal. It’s obvious now that we’re not going back. Uncertainty, and the attendant need for adaptability, are our new normal. For my team, this means continuing to use the tools listed above, but also looking for new tools.

How are you heading into this new normal? I’d love to hear from you.

Alex manages the Customer Success team at Bonfire. Connect with him on LinkedIn or find him as @ajburlingame on the internet.

Bonfire

A collection of stories exploring the power of community.

Alexander Burlingame

Written by

Learner, thinker, and doer. Currently, Customer Success Manager at Bonfire.com. Formerly, Chief Chocolate Baron and co-founder of Upchurch Chocolate.

Bonfire

Bonfire

A collection of stories exploring the power of community.

Alexander Burlingame

Written by

Learner, thinker, and doer. Currently, Customer Success Manager at Bonfire.com. Formerly, Chief Chocolate Baron and co-founder of Upchurch Chocolate.

Bonfire

Bonfire

A collection of stories exploring the power of community.

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