On the first of May, I started a new job at Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. I was hired as a “Code Wrangler,” but to date I have not written a lick of code. This is because for the first three weeks new employees must participate in a customer support rotation. I know what you are thinking: “Let the software engineers communicate directly with customers? I saw Office Space, so I know that’s a bad idea!” or maybe “Bummer, customer service is a thankless soul-sucking quagmire of loathsomeness.” Surprisingly, neither one of these normally valid assumptions is true in this case. So what makes working at Automattic so special that software engineers can enjoy communicating directly with users and customer service ends up being rewarding and fun? Quite a few things actually.
The customer service team is known as the “Happiness Team,” and its members are “Happiness Engineers.” When I first heard this I thought, “Cute, a little silly, but no sillier than my title of Code Wrangler.” Now that I have worked on this team for a while, I have come to realize it is anything but silly or cute; in fact, it’s quite brilliant. The impact of having this title is subtle but powerful. The Happiness Engineers truly do an incredible job helping WordPress users with every problem they report, even ones not related to WordPress. There is an infectious helpfulness that permeates the interaction between team members that can best be described as the exact opposite of the “not my problem” attitude. Your problem is their problem and they want to help resolve it. For my part, it has become a personal challenge to find the most disgruntled user and try to find a way to inject some happiness into their life. When you slide the keyboard back at the end of the day, it’s very satisfying to know you did your best to help people with their problems, even trivial ones.
During my training on how to handle user issues we walked through a few real-life problems and talked about how to approach them. One in particular had two possible responses: one in which we suggested a solution that would also generate a revenue stream for Automattic, and one that did not. I took this opportunity to ask the trainer how important customer retention and revenue generation was to the Happiness Team. His answer was as refreshing as it was surprising. He told me to always judge each case independently and recommend a solution that best matches the user’s needs, no matter what the outcome to our bottom line. This really captures the essence of the Happiness Team’s approach to customer service, and it is reflected in the conversations I have with other engineers every day. To date I have not once heard an employee disrespect or disparage a user, even in private, even when their question is inane and deserving of ridicule. By stripping away the need to follow a script or try to up-sell someone, Automattic has made it possible for its Happiness Team to address users not as customers, but as people. The effect of this is striking, both on the engineers and those seeking assistance.
When you combine the surprisingly powerful psychology of the Happiness Engineer title, the talented personalities on the team, and a culture of courtesy and respect, you end up with something very special. Automattic has done just this, and it really has been an honor to participate. At the time of this writing I have two more days of support rotation left. In all honesty when I started I was not looking forward to these first three weeks. I have a genuine talent for pissing people off, so trying to make people happy has been an interesting learning experience. Turns out I’m having so much fun, I’m going to be a bit sad to move on. Just a bit though. If Automattic can make it such that even I enjoy customer service, who knows what’s around the next bend.
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