What the Duck?!

NOTE: This is cross-posted from a blog I maintained while I was the VP of Customer Experience at a previous company.

If you have spent time with me in a professional capacity, have seen or heard a talk of mine, or follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that ducks are kind of my schtick. Yep, I'm a "grown" (almost 5 feet tall) woman who keeps a children's bath toy sitting on her desk. I also give rubber ducks as gifts and recently ordered a giant rubber duck vinyl "mural" for my team's office wall. It seems ridiculous, I know, but hear me out.

Several years ago, I was just a year or so into my first experience managing a customer support team. It was a lonely world of trying to figure out what it means to provide concierge-quality customer service for, and in, mobile apps. No one else was really doing this, let alone doing it well. Or if they were, they weren't vocal about it.

Moreover, customer support tools weren't yet optimized for mobile experiences. For me, it was a time of creativity and observing; I looked for people who provided amazing customer service and tried to find ways to transfer and mold their best practices to our small, mobile app world.

As someone who had spent the previous several years as a technical writer, I opted to draw on that experience and determine what I could leverage from my fellow user assistance professionals. So, I took my teammate, Kristina, with me to attend the WritersUA conference. The conference that year was held at the Peabody hotel in Memphis.

I had never stayed at a Peabody hotel before, so Kristina and I were delighted to discover that the hotel is known for the ducks who reside and perform there. Every morning, the ducks come down the elevator from their luxurious home on the hotel rooftop, perform a march along a red carpet, and then play in the lobby fountain all day. In the evening, they perform a march again and then ride the elevator up to their rooftop suite to retire for the night.

After a long second day at the conference, Kristina and I snuck out a bit early to go see the ducks march the red carpet. We stood by the fountain, waiting for the march to start, discussing the fact that we didn't quite "fit in" with the other conference attendees and that it required a lot of energy to "translate" the conference talks' content into ideas that we could use in our roles on a mobile app support team.

As we discussed this and whether attending the conference was useful for us, we watched the ducks swim laps around their fountain. We noticed how regal and graceful they looked, like quickly gliding around on top of the water was nearly effortless for them. Upon closer inspection, though, we noticed their feet paddling rapidly in the water; it turned out that this beautiful, poised behavior was actually quite intense, fierce, and nearly messy.

It was in this moment that we discovered solidarity at the conference—with the ducks. We realized that supporting users is often like being a duck: We try to display a calm confidence as we troubleshoot, despite the fact that, beneath the surface, we often feel like we're scrambling.

After nearly a year of trying to figure out where my team fit in the tech, user assistance, and customer support worlds, this analogy was surprisingly comforting. So while the ducks walked their red carpet back to the elevator, Kristina and I walked to the hotel gift shop, bought ourselves some Peabody-branded rubber ducks, and went home with a team mascot.

Fast forward a few years, the ducks have become a symbol of customer care and solidarity. New teammates start their tenure with a rubber duck on their desks. We refer to each other as ducks and say things like, "It'll be okay, ducky." We even created a company-wide award that we give to those outside of our team who go above and beyond for customers.


The duck award has become a successful program that we use to recognize our coworkers and show everyone the value and reward that come from helping customers to succeed with our products. Other companies have followed suit by creating their own version of this award, and Scott Tran from Support Driven created a graphic about the duck award that might just be cooler than the duck award itself.

So now, I ask you this: What about you? How do you unite your team? Do you have a team mascot; if so, what is it and why? How have you gotten through trying times with your team? How do you embrace the chaos that can be customer support? Do you have ideas about how we can encourage others to invest in customer care? If so, please comment and share the love!

It's Not What You Say; It's How You Say It

NOTE: This is cross-posted from a blog I maintained while I was the VP of Customer Experience at a previous company.

The other day, I was catching up with one of my dearest friends, Shannon. We met in graduate school, where we spent many hours together taking classes, teaching classes, tutoring in the Writing Center, studying, and meeting with students in a shared office that was adorned with self-made construction paper awards and a bobble-head Jesus whose head only bobbled "no." It was an intense, vibrant, and fun environment, the perfect circumstances under which to make a lifelong friend.

Shannon is brilliant. She epitomizes my favorite kind of person to be around: someone who challenges and inspires me. After we completed our Master's degrees, she went on to earn her PhD (and several awards and recognitions to boot) at Michigan State University. She's hella amazing, and I want to be like her when I grow up.

Shannon and I have many things in common that have nurtured our friendship over the years, and one of our latest is homeownership. She and her husband closed on their new home on the same day that I closed on mine. As such, we have enjoyed sharing stories about the adventures that we're encountering as new homeowners. Shannon's husband is a very talented carpenter, and they've beautifully renovated their house. As part of their renovation, they installed a new gas stove (hubba hubba). As Shannon began baking in her new oven, however, she noticed that the thermometer inside of it didn't maintain the temperature that she set the oven to. Given that they just bought this oven and it's still under warranty, she called the store to have the oven serviced.

Before long, the oven repair person paid Shannon a visit. As she tells it, the visit did not go very well. He didn't listen to her concerns. Instead, he talked over her and condescended to her his mansplanation of "how stoves work." She, of course, is a highly intelligent and educated person with a general understanding of how stoves work. He told her that stoves don't maintain a constant temperature and there was nothing wrong with her stove. After he left, unsurprisingly, she was not satisfied. Her oven thermometer fluctuated greatly when she used it. She felt that, because he hadn't listened to her, there was no basis of understanding from which he could begin to solve the problem, let alone solve it satisfactorily. So, not interested in running the risk of having a broken stove, Shannon called the store again and, this time, asked for a different repair person. The store obliged and sent a different employee.

This appointment, Shannon says, went much better. This repair person was understanding. He listened to her and examined her stove. He then also explained to Shannon the inner-workings of the stove but in a way that was instructional and constructive rather than demeaning. More importantly, he explained that no gas oven maintains a consistent temperature at all times, because the flame increases and decreases, similar to a furnace kicking on and off according to its thermostat setting. However, he also recognized that she was seeing such intensely-changing readings on her oven thermometer due to its close proximity to the flame, which wasn't clearly visible. As a solution, he suggested that she move the thermometer to the center of the oven for more accurate readings of the oven's overall temperature. Additionally, he explained that fluctuations in temperature are very normal for gas ovens and, therefore, any recipes she might use were all written with the understanding that this is how gas ovens work in the U.S. He assuaged her concerns, taught her something new, and gave her a solution to improve her daily experience with the oven.

Although this conversation came about as Shannon and I were catching up on adulthood, homeownership, and the unexpected repairs that we've encountered, her experience resonated with me from a customer care perspective. We say and hear this all the time: Customers just want to feel heard. But what really stood out to me in this situation was that it was the way in which the first repair person spoke to Shannon that made her feel unheard. It wasn't that he didn't listen to her problem, because in essence, the end result was very similar to what the second person did. However, listening to her was not the same as hearing her, and perhaps most notably, telling her was not the same as teaching her. As the old adage goes, it's not what the second repair person said; it's how he said it that made her feel heard and assured. Teaching is a participatory experience, and if anyone knows that, it's Shannon, who is a phenomenal teacher. Because the first repair person didn't engage her in the teaching process, she didn't learn what she needed to learn from him.

"It was the way in which the first repair person spoke to Shannon that made her feel unheard."

I've been pondering Shannon's experience for a bit. What can we, as customer experience professionals, do to engage our customers as we teach them—particularly when the media that we use to communicate often limit our ability to have natural conversation? How do we make it clear that we heard our customers when we reply to them with information about our products?

One of the ways I try to do this is to ensure that, as I give users instructions about how to do something, I make those instructions specific to their personal circumstances. For example, if a user told me that she needed to track her son's flight in the flight-tracking app that I supported, I would tailor my "how to track a flight" instructions to reference her son's flight specifically. I would also tell her that I know how important it is to know the status of our loved ones' travels and whether they've landed safely at their destinations. This is, of course, empathy, but it also shows that I heard her—not only the fact that she didn't understand how to add a flight in our app but that being able to track her son's travel is hugely important to her sense of security. That's ultimately the problem that I have to solve in this situation: How do I help my customer rest assured, knowing her son's whereabouts as he soars through the sky at 32,000 feet? How do I communicate with her in a way that shows that I know our conversation is about much more than a four-step procedure on how to add a flight to a flight-tracking app? 

So now I look to you for your expertise. What have you learned in your customer care experiences? What other methods should we be employing? How else can we, in (often asynchronous) communication with our customers, engage them in the teaching process (rather than just talk at them) and ensure that they feel heard? How do we say the things that our customers need to hear in order for them to feel heard?