Michael Talbert, Customer CareWhat's so different about how CenturyLink Cloud approaches Customer Care? Well, just about everything.

I sat down with Michael Talbert, the mastermind behind all our Customer Care initiatives, to find out what makes this team so unique and so successful.

"We've approached the idea of supporting our customers from a whole new angle... It's about empathy, taking care of customers and solving problems. It's way more than just technical support."

Lyza Latham: Michael, tell me what’s the big difference in how CenturyLink Cloud approaches Customer Care?

Michael Talbert: One of the things that’s frustrating for customers, particularly technical customers, is having to explain a complex problem to someone who isn’t technical. The traditional industry approach to Technical Support is to initially have the customer speak with a generalist. If the generalist can’t solve the problem, the issue is escalated—sometimes in multiple, painful increments—to more and more technical tiers until eventually the problem is resolved. We take a totally unique approach, with three key differentiators:

  • We staff our team with senior service engineers who can handle 90% of issues at the first contact.
  • As long as the issue doesn’t require a code change, we should be able to resolve it within that first engagement.
  • Our interview and screening process puts the emphasis on caring for our customers. This allows us to find extremely technically adept engineers that also possess empathy and a desire to serve others.

LL: So the overall level of experience and knowledge is really huge.

MT: Yes, these are seasoned, proven professionals who have decided to come join CenturyLink Cloud and build something unique.

LL: Why don’t we just call it “Technical Support?” That’s the accepted industry term, isn’t it? Customer Care sounds marginally euphemistic.

MT: We've approached the idea of supporting our customers from a whole new angle. It's about empathy, taking care of customers and understanding and solving their problems. It's way more than just technical support. By choosing to call ourselves Customer Care, we believe it puts the focus on the right place—customer empathy and ensuring customer satisfaction.

LL: Ah, so it’s about creating delight, not just slapping on Band-Aids!

MT: Exactly!

LL: How does your team measure success?

MT: Several ways. First, through ticket CSAT (customer satisfaction) ratings. Every ticket we complete initiates a simple survey—Are you happy with the support you received? Yes or no. We use that metric to track overall customer satisfaction on a weekly basis. We also have some internal measurements that we use for continuous improvement.

Quality Issues are something we report on internally to drive change and accountability with multiple areas of focus. Customer Experience, Process, Ticket Data, etc—we empower our engineers to make the call and ask "Is there a gap that we can solve long term, not just for that customer but for all customers?"

Another way we evaluate our performance is through a continuous improvement process we developed using Problem Management tickets. We've adopted the TSA concept of “If you see something say something!” We added “…then DO something!” When anyone identifies a problem—a gap in documentation or a less-than-optimal process—we bring it to the team to come up with a solution. If it’s something within our power to fix, we include it in our next 21-day sprint. Otherwise, we get it to the team that can solve the problem. Something special that we’ve observed is that the team members hold each other accountable way more than management ever could. They’re self-correcting. Success is a moving target and the bar keeps getting higher.

LL: What CSAT rates does your team maintain?

MT: We’re 39 weeks running at 94%+ CSAT. The CSAT indicator is important, but the continuous improvement effort is what really matters. In fact, we’re a lot harder on ourselves than our customers are. But we welcome critical feedback from our customers. It’s the only way we’ll get better.

LL: How do we recruit our service engineers? They sound like really unique individuals.

MT: Oh, you know, I keep turning over rocks. Seriously, the majority of the team were hired as a result of our internal networks. We’ve all encountered rock stars along the way and stayed in touch. So when we decided to build a team with this level of experience, we went out to our networks and hand-picked the best of the best. These are people who have spent their careers supporting customers in technical environments, but have all experienced some frustration on other teams. Not being able to provide support as well as they wanted to, not having the tools they needed or not being able to fix some fundamental problem that was making it hard to meet customer needs. The Customer Care Engineers who have joined us are really excited about doing something different, better; being part of something bigger.

LL: What do you initially look for in a Customer Care Engineer?

MT: Years of experience is one thing, certainly. The perfect candidate is an engineer who loves technology and loves conveying and explaining complex concepts. They invariably love learning and solving new problems in different contextual frameworks. But really the customer focus—empathy—is the magic sauce. They love to take care of people. The warm fuzzy is when the customer says “Wow, that’s perfect. You made my day by taking this pain away.”

LL: What does training look like for your team?

MT: It’s about a five-week process to train. We use a Buddy System, where every new Customer Care Engineer is assigned a buddy who is held accountable for the success of the new team member—they have skin in the game. We start with shadowing, as well as a formalized training program where they come to Seattle, Washington to the CenturyLink Cloud headquarters. Even after completion of training, mentoring, collaboration and shared learning is ongoing.

LL: So your team is pretty well geographically distributed?

MT: The majority of the Customer Care team is remote. They’re literally all over the world because we grab the talent wherever we can find it. The largest group is in Seattle, with the next biggest hub in London, UK. Remote workers are distributed globally, in all major regions, and of course across all US time zones. And we’ll keep building out support coverage to map to our customer base distribution.

LL: What about foreign language support? Have you gotten there yet?

MT: All support is provided in English. We do have a few Spanish speakers, but support is generally provided in English. Long term we will expand into other languages to reflect our international customer base and needs.

LL: What vehicles do your team use to provide support?

MT: At the end of the day, we want to take care of customers through whatever vehicles work for them. Anything goes—chat, email, phone. Next phase in the works is to provide support via video.

LL: What kind of problems does the Customer Care team address?

MT: Everything from a password reset to a data center issue. Our product model is self-service by nature so the team predominantly works on configuration and implementation issues. But here’s a sampling of some of the most common areas customers look to us to help resolve:

  • Blueprints
  • VPN
  • Basic Server Configuration
  • APIs

LL: Help me understand some of the different levels of support the CenturyLink Cloud Customer Care team provides. For example, when is a Designated Service Engineer (DSE) assigned?

MT: DSEs are assigned by customer request. We offer three different support levels: Developer, Professional and Enterprise. At the Professional and Enterprise levels, a customer may pre-purchase blocks of engineering time—that’s when they get a DSE. The benefit for the customer is that the DSE gets to know the customer’s cloud footprint, how they’re architected and how the solution has evolved. It allows us to provide a more personalized service. But even if that DSE isn’t on shift, there’s always the broader Customer Care team available to jump in and assist.

LL: So what about the Technical Account Manager (TAM) program? How does that work? What kind of support do they provide?

MT: Good question. TAMs don’t actually do troubleshooting or break-fix. TAMs are there to liaise between the customer and CenturyLink Cloud overall—not just with Customer Care but the whole organization. TAMs are meant to assist in addressing billing discrepancies, care incidents, feature requests and customer-specific architecture.

LL: What’s on the Customer Care Roadmap? What sorts of new initiatives are in the works?

MT: We’re always working on new things, so there’s a lot of great stuff coming down the pipeline. We tirelessly look to identify opportunities for automation. We are currently working on Incident Management automation that will allow us to reduce our time to resolution on every incident. I already mentioned we want to roll out video support. We’re launching real-time support via Twitter, as well. We will also continue to broaden our regional support. Our customer base is growing and we’ll keep building out teams to support those needs. Our Knowledge Base (KB) is an ongoing effort—in fact, 90% of the internal KB library was produced by our Customer Care team. In the last two years, we’ve added over 500 internal and external KB articles. This has been invaluable in scaling our customer support program.

LL: Wow…that’s a broad charter. How do you make it all happen?

MT: This team operates 24/7/365. Weekends and holidays mean nothing to us! We’re like superheroes, not bankers. Again, our focus is on the customer – having the ability to feel their pain. It’s not good enough to be smart, and it doesn’t matter who’s “right.” You have to really get a charge out of solving problems and creating delight.

LL: I love that—creating delight! Thanks so much for your time, Michael!

MT: Thank you, Lyza. It was great to be able to tell this story.

To learn more about CenturyLink Customer Care, check out our support page.