When Eventbrite launched in 2006, it took on some goliath competitors — Ticketmaster and StubHub among them. But Co-founders Kevin and Julia Hartz were convinced there was a niche in the market for smaller event organizers. It turns out they were right, pulling in $200 million in funding, and acquiring two companies of their own last year. But they owe a lot of this success to one core differentiator: Their emphasis on excellent customer service.
Enter Dana Kilian, one of the company’s earliest hires, who has built an enviable customer service arsenal that still provides personalized service over the phone for a customer-base of millions. Now VP of Customer Service, she’s seen a lot go right, a lot go wrong, and has learned a ton along the way. In this exclusive First Round Review interview, she explains step-by-step how a startup can build a winning customer service team, starting from the very first hire through hyper-growth.
Make a Great First Hire
A lot of startups are so focused on product and engineering that customer service is automatically de-prioritized. But even if you’re a B2B play, this is a huge mistake, says Kilian. There are a number of advantages to establishing a strong CS presence from the start, including a much stronger product roadmap. You just have to find the right person to lead it.
There are two non-negotiable qualities this person must have: 1) They have to be personally and professionally aligned with what the founders want and are looking to get out of customer service; and 2) they need to have a perfect balance of operations acumen and people skills.
Speaking to the first point: “Founders tend to have very specific views on how they want to offer customer service,” says Kilian. “They all say they want to set a high bar and demand high performance, but there are varying degrees to which founders want to commit to CS depending on their mission. Do they want CS to be a core differentiator? Whoever they hire first has to line up exactly with what they want.”
If customer service is important to your company, like it is at Eventbrite, your first hire needs to have incredible people skills and be an operations wizard at the same time.
“It’s a very hard balance to find,” says Kilian. “A lot of people have the discipline on the operations side but prefer to interact more with a computer screen that other people. Then you have the people who love interacting all day long, who would make great managers, but they don’t have the know-how on the business side to implement the systems you need to run things effectively.”
Especially early on, you want someone who can come in and set up the data collecting and reporting systems you need to understand your business right away. “They should be able to gather the data, digest it, and determine which metrics are actually meaningful and should guide planning,” she says. “You want to get reporting up and running as fast as you can to get these insights.”
When she first joined Eventbrite, the company didn’t know how many calls they were receiving, and didn’t have any basis to predict how many they would be getting as they grew. They didn’t know their customer satisfaction rate. They didn’t have any data to forecast headcount for the team. “You need your first hire to surface all of this information and then use it to build a team,” Kilian says.
At startups, successful initial CS hires tend to share these qualities:
1) They are proactive and thoughtful about choosing the right tools. Today, Eventbrite is using Salesforce.com for CRM and LiveOps to manage call data. A good head of CS not only knows what tools are out there. A good head of CS not only knows what tools are out there, but how to strategize for scalability.
2) They usually don’t have a long career in customer service, especially at call centers. Managers at major call centers tend to like more structure and aren’t as keen on re-imagining how things should be organized, which has to happen at a startup all the time.
3) They come from large tech companies like Google, Facebook, or Amazon that have just enough structure but still encourage people to solve problems creatively. They have a sense of discipline and high-performance, metrics-based experience in their DNA. And if they're looking to leave that kind of company, they’re probably enthusiastic about building a team of their own.
So how do you interview to find this type of person?
Customer service is people-oriented, so you have to pay attention to the chemistry.
“For this reason, my tactic has always been to try to get to know top candidates really well in casual settings,” says Kilian. “Go out to lunch with them one-on-one before bringing them in to meet the team and dive into whiteboarding exercises. That way you get a sense of the people skills before digging into operational competency.”
Depending on how developed your company is, you should have a prospective head of CS interview with at least a couple of their peers — ideally the head of product and head of sales because there will be a lot of overlap — a couple of their would-be reports who can judge their ability to motivate, and at least two others from cross-functional areas to see how they interact on less familiar subjects.
To determine whether they are the right fit, Kilian recommends the following interview questions:
Think about situations you are currently struggling with or have grappled with in the past. Have the candidate walk you through how they would solve these problems. “This has been extremely effective for us at Eventbrite,” Kilian says.
What service-level targets should we be setting? “When I ask this, I want them to respond with even more questions,” Kilian says. “I want them to ask me what kind of experience we want customers to have right now. How many people can we hire? How constrained are we by financial resources? How do most customers contact us — through email or by phone? How many customers do we help in a typical day?” She’ll often have the candidate whiteboard their strategy for how they’d raise the bar on service based on the questions they ask.
How do you inspire and motivate a team? “We’ll give them a scenario for that one, like: Here’s a person we’re having X challenge with. Walk me through what is actually going on and how you would work with the team and others at the company to deal with it. A lot of people can be good at inspiring one or a few people, but don’t have what it takes to rally a broader team.” In CS, you want the latter.
How would you effectively collaborate with the product team? “Give them an example of a site-related issue that keeps popping up in customer calls. How would they approach the product team to get the appropriate change made? With this question, we want them to get really granular — give me the step-by-step instructions on what you would do and say. Again, they should ask a lot of questions.”
Balance Structure and Flexibility
Once you have that first customer service hire who can build out a larger team, you want to shift your focus to structure. Reporting software and operations is a big part of this, but you also need to define a philosophy for how future hires will approach working with customers and one another. To a large extent, this requires finding the right mix of structure and flexibility, Kilian says.
You want to have the discipline to delight.
“At Eventbrite, this means we provide the basic fundamentals our team needs to do a really good job with customers. The team is disciplined and aligned around providing a really great experience,” she says. “That said, they have a lot of freedom to handle situations on their own.”
In fact, the company is in the midst of changing their approach right now to create more flexibility for team members. It used to be that everyone worked an eight-hour shift, during which they were expected handle all their work and take customer calls. Now, they have created free-floating chunks of time where people can be wholly dedicated to answering customer calls without having to worry about any other work that might be on their plate.
“When they’re unencumbered by other things, team members can invest in doing their best work for each customer they talk to,” says Kilian. “The goal is to empower them with flexibility to determine when they do what, so they have the time to really get to know the customers they help. They can’t do this if they have a ton of other priorities weighing them down."
Eventbrite is also committed to flexibility in how customer service reps talk to customers. There is no scripting or rigid standards around what needs to be said. “We have basic tenets that we make sure everyone is familiar with and that reflect the quality of service we want to provide, but the rest is really up to them,” she says.
As an example, one of these core tenets is accessibility: The ability for any customer to reach someone knowledgeable really quickly who will be able to make a difference. “We want every customer who reaches out to us to know we are there to take care of their needs, and that we have the ability to influence the product.”
Part of being able to solve problems quickly is making sure your customer service team is deeply integrated with the rest of the company. “This sounds obvious, but it’s hugely important,” Kilian says. “You can’t solve customers’ problems alone. You have to get information from a number of other teams, and you have to give them information they need to make product decisions.”
You have to be able to tell people things they don't want to hear because you represent the customer's voice.
“Part of structuring a CS team well is actually structuring the other parts of your company around it to eagerly and humbly accept the customer feedback that comes through,” says Kilian. “You want people on your product, engineering and sales teams to be able to admit that something needs to be fixed and just do it. They can’t just dismiss what they hear from CS.”
For various reasons, many startup teams feel like CS is the one thing they can afford to outsource because there are many existing options in the market, and so they can save on a cost center. But this is a huge mistake, Kilian says. You want them in the room whenever big decisions are being made or roadmaps are being planned — they are the customer’s proxy.
We've all had experiences calling companies where you can feel the disconnect between who you're talking to and the company itself. It immediately signals a lack of ability and desire to solve your problem.
In addition to guiding product development in the right direction, good customer service can be a tremendous sales advantage. “As soon as an account executive closes a deal, it makes a huge difference if the customer is passed to someone friendly who really knows their stuff and can initiate them into the product,” Kilian says. “Eventbrite’s strong growth in organic business, and our ability to bring on new event organizers as clients has definitely been influenced by the customer service experience.”
In order to create these very clear communication channels between CS and product, sales, etc., you need to be very intentional about who talks to whom. You can’t have different messages flying around, or the wrong actions are sure to be prioritized. Especially early on, you want one point person on the CS team gathering all the relevant data and speaking to one point person on the other team.
And when information is passed from CS to product, for instance, you want it to be as objective as possible. “Give data points that are very clear,” says Kilian. “That comes back to the importance of solid reporting. You want to be able to illustrate where points of friction are in the product by showing how many calls you’ve received about each issue. If you’re at a cash-constrained company, you want to make it clear how much a bug or an absent feature is costing the company quantitatively.”
Simultaneously, you want to present qualitative data that conveys the customer experience. “When you’re just looking at hard numbers, it’s easy to disassociate from the pain customers are facing,” Kilian says. “So when you communicate with another team or leadership, bring a few stories with you. Bring emails you’ve received from customers that support your data points or recommendations.”
Customer stories are very powerful. That's how you get the head of product to realize 'Oh no! I don't want people to feel that way at all!
Staff Up Smart
As Eventbrite started taking off, Kilian found herself needing to build out her team rapidly to keep pace with demand. But she knew the bar needed to remain high. Through this experience, she discovered the best qualities to look for in customer service reps who excel.
“I always start off looking for people who have an intense desire to interact with others as part of their job,” she says. “This can be grueling, tiring, and exhausting, so they have to love love love the idea of talking to people for a good portion of their day.”
But talking isn’t enough. They also have to have a passion for helping. And this doesn’t just mean people with past customer service experience either. “I’ve had a lot of luck with people who have volunteered in their communities, or who have worked in jobs where the core function is nurturing — working with children, at hospitals, as nannies, at senior centers.”
You want people who have experience being caring and supportive of others for hours on end.
The other key quality you want is the intellectual curiosity to solve puzzles. “A lot of complex issues arise out of customer service interactions. They have to figure out what to say to the person, who they can talk to at the company to get what they need done, how to actually execute. Essentially, you want people who see challenges as opportunities, not just problems to be solved.”
To reinforce this, part of Eventbrite’s interview process for CS reps is calling candidates on the phone and role-playing as a customer who needs to be walked through the product step-by-step. “They have to be able to jump in without a ton of product knowledge and actually teach us something. It’s been really fun to see how different people react to that.”
As a final test, they’ll call candidates to see how they would handle a thorny customer issue — something unpredictable. In this case, they look for:
How quickly they find a solution to the problem.
Do you they use Eventbrite’s public Help Center to provide an answer, or do they try to figure it out themselves?
How well and quickly do they make peace with the person on the other end of the line if they are agitated? Are they paralyzed and silent or do they diffuse tension by asking how the person is doing?
Do they try to make friendly conversation? Are they resourceful about it? For example, do they ask about the local weather or sports team?
“If they're able to both help solve the issue and make pleasant conversation, they’re in pretty good shape,” Kilian says.
Also as part of the interview process, Eventbrite gives candidates the option to sit with current reps and listen in on calls. “Then we can ask the rep they worked with to evaluate them as a potential peer,” she says. “Was the candidate interested in learning more about the product or the process? Did they understand the customer’s question and your response? Were they engaged?”
At an earlier-stage startup, you need every customer service rep who joins to be self-motivated. “There won't be a lot of structure in place to support them, so you need to make sure you hire people with good instincts who can just jump in,” Kilian says. “This is where them having traditional people skills, and feeling great chemistry in an interview makes a big difference.”
And, critically, you need to look for a sense of humor and fun. “When you’re working with people constantly, you’ll get burnt out. You just will, unless you see the humor and lightness in interactions. The best CS reps are the ones who can recharge and refresh by laughing at a situation — even a bad one — and moving on. Those are the ones who will be able to approach each call with a fresh attitude.”
To gauge for these more subjective qualities, Kilian says she relies a lot on cover letters. “If someone hasn’t bothered to submit a cover letter, I’m pretty unenthusiastic already,” she says. “For every hire, I want someone who can express themselves really well and who really, really wants this job in particular. Cover letters are the perfect chance to demonstrate those things and show personality. We think Eventbrite has a fun personality of its own, and we want to work with people who have the same.”
In line with this, Kilian and her hiring team once received a cake in addition to a cover letter from a particularly jazzed candidate. “We sent her a cake back when we sent her the offer letter,” she says.
Grow, Grow, Grow
Rapid scale isn’t only about training up an accelerating number of people on your team, it’s also about scaling those individuals in their own careers so they stay happy and motivated, Kilian says.
“Most of the people who join a customer service team as a rep will be junior — either a few years out of school or new to the field,” Kilian says. “This can be especially helpful at a startup where you want people to be able to roll without a lot of structure — people who probably don’t know what they want to do in the next five to 10 years. Part of the fun is figuring that out together.”
During her tenure, Kilian has seen two of her first team members move into quality assurance roles. One has become an account manager on the sales team, and others have become managers in CS.
“When people join, you want them to know they have a couple of trajectories,” she says. “First, you want to give them the opportunity to explore other areas of the company they might move into as long as they are killing it at their main role. This is a win-win for the company because CS is great at grooming talent for other teams. Suddenly you have people who are really intent on representing the customer’s voice in other parts of the company.”
The second trajectory is that they can grow into a leadership role within customer service. “Right now, my entire leadership team came from that first group of CS reps. You want to make sure this channel is open to people and that they understand how management is a specialized skill that will put them in a good spot for their whole careers,” she says.
After you have your core team of great reps and leaders in place, documentation becomes vital. Usually, it will be borne out of whatever brief philosophy or mission guided your early structure and hires. The next step is to turn it into a playbook that can give new hires an organic understanding of the role and why high-quality customer service is so important.
The type of documentation you produce depends on how much time you have, and even years in — if you’re leading CS like Kilian — you probably still won’t have very much. “Consider delegating the very best person on your team to start codifying best practices,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it should give people a framework to understand the company’s goals and make good decisions.”
At Eventbrite, Kilian discovered that the least effective way to train new hires was to have them sit through a PowerPoint-based orientation. “Instead, we put together basic exercises and simulations to get them in the right mindset, and using the right tone. This is not only lighter and less boring, but also a way to get them to engage with the product immediately.”
As more people join your CS team and become managers, you need to create one standard for what success looks like and basic targets that need to be hit, Kilian advises.
“At the very beginning, we just asked people to do their best work day in and day out, and it was just me assessing everyone’s performance,” she says. “Where we started to fall down was when we had different leaders managing teams independently with different ideas of what success looks like. We try to cultivate autonomy and accountability at the same time, so people can work from wherever they want — but if one team is doing half the work of another, is that really okay?”
As you get bigger, you have to continually align around one thing only: Customer satisfaction.
To ensure this point hits home, Kilian and her team bake it straight into the onboarding process, which in turn has become more fleshed out and creative over time.
As a perfect example, yesterday Eventbrite launched a new branch of its customer service team in Nashville with codified tenets and standards in place. Below is a sampling from the guide they provided to new hires to give them a taste of training and core values:
Community starts with vulnerability. “I believe that the more we bring our authentic selves forward, even in small glimpses, the more capable we are of building shared understanding and values.”
Connect to the mission, and let the rest follow. “We're mindful, we listen, we create an incredible experience. We're able to anticipate future needs and get ahead of them, providing further value.”
Raising the temperature is a good thing. “On day one, our new Britelings will be creating their own happy hour event for everyone in the room to attend with zero context, guidance, or instruction on the product. We think about this as 'ratcheting up the heat' in the room by creating an environment of — you got it — vulnerability.”
Mindfulness matters. “Anyone who's ever worked in customer experience knows that there can be tough moments when a user is frustrated; we believe that bringing mindfulness to the fore will allow our Britelings that much more ability to separate emotion from the situation and give them that much more capacity to compassionately work with anyone.”
Death to bullet points. “Our goal is to not speak in bullets but to speak in stories. We want to bring the product to life through story lines, role plays, demonstrations, and, ahem, the learners teaching."
Get out of the way. “Our goal is to provide the right-sized amount of context and then get out of the way. Our folks can figure out the answers for themselves, and they'll remember that much more if they've made their own connections.”
This is just one example of how Eventbrite has formalized its approach to customer service and culture without getting too rigid or dehumanized. For Kilian, one of the biggest takeaways has been that things can work amazingly well at one phase of a company, and not work at all down the line. Staying flexible has been the key to her team’s success throughout.
“As you become more of a well-known brand, your customers’ perception of you will change — what you don't want is for their expectations to change,” she says. “You want them to always know that if they call, they will get the help they need from people who care.”