The Rise of Strategic Customer Support Teams

A fireside chat with Brian Sze at Assembled

I was excited to sit down with Brian Sze, the founder of Assembled, to discuss his vision for Support teams. Assembled just announced a Series A round that was led by Emergence Capital and included Stripe, Basis Set Ventures, and Felicis Ventures, as well as myself. That funding round was a stamp of recognition of the increasing value of Support teams, which are undergoing dramatic transformation.

A primary driver of that transformation is the bottom-up growth model, which has required Support teams to evolve away from the reactive, tactical organizations they once were. Now they're more proactive and handle a broad array of responsibilities to supplement product-led growth. And that means they need new kinds of software to support their operation.

That's the preview. I'll let Brian share more :) Here's a transcript of my conversation with him.

Brian, can you tell me the origin story of Assembled? 

My co-founders and I were really lucky to see Stripe grow from a single office in San Francisco into a sprawling global operation seemingly overnight. As the Support organization served an increasing array of products and channels, we each saw the team struggle at different points to maintain its high standard for customer experience.

Moreso, it was clear to us that Support as we know it had changed dramatically in a very short time. It's often one of the biggest groups at a company but doesn't have the same visibility or frankly speaking the respect that other groups have. But at the same time, rapidly growing companies like Stripe are increasingly thinking of customer experience as a core part of their brand.

That delta between respect and impact inspired an intellectual curiosity in me and my cofounders to spend time building tools for Stripe's customer support organization for a year and a half. It built up our conviction. So we worked up the courage to leave and start Assembled in early 2018. 

What's your perspective on how Support teams should evolve?

I notice two trends underway.

First, we’ve observed the increasing scope of what Support owns. For e-commerce companies and bottom-up, product-driven SaaS companies, a lot of sales happens in Support. At Stripe, many of their most strategic accounts like Instacart and Doordash started their relationship with us by asking API questions in a support channel. In marketplace businesses like Uber and GoFundMe, Support is responsible for community engagement, and trust and safety. Those blurry boundaries for what falls under Support means the team's workload is always increasing. 

Second, often you have a higher caliber of person on the Support team than before. They might take on a Support as their first job at a technology company, but these agents often go on to become product people, engineers and operational leaders. 

Despite these two trends making Support teams more important, there's a complete lack of tools for scaling a modern Support team. People are stuck using spreadsheets, shared docs, and tribal knowledge at best. Too often, they don’t have a playbook at all.

You've mentioned to me before that you see the Support Ops role taking off. It didn't always exist though. How is that role evolving?

I still think it's the Wild Wild West. You often see an agent who just happens to be analytically-minded taking on more ownership of tools, planning, and analytics. When companies reach a certain phase, maybe 50 agents, there's an outright need for Support Ops. Ninety-five percent of this team is reactively getting through the day and making sure customers are happy. Who's thinking about the next six to twelve months to eighteen months? Our view of Support Ops is probably similar to how people saw Sales Ops two decades ago when Salesforce was a brand new tool.

Also, with the pandemic, so many companies now all of a sudden have distributed Support teams. Leaders now need more remote visibility into how people are spending their time and want to invest more in the planning and coordination that Support Ops provides.

How does Assembled address these trends?

Assembled is an operating system for modern Support teams. We’re currently focused on the problem of workforce management, which brings together all of the tools in your support stack to help you put the right support agent in the right place at the right time. 

From a product perspective, we provide teams automated forecasts to predict support demand, scheduling tools to keep your team on the same page, and realtime reporting to improve team productivity. 

We often debate about whether we are actually creating a category. Big Support teams understand what workforce management is: they spend millions of dollars in both tooling and headcount to solve the problem. So there's a playbook for us to win large customers. 

For smaller teams — say, anywhere from 10 to a few hundred support agents — we see more specific pain points that the company doesn't necessarily identify as "workforce management." They may be coming to us asking for a support forecast, or they have a crazy scheduling flow that they need to replace, or they need basic productivity tracking for how people are spending their time. It's up to us to help them connect the dots and help them see the broader problem that they're trying to solve. Put differently, they're painting by numbers, but then we help them see the bigger picture. 

Can you tell me about the value that you've delivered to customers so far, and what value means from their perspective?

This has been an evolution for us. We actually did a very bad job of defining value early on, so what happened was that customers would just define that value for us. Too often they measured it in just the time we saved for one person in the organization — the Support Ops person or equivalent who was managing the team's schedules. But we know by the virtue of the problem we’re solving — faster response times, more efficient staffing, improving productivity — that we’re one of the few tools in the support stack that has clear and obvious impact on the broader Support team. There's a well-referenced HBR case study showing that if you respond to a prospect within an hour, your chance of closing the customer increases by 7x than at any time beyond an hour. So when we help you improve your customer experience by staffing your team appropriately so you can have terrific response times, that results in revenue impact. 

One example that comes to mind is GoFundMe. They are probably in the 90th+ percentile of operational efficiency and also the people side of agent development. When you're talking about sensitive medical funding campaigns on their platform, it's easy to see that fast response times are a pillar for the company. So when we met them, they had built a crazy Excel model to forecast their staffing needs. That showed that they inherently understood the value of what Assembled was. Now we've been with them through a journey of scaling from 30 to 150 agents, expanding to multiple channels and multiple sites, they even acquired a company. Imagine the burden of complexity that type of growth places on a new support manager. Assembled helps manage that complexity. They've also helped us push our thinking on our forecasting methodology to a point where we're now generating accuracy within 10% in a given week. 

In terms of how we define value, we want to be a platform that's associated with agent empowerment as much as top-down Support leadership.

What key hires are you making right now?

We're looking for a Product design lead who can also be a steward of our marketing aesthetic. We’re also looking for talented front end and full stack engineers who are excited to help us build impactful product for modern support teams.

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If you know any Support teams who could benefit from Assembled, or any Product design leads who you think should apply, feel free to share this post with them.

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