Over the past 5+ years, I’ve worked at several startups varying in size, from 12 to 1,700 employees and in stages from Seed to Series C.
I started at Zenefits in early 2015 as a product specialist. When I joined, I had zero tech experience and naively took over a heavily regulated product’s initial customer release. I managed all support tickets and communication with roughly 30 companies. Based on the consolidated feedback I was able to bring directly from the customer to engineering, we prioritized a full rebuild of the system rather than incremental improvements.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this practice propelled my career forward to where I am now, a Product Lead often recognized for user empathy. I’ve built products from conception to launch and I’ve stabilized products on fire by reducing the number of customer reported bugs and customer emails to support . While the path hasn’t always been the same, I’ve always leaned on support data as a treasure trove of product insights.
- Quick ramp-up - Whether you are starting at a new company or taking over a new product line at your current company, you need access to your support tracking system immediately. Few things will help you ramp up as quickly as reading through customer questions, customer complaints, and customer requests in their raw form. When I first started at Zenefits I took the time to read every single support ticket that referenced my product. Within a few weeks, I had the most holistic understanding of the product of anyone at the company. I understood our current users and why the product was rolled back. As the beta grew and we relaunched the product (successfully!), I set aside time to read 50 support tickets per week. I didn’t want to lose the connection with the users that I had.
- Unsolicited feedback - Reading support tickets isn’t the only way I interact with users. I hold design sessions, I interview customers and prospects, and I live for a conference or roadshow. But through support tickets, I get to hear what users are thinking without a filter. When they email in with questions, feature requests, or just to tell you what they hate, they don’t expect the person shaping the product to be listening. And that’s what makes it the real treasure.
- Pulse on your product - Even the best teams may miss something along the development process. But if you’re listening to support channels, you will have users who let you know that immediately.
💡Tip: Let support and the support leaders know you’re digging into support tickets. Explaining that you want to understand the pains and problems your users face will immediately set the stage for a strong working relationship between product and support.
You have to know where to look for treasure
Let support tickets give you the data you need to make smart product decisions. At Zenefits, we used automation to enrich our support tickets and the support team provided additional categorization data to help different departments slice and dice the data.
Before we got there, I started small and manually. I set up very basic tracking by adding two fields in our support ticketing system. The first field captured the product line. The second field categorized why the person emailed in to support with three options:
- How things work - these were typically simple questions from our users that could be solved with better ux, more precise copy, or help center articles.
- Feature Request - this is where I’d often do my roadmap hunting, which we’ll talk about more below.
- Bug - getting the scope and impact of customer reported bugs makes prioritization easier and it helps engineering appreciate how they’re helping end users.
💡Tip: Do this with your support counterparts. Do they already have a tracking system? First let them explain what they’re doing. Talk through the categorization and labels together. Let the team know how their labels impacted a product decision, show them the story you prioritized or the feature you put on the roadmap because they tracked the ticket correctly.
How to Leverage Support Tickets throughout the Product Life Cycle
Once you have a baseline of how you’ll categorize support tickets, use them. And use them throughout every step of the way.
- Discover - Maybe you took my advice and have some type of category for feature requests - here is where I sift for treasure. Your support system may allow you to pull reports on feature requests with specific strings in the email. The important thing is to get into the tickets in one way or another. I’ve used support tickets to validate an insight I’ve developed elsewhere, building a stronger business case for it by referencing customers that have expressed interest in this idea before. I spoke to my process earlier, but I set aside time every week to read a certain number of support tickets. It keeps me connected and inspires my roadmap.
- Design - In support tickets, you have users begging to be a part of the design process. You have groups of people to do your early interviews with or partner with you on future designs. I have followed up with a customer who wrote in about a problem months later, inviting them to be a part of the process. It was self-serving in that I was able to build the right thing, but it also crystalised the relationship we had with that specific buyer.
- Define - When thinking about success metrics, you should always consider support cost. As you are introducing new products or new features, you should not be introducing an additional cost to the company. Is there a benchmark number of support tickets per product line over 30 days? Think forward - how will you find support tickets related to this feature? Now is a great time to evaluate if you need to add a new type of categorization or label in your support tracking system.
- Develop and Iterate - Let’s say you’re gradually rolling out a new feature, you’re testing it with a small pilot group or specific market. What are you looking for? You’re most likely tracking your product’s top-line KPIs and feature specific metrics, but are you looking at support’s case load? Even if you aren’t looking at it yourself, are you checking in with your support teammates? This is a sure fire way to catch bugs before a wide release, learn and iterate before you’re fully live.
- Launch - It’s live. You made it. Is support happy about it? Support is on the front lines, they’re getting the most immediate pulse on how the product you’ve worked tirelessly on is doing. Check in on both the incoming support tickets and the team answering them.
💡Tip: Throughout the product life cycle, share with the support team how you’re using the support data you’ve pulled in the process. Let the team in on the journey, let them understand how the work they’re doing impacts the product.
The easy part is understanding there may be treasure waiting for you in support tickets. The tough part is in taking the time to find it. As a product manager, you’re already juggling a handful of inputs while trying to make quick, thoughtful decisions. But, treasure hunts aren’t as efficient when you’re alone. Grab a teammate on support, and let them know that you believe there is treasure in the work they oversee. Start small and slowly block time for yourself on a weekly basis to get your systems set up, to read support tickets, and to connect with the support team.
Lizzie Jaeger is a Senior Product Manager at Reflektive