This may come as a surprise, but I didn’t go to Portland solely to shop for fabric. The main reason I went was to give a workshop at SD Expo, a conference for support professionals.
My former coworker and current friend Andrea Badgley now works for Support Driven, the company that puts on SD Expo, and I was excited to hear that our flights arrived at about the same time. We took the train from the airport into the city together, and then met up with Denise, another Automattician for lunch at Deschutes Brewery. It was so great to see them again!
Later, we went to the AirBNB offices and met up with some of the conference attendees and also toured the offices. Sounds weird, right? I was a bit skeptical about touring offices, but they were actually pretty cool.
The next day, we were up bright and early for the expo, which was held at an arena on the campus of Portland State University. Automattic was also a sponsor, so we set up our booth and I freaked out about my workshop, which was that morning.
My workshop was meant to help customer support agents get to the bottom of confusing questions from users. It happens. It was charmingly titled “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question? Getting to the bottom of what the customer is really asking”.
I didn’t finish polishing it until the night before I left for Portland. I work best on a deadline, and I know this, but nevertheless, I probably could have done without the stress. And I was also determined to tailor a couple of WordPress t-shirts to wear, but they weren’t getting delivered until that day. So yeah. Time management skills are definitely not my forte.
Since I was running a workshop and not just giving a talk, I needed an activity. I had a basic idea of what I was going to do (use low-tech scenarios to have people role-play customer and support agent) but I wasn’t sure how to execute it. I just couldn’t make it gel. But finally, about a week before, it came to me in a flash.
Fast forward to Thursday at about 10:45am. I’m walking towards the workshop room with my colleague Ainslie, who volunteered to help me demonstrate and keep things moving. There was a crowd of people waiting outside the room.
No, surely these people weren’t waiting to get into the room for my talk. Surely they were just…waiting in line for the bathroom? Or just chatting? Or were lost? Alas, my dream of having a half-full room for my workshop (just enough to not feel pathetic, but not too many to be overwhelmed) was shot down when all 48 seats at the tables were taken and another dozen or so people sat in chairs along the walls.
nervously confidently got started, and fortunately, only had to talk for about ten minutes before the fun part started – the activity.
nervous confident in the shirt I tailored (I can’t not talk about sewing a little.)
And also looking just like the nerd emoji. 🤓
The workshop part went like this…everyone divided into pairs. One person was the customer, and the other was the support agent. They were given an envelope with two sealed cards. The customer’s card detailed a problem they were having with a company’s product. The support agent’s card only said what the company was. The agent had to guess what the problem was, using techniques I’d discussed in my talk.
In the demo, I was the customer, and Ainslie was the support agent.
Her card simply said “You are a support agent for ACME BOOKSELLERS”
I started out saying “I got a book to read to my kid, but I can’t read it!” She asked, “is there anything wrong with the book?” I clarified that no, the book itself was fine, the pages weren’t torn or anything. But I just couldn’t read the words. And YES, I can read.
After a few probing questions, she thought to ask me to spell a few of the words to her.
“B-O-N J-O-U-R”, I said. And voila! She figured out the problem.
Here’s what my card said.
The rest of the scenarios were similar, and you can download the set here, if you like.
The discussion was lively, and people ran through several scenarios in the time we had. The room got loud! So loud we had to borrow one of the participants to whistle for us.
There were still about ten minutes left, so I opened the floor to let people talk about their experiences either at the workshop or in real life, or if they had questions. Naturally I expected dead silence, but I was happy that we had a lively discussion with people asking questions and hands being raised and I got to call on people and pretend like I was a teacher and everything. It was fantastic.
But the best part of all was after. The people who came up to me to tell me how great it was, and how much they got out of it. It really made all of the stress worth it. But maybe next time I’ll start earlier. (Yeah right.)
I can’t talk about SD Expo, though, without talking about my colleagues’ talks. Denise gave a workshop on weekend scheduling that gave me a profound respect for the work she does at Automattic. Maureen talked about the concierge support we give to our Business-level users, and we got to do a fun Mad Libs activity. And Kathryn talked about her experiences in the WordPress community forums, which she’s been involved with for many years.
I also got to talk to potential Happiness Engineer candidates (you know we’re hiring, right?), pick the brains of other people who hire support teams for their companies, eat amazing doughnuts, meet some famous cats, and fly home first class. Not bad!