Inside Mixpanel

Mixpanel support wants to know the question behind your question

Emi Tabb

Ask Mixpanel support engineers about their life and work and a few things quickly become clear: 1) The support team takes data very seriously; 2) their new recruits are voracious learners; 3) most prefer to work with people who are very different from themselves; 4) what they learn from communicating with customers has changed the way they talk to their friends; and 5) talking to them will likely make you feel heard and understood in a way you didn’t know you needed.

I discovered all this after interviewing four of our support engineers–Hilary, Marie, Argenis, and Marissa–and one of our product engineers, Jordan, who transitioned over from support after two years with the company.

They all came to the team with different experiences and expectations, at different moments in their lives, from different jobs or schools, and for different reasons. But despite, or maybe because of, these differences, they all told a remarkably cohesive story about what it means to be a support engineer at Mixpanel and how those common commitments help the team succeed.

Do more with the data than just measure–proactively drive results

The way the support team uses data has evolved considerably since Hilary Galant, now a support team manager, joined the organization in 2014. As her first major project, she and a fellow support engineer, Cassie Gamm, interviewed every single customer that had ever churned from Mixpanel to ask them why. But their responses didn’t satisfy her.

“If they said it was too expensive, I wanted to know why,” recalls Hilary. “Was it because they had a poor implementation? Because they didn’t get the return on investment they anticipated? Because they were a growing company running low on funding?”

To get to the root of each problem–the question behind the question, or “QBQ,” as the Mixpanel team calls it–Cassie and Hilary analyzed quantitative data to add context to the qualitative feedback. “We found answers to all these questions about churned customers. Were they mobile or web clients? How many events did they report? What was their health score at implementation? Then, we looked for attributes they had in common.”

In the process, Hilary found that customers who interacted with support were less likely to churn than customers who didn’t. “It seems counterintuitive, but users who wrote in two or more support tickets were actually less likely to churn than those who wrote in one or none at all.”

That insight shifted the entire company’s attitude toward support. “At Mixpanel, we want customers to interact with our support team and take advantage of our consultations. It’s not a place where we ‘deal’ with customer problems. It’s where we help customers help themselves become more successful,” said Hilary.  

Nowadays, the support team not only uses data to understand larger trends in how customers use and respond to Mixpanel support, but also to educate more customers, faster and more effectively.

“We use data to provide better support,” said Hilary. “For example, if someone writes in 10 times in 30 days, we want to get them on a phone call sooner to resolve that issue. Or, if we can see that if a customer wrote in seven times in the past 30 days, we know they’re a good candidate for higher-touch support.”

The team has worked hard to tightly integrate their systems. The support team uses Zendesk to manage customers, which can fire off tickets in Jira–the engineering support system–to notify developers. “When customers reach out to us about features not working as expected, we work on documenting this through both the Zendesk case and a Jira ticket to investigate the root cause. Aggregating this data through multiple cases in a single Jira ticket helps us better understand the impact of an issue and connect with our engineering team to address it,” explained Argenis. But, being problem solvers, they didn’t stop there.

“At first that trigger was only based on the number of inquiries,” said Argenis. “But we had to get more sophisticated. Now, we tie it to actual revenue, so the system quantifies and prioritizes each problem.”

All that data is available within Mixpanel’s own analytics platform via the Mixpanel App for Zendesk. This integration allows digital support teams to view data from their support systems and CRM within a Mixpanel dashboard. This exposes the full customer support journey, which helps them diagnose issues.

“Mixpanel helps us see the stream of actions a customer took right before they wrote to us,” explained Marissa. “I look at what report they were viewing, which tutorials they watched, account details like plan and date joined, or anything else that’ll tip me off as to what problem they’re running into.”

For Argenis, using that data is part and parcel of a never-ending self-improvement process, from writing system rules to make sure global customers get quick, effective support, to make sure that their metrics are telling the whole story.

The team recently stopped tracking Net-Promoter Score™ (NPS) on resolved issues because they realized it didn’t give them insights they needed make the support team more effective.  As Hilary explained, “Net Promoter is really an overall company question, and we want to make sure we’re separating people’s feelings toward Mixpanel as a whole from how they feel about each support experience. Otherwise, how do we know we’re improving?”

Learn how to learn instead of trying to learn it all

The support team agrees that their job comes with a commitment to maintaining a never-ending learner’s mindset. “On one of my first days, we had an employee that gave a talk on how the internet works,” recalled Jordan. “I was certain I already knew. But by the end, I realized that I had had no idea. It’s like that a lot around here.”

Every day, customers from a wide range of industries pose a bewildering array of questions, many of which are unique. What effect does this have on those who are successful in the support role? “It just makes you incredibly well-rounded,” said Jordan. “In areas that you’re bad at, you become decent. In areas you’re decent, it makes you shine.”

Individuals join the support team with their own set of skills and then absorb some of the interests from those around them. They teach each other, are taught by customers, and often, go on to great success in other roles within the company.

Hilary feels particularly proud that the support team launches people into other careers. “As a manager, I love helping people get into the role they want, and see their hard work pay off. There was Brandon, who was really excited about product management. I worked with him, he spent like two years practicing, and now, he’s on the product team, and he has this incredibly deep understanding of the customer that he couldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

While the team does eventually go home, the learning doesn’t stop. Almost every member of the support team cross-trains in a skill such as coding, and from all that experimentation, they learn to make the role into the career that they want. As Jordan recalled, “Coming into the support team that was so open to any level of technical skill–as long as you had the desire to learn–was great. I joined with the idea that I would work to become a sales engineer. And after about a month, I realized a different passion. I wanted to be a software engineer, and now that’s what I do.”

Mentoring has also been key to many a team member’s success. It allows the excitement for learning to travel both ways. “I’ve been working with one of our recent new hires and a few other mentees. At first, there is so much to understand and retain that one of the most important things is learning how to pace yourself during training,” said Marissa. “They try to absorb all the information at once–really complicated topics, too. I have to tell them to to take things in smaller chunks. You have to be patient with yourself and with the process.”

For Jordan, learning is one of the fundamental joys of the job. “I love it. There are lots of times where it’s hard, and there are lots of times where I’m stressed out of my mind. But then there are those moments where I hit send on something and feel this great weight lifting off of me,” said Jordan. “It feels good to know when you contributed to this thing that’s now all done. It’s the most satisfying thing in the world.”

Look for the question behind the question

The support team talks incessantly about pursuing the QBQ–the question behind the question–and there appears to be something quite natural about their fixation on it.

“Whenever customers ask a question, don’t just answer it,” lectured Argenis. “Find out why they’re asking it.“Because, what does it really mean?”

“It can be easy starting out to get excited and try to explain a complicated thing you just learned about. But that’s not what the customer needs. The more you ask questions and explore their environment and context, the simpler the solution becomes.”

This is especially useful at Mixpanel because the team is always working with users at many different levels of proficiency.  “Sometimes it’s hard to tell in writing how much a user knows about the problem they’re experiencing, or about Mixpanel. It can be insulting to over-explain, but it can also be mystifying to under-explain. I think it’s about finding that balance,” explained Marissa.

If support engineers don’t do this, Marissa explains, they can break the customer’s trust. If their first answer isn’t exactly right, customers get the impression that the support engineer is just trying to brush their case aside and move on. Always, Marissa tries to understand before giving an answer.

Knowing the QBQ allows the team to help customers in a much deeper way. For example, by uncovering a bigger, more fundamental issue, and tackling the real source of the problem. It’s how they get post-issue survey responses like, “Our support engineer not only solved the problem but also explained a better method. I now understand the problem in a different way and it’s led us to restructure our whole plan.”

Asking deeper questions is often easier said than done. Given that the main support channel is email, the nature of the channel itself can sometimes create a less than ideal experience for the customer when their initial outreach just says hello and asks for help. The support engineer is wondering what the person needs while the customer waits for a reply. But with Mixpanel App for Zendesk, the support team now gets instant insight into their issue. “After looking at their history and what they did right before they created the ticket, I can sometimes guess the real question and answer,” said Argenis. “It creates a much better experience because it seems like we read their minds.”

“QBQ has helped me resolve conflicts by first understanding them,” recalled Marissa. “I’ve gotten better at recognizing when surface-level questions are fueled by assumptions, and you really never know until you dig into it.”

For Marie, the QBQ mindset has even changed the way she interacts with people in her personal life. “It’s really a language tool,” she explained. “Now, I’ll ask friends what their QBQ is–that is, what they really mean. It’s kind of a corny example, but it comes up a lot, and it’s a really effective way to communicate.”

“It’s by far the most valuable thing I’ve learned on the support team,” said Marissa. “You get to a deeper, core motivation or problem. There are so many places that that skill applies.”

Embrace differences, rather than downplay or ignore them

The Mixpanel support team sees differences as strengths and actively tries to recruit people from diverse backgrounds. The primary qualifications are that people are able to think critically and learn.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on having gender parity on the support team,” said Hilary. “What we look for are strong communicators, critical thinkers, and people who can be an advocate for our customer. Bonus points for technical skills, but if you’re a good learner, you’ll succeed just as well as anyone else.”

This cultivates an environment of what Marie called, “lots of random, awesome hobbies. It’s just the nature of everyone sharing the stuff they love at work. Today I was just sitting at the craft table with Marco and Hilary and they were doing crochet and calligraphy. I’d say that people don’t hesitate to bring their interests with them to work which sparks all kinds of conversations.”

Hilary credits their diversity partly to the fact that her team eschews the Google-style brain teasers that were once so popular in tech. The practice has become increasingly frowned upon as studies have suggested that they filter out diverse candidates. Instead, Hilary’s team poses exercises that are similar to the day-to-day of the job. As she explained, “It helps us find people who enjoy the process and are excited to do the actual work.”

For Hilary, work exercises are among the most important indicators of a candidate’s potential. “I always look at the exercises before I look at people’s resumes,” she explained. “That’s a personal thing. But I think it reduces bias in the support hiring process.”

Diversity is critical to Mixpanel’s support team because their customers are also incredibly diverse. As a global platform, customers come from a wide variety of roles, backgrounds, cultures, and languages. “We talk a lot about speaking your neighbor’s language, in the metaphorical sense. It’s important you be a strong communicator who can adjust to the customer you’re talking to,” explained Hilary. “If we had a support team that all looked the same, we’d have a hard time speaking our neighbor’s language.”

Helping customers also means advocating for them internally. “Sometimes the problem is with the product or our systems. That’s when it’s really important to go to bat and get our customer what they need,” explained Marie. “We need people of all backgrounds who can connect with a wide range of people, get to the root issue, and help make the product better for everyone.”

Hilary finds that the team’s hiring process self-selects for great candidates. “When you join the team, you’re basically signing up to be super empathetic, super persistent, and super resilient, and to answer really tough questions. We’re always going to run into really difficult problems, but we’re also always ready for them.”

Teach but don’t lecture; share wisdom, but don’t give away the answer

Hilary told a story about one of her very first customers, Fred, who wasn’t very technical.  “He didn’t know how to get started with Mixpanel, and I ended up working with him every two weeks for six months, helping him implement Mixpanel, communicating with his development and marketing teams, and making sure they got it right. I did all that even though Fred never qualified for a Customer Success  Manager. That’s just what needed to happen for them to do well.”

For the support engineers, the job is never about getting cases closed and customers out the door as fast as possible. Instead, they see the team as the chief proponents of the product and they take a lot of pride in the responsibility that comes with that.

“I think good educators are good empathizers and are willing to put in the work to build relationships,” said Marie. “They build trust with people and in that process, share knowledge back and forth. That’s a big part of what we do–it makes everything possible here.”

And all that noise the support team makes in Mixpanel’s all-hands meetings? It isn’t for show. They celebrate each other’s accomplishments daily, and with a fervor that most of us reserve for our beloved sports teams or a much-awaited celebrity comeback.

“Nobody can really take credit,” explained Hilary, “but whatever process we have selects for people who are enthusiastic and approach challenges in a way that makes them appear unphased. That makes it look like a magical experience for the customer. As a result, I get to work with a group of people who dig deep, do big things, and make it look really easy.”

Interested in joining Mixpanel’s support team? Check out open positions or send us a note at support@mixpanel.com. 

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