DAVID LEDGERWOOD: Matt, it is great to have you on. Thank you for joining us.
MATT STONE: I appreciate that, Ledge. It’s great to be with you, and looking forward to our conversation.
LEDGE: I’m glad. If you don’t mind, would you give a two or three minute kind of background story of yourself and your work and how you got here?
MATT: Sure. The name is Matt Stone. I am a support professional. I've been in the business for probably longer than I care to imagine. I started out with the British government. Moved to Citibank and AT&T – both of those were wide area network management. Also managed services at AT&T.
After that I went to NetApp, a storage vendor, and set up a lot of their outsourced support apparatus. Grew that to 650 engineers, five global locations. In the meantime, we also set up different support programs for different customer bases.
Had a bit of a life change a couple of years ago and decided to move down into a slightly smaller company. Went to a SaaS vendor, an ITSM vendor called Samanage, where I was able to start building organizations and start mentoring people. That’s something that has been a consistent passion of mine throughout my career.
Left there about six months ago. Moved to a streaming metrics company called SignalFx where I’ve been growing out the global support organization to a 24/7 ‘Follow the Sun’ model. We have sites in Poland, in Australia, a couple in the US on the East and West Coasts. Generally just bringing up the standard of this organization to meet our customers’ needs.
LEDGE: What are standards of support? That’s an interesting way of… You’d think by the time a company gets to having a bunch of customers, that they have support nailed. Now, I happen to now that, having been reasonably in your seat with many, many customers and building those organizations, that’s not actually the case all the time.
What does that leveling up look like, and how does one know when one needs it?
MATT: I would contend that it never stops. It’s always something that is moving. If your business is growing then your support needs growing.
So, I’m always looking for the opportunity to improve something that may not necessarily seem like it needs to be improved, but every change that we have, every piece of growth that we have is an opportunity to do something better.
I challenge my teams always to be in charge and take control, take ownership of their business. I empower them, allow them to bring forward problems and solutions that will positively impact their customers.
Really the goal for me is to have a customer that says, “Yes, I’m satisfied.” Obviously, there are customers that pay for support, and that’s great and we give them a little extra. But at the end of the day if any level of customer is not saying, yes, you fixed my problem and I'm happy about it, then you’re not delivering to the level of service.
That’s really the goal, is to always have a customer that will confirm that you’ve met their expectations.
LEDGE: You talk about mentoring and growing people and building organizations. What things have been important to you in that way? You’ve obviously done that, very organically, growing over the course of a career in large organization, small organization.
Connect the dots for me; success and satisfaction from a customer standpoint to those things being I guess the foundation and the base of how you achieve that. Is there a very clear through line?
MATT: To me there is. To me, customer success is based on a couple of very important aspects. Obviously, the product that you’re supporting needs to be good and strong and providing what the customer needs from a technical perspective.
But from a support team perspective, I look at a team as hiring the right individuals, agreeing on what our success goals are, agreeing on what their individual success criteria is, and then empowering them to be successful.
I often tell my team at SignalFx, if I’m the most technical competent person in the room then they’ve done something wrong – or I have – because that’s not how the team should work. The team should work as a tiered, a layered organization that everybody contributes to the goal. They know that if they have a barrier that they come across, if they have an escalation that they need help with, that I’m always there to support them. But they’re empowered to take the customer to the next level when it comes to customer success.
LEDGE: Broadly speaking, what’s empowerment there? How do you do it?
I think we all would say, if we were filling our own management checklist that, ‘I should empower and give autonomy’. What does that really look like? What are the actions necessary to build that?
MATT: To me, one of the most important things is agreeing on success criteria. To agree on success criteria, you have to agree on the goal.
I’ll talk to either a manager or an engineer and we’ll talk about what it is they do for their daily job. It can be something as simple as answering customer interactions. They could come in by phone, by support portal, by chat. We’ll look at what their workload is, we’ll look at how they handle those cases. We’ll look at how they’re enabled from a knowledge perspective. Do they have the correct level of training to be successful? Am I expecting them to do too much or too little work? We’ll agree that this is what I expect from an operational standpoint.
Then we’ll talk about quality. So I expect a certain level of operational delivery and I expect a certain level of operational quality when it comes to dealing with customers. Obviously, customer satisfaction comes into that discussion as well.
The next question I ask them once we’ve agreed on those criteria is, do you feel you have what you need to be able to meet those goals? Then that spawns a discussion around the tooling.
I’m very keen on understanding, from the engineers that use the tools, what is working and what is not. I set up forums to make sure that if they have feedback that can improve the tooling, that there’s a direct path to be able to get that option exposed, and then rewarded if it actually causes an improvement in the way that we work.
A lot of the times just seeing an idea that you’ve had put into action and being listened to is a reward, but some of them you can go a little extra because they are so good. They know what they're doing, and I don’t think people listen to the people that do the work as much as they should when it comes to the type of tools that are used by the frontline guys.
I mean, I talk to customers but I talk to them on an escalation basis. A lot of these guys talk to customers 10, 15, 20 times a day, so the velocity of the work that they do is completely different from my perspective. In that case, why should I dictate to them what tools they use? I want to hear from them about how well they’re working for them, and how successful they can be with what they give them.
LEDGE: What are some examples there? Is it major changes? How do you pay attention to hundreds of people, let’s say? I know your current org maybe isn’t that big, but collecting feedback itself is a rife problem area. There’s so much detail. There’s so many things to listen to.
In essence, you have hundreds of customers yourself and you’re having to do this sort of abstracted customer management because you have internal customers that are your employees. It’s a very servant leadership kind of model there.
How do you do it? How do you keep track of that such that each person at each level feels honored in that way?
MATT: I've always looked at a management structure in that the teams that I’m able to lead don’t work for me, I work for them. I expect every manager that works for me to have the same opinion when they manage their teams. I’m going to hold them responsible for their team’s behavior and their results, but they need to understand that their success is based on the team’s performance.
I want them to be listening to their teams, get close to their teams. It’s not just follow this set of rules and it’s going to work. That’s one way of managing. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that. I expect my managers to be able to… We have to be on the same page, let’s put it that way, when it comes to how you treat your employees and how you’re seen by your employees.
Being available to employees is a big deal to me. Open door policy. Always being able to bring up anything. I've always wanted to understand and know something not work related about everybody that works directly for me. It’s not always possible, it hasn’t always been possible, but the ability to have a non-work related conversation with somebody while you're at work builds a relationship.
So for me it’s not just about numbers and metrics when you’re managing somebody, it’s about building that relationship. Giving them the ability to bring issues forward, and trust. There should be trust between managers and their employees, and employees and their managers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
I mean, you made the comment that you can’t really service 100 or so employees. Probably not, but you can do a good job on the 20 that really want to be engaged and get focused on. So, it’s really knowing your employees and knowing what their strengths and weaknesses are, and knowing how to make the most of it.
LEDGE: You talk about trust. Critical issue. I think everybody building a team is confronted ultimately with having to let go. You can’t do everything anymore, so therefore delegation is a function. We have limited time and we need to figure out ways to leverage our time better as we move up the leadership chain.
Think about trust and also think about metrics and KPIs. Metrics and KPIs can be a really good motivating and performance tool, and they can also have the flipped effect of accidentally tracking the wrong things. Over-emphasizing things that ought not to be measured at all.
How do you choose those things effectively and know that you’re tracking the right numbers, in the context of trust. Maximum trust would say, well, I don’t need to track anything, I just know everybody’s doing the right stuff. Minimal trust would say, all we do is track numbers and you're fired if you don’t make your number – but that could have problems too.
Where’s that balance area for you?
MATT: In my experience, it’s holistically knowing your case management flow. I've never focused on one sole metric at an operational level because there are too many reasons why one metric could be up or down or missing. It’s too complex if you look at it in that very focused manner.
The only metric that I really do focus on to a larger extent is customer . That is something that, once you use it correctly to derive actions, is very, very powerful.
From an operational standpoint, like I said, a holistic view of a range of metrics rather than focusing on just one. Understanding the way that the trending in those metrics can affect your business. Even if you bring in seasonal adjustment, there’s always a seasonal flow when it comes to the support business. Certain times of the year are quieter than others, certain times are busier.
There’s no one-size-fits-all, in my view, when it comes to managing a larger org or a high volume of work. You’ve got to understand what you’re doing and what you want to get out of it so that you know which levers you can pull if you feel that there’s something that is not working as designed.
Also, I’m not going to be the one that says, okay, I don’t like that trend there, change this. We're part of a team for a reason. I want to make sure – unless it’s something that has to be changed right now, no questions, no chance of collaboration. But typically it’s not that way. You can affect trends. You can impact trends. I want the team engaged in understanding what the challenge is and how to address it.
Not just the what, but the why. I want them to understand why we’re doing it, because then they can start using their own reasoning powers of what's a good choice and what’s not a good choice. That can sometimes give them the feeling of empowerment more. That they have a grasp of the bigger business. That they can impact things outside of what might seem like a little job, and they can make a difference to other people.
LEDGE: It strikes me when I hear you say the why more than the what and then taking that feedback, maybe not just about tools.
I’m curious if you will present the what and say, hey, there's a trend here. Why don’t you all come together and come back to me and tell me why you think that trend is happening?
Is that part of the process?
MATT: You’ve actually hit on something that’s frustrated a lot of people I've worked with over the years. If somebody brings me a problem, the first question that I ask them is, how would you fix it? Nine times out of ten, they didn’t say that initially because they didn’t think they had the ability or capability to affect a fix. Also, nine times out of 10, what they know to be the solution is the solution.
Again, I don’t think it’s necessarily allowed that those folks at the lower levels of the organization are seen as having the capability of providing a solution. The perception I get is that, oh well, all they do is provide problems. Well, they’ve got the solutions as well. You just have to ask them.
LEDGE: Right. It makes me think, essentially, don’t show up with a problem without showing up with some potential solutions. Is that ultimately what you’re trying to get to?
MATT: Yeah. That’s what this turns into. Once they’ve come to me a few times, they normally have had an idea of what they want as a solution. Then we start talking about, okay, well how can we do it? How can we make it happen? Rather than, what do we have to make happen?
It’s part of that mentoring and evolution thing that’s fantastic to see. When you have an individual that maybe is feeling unempowered and feeling like they're just being dragged along, to start seeing leadership – and thought leadership.
To me that’s the most fantastic thing that I can see from a mentoring standpoint. Is somebody that decides that they want to be a thought leader within their peer group, because that’s tremendous job satisfaction for me. Again, not everybody does that.
LEDGE: Right. Have you had instances where the metrics were headed the right direction and yet there was a sense or a feeling that things were in fact not going the right way, and there maybe was a missing metric or a missing signal somewhere in the noise?
I've talked to other leaders about that sense that happens, and it can come from anywhere. Metrics can look great and six, seven people on the frontline can be waving the flag saying, things are not great.
Does that happen to you? What do you do in those situations? I imagine that’s the trust component, right? Like, well, I can’t prove it but it doesn’t feel right.
MATT: There have been, not so much in metrics as such but more in the product development side of things.
Let me give you a real example. At NetApp I was responsible for the hardware specialization, and we were using a lot of spinning disk at the time. The team was involved in disk recovery, they were involved in raid recovery, so they saw a lot of these types of issues where disks would not go bad but get degraded.
I can think of at least three instances where, because they had come together as a team and said, well, I've seen that type of disk that’s been degraded due to this and I've got the same type of disk that’s been degraded.
So it was more of a chronic type of analysis that they were doing as a team and collaboration that threw out, yeah, we had a product defect that had to be addressed, and it was related to a particular series of disks over a certain manufacturing run.
That was raised up because they were talking to each other. They were swapping stories about what they were doing and how they were doing. It was the collaboration aspect that allowed us to spot trends like that, that I’m not really sure how long it would have taken to really understand something like that if it weren’t for that particular group of individuals working in the way that they did.
So, not necessarily a metric but a chronic analysis that was done because of the way that the team worked together.
LEDGE: You could see that, I’m sure, in product as well in culture and team related things. That there’s no way to measure how people feel except by asking and talking about it. That that process can really get in front of and erase bad assumptions, or bad habits, or maybe individuals that are bringing down the ship. I’m sure you’ve seen that a lot.
MATT: Absolutely. It makes the whole way that you run an organization simpler because people start looking out for each other. Rather than saying, oh well, it’s the manager’s problem to deal with.
LEDGE: It’s not my problem. Right.
MATT: Exactly. It’s part of the ownership – the ownership of the business, the ownership of the team, the pride in the team – that seems to promote people to do that more and more.
So, yeah, there is nothing better than a well functioning team that communicates and collaborates. It’s a joy to see.
LEDGE: I can sense you really do get a lot of joy out of that. It’s nice to see the passion.
MATT: It’s what makes this worthwhile. I don’t like being yelled at by customers, so there’s a little bit of a selfish self-preservation there. So that having a team that works that well prevents those types of blowups.
LEDGE: Well, if there aren’t multiple benefits then why do it?
LEDGE: Okay. So I've got the lightning round for you here. This is critically important. Okay?
Star Wars or Star Trek?
MATT: Star Wars.
LEDGE: Oh, okay. Good. I’m glad we’re on the same team.
What are you reading right now?
MATT: What am I reading right now? You know what? I’m actually not reading… Well, Domo how-to guides.
LEDGE: Which is?
MATT: Domo is a presentation tool that I’m using to…
LEDGE: Oh, yeah. Great.
MATT: That’s a really boring answer. Sorry. I don’t have anything better.
LEDGE: Hey, you can’t always… Use your time as you see fit.
What can’t you live without?
MATT: Golf. It’s my stress relief. It’s my, get away from everything.
LEDGE: A lot of people give answers about health. I think that’s a high self-actualization. A lot of people say their iPhone and I think that’s not a healthy answer.
MATT: If I could detach myself from that, even though I know I can’t, I’d be happy.
LEDGE: So, you might have answered this already but what was the last thing you Googled for work?
MATT: Domo how-to videos.
LEDGE: You’re talking about the presentation tool, which I believe that Domo – if I remember correctly – is a metrics dashboard, some kind of…
MATT: Yeah. It aggregates different data streams to be able to provide really cool views to management.
LEDGE: Utilizations and stuff. Cool. So, I would even go so far as, you Googled before that that you need to make better presentations of the success of the team to management.
MATT: A good business case that looks good gets me the stuff I need to grow. It’s all tied together.
LEDGE: Absolutely. A big lesson there. I love that.
Okay. So, I don’t know if you’re a fan of The Office – I am talking about the US Office not the UK Office, but maybe you’ve watched it maybe you haven’t. There’s a classic episode where Jim is as usual messing with Dwight, and he sends Dwight faxes from future Dwight. He says the coffee is poisoned and things like that.
It always gets me thinking. I like to ask people, if I gave you one sheet of paper and a Sharpie and asked you to send a fax back to yourself 10 years ago, 20 years ago – the period doesn’t matter – what would you write on that?
MATT: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on the big rocks and let the small stuff take care of itself.
LEDGE: Great insight.
MATT: That would definitely have saved me a lot of perspiration over the last 10 years.
LEDGE: Well played. Well, Matt, thanks for being a good sport. Thanks for coming on. Totally appreciate the insights.
I know that the engineers, product people, executives in the mix here they all need to do these things. It is by no means limited to the support function, and I’m glad that you shared it.
MATT: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to share. As you can tell, I’m pretty passionate and geeky about stuff like this so it’s great to be able to put it out there and let people know about it.
I appreciate it, Ledge. Thank you.