This post is a recap and update from my 2018 Elevate Summit talk, “How Having a Training Team Changed How We Do Support”. That talk came from a 2017 episode of the Elevate Support Podcast, “Rick Myers knows about clouds”, where I talked about training teams. You can view or download the slides for that talk here or listen to the podcast episode here.
In 2016, Linode had a problem. Our Support Team was growing at a rate slower than our customer base. Our ticket volume and Time to First Response metrics were creeping up. Our self-service options weren’t putting enough of a dent in our new ticket queue. At the same time, we were also struggling to find applicants with enough technical experience for our user base, which is made up of highly technical customers, no matter where we were looking and how we were recruiting. We had to do something drastic. The only thing that made sense was to create a dedicated Training Team, increasing our new-hire on-boarding time from a few weeks to a few months, taking resources away permanently from the support queue to do the training, and entirely re-write our training curriculum and support manual.
We had to come up with a new solution, and our conclusion was if we can’t find the right candidates, we have to change who we’re looking for. This short-term investment for a long-term win couldn’t have worked out better. Here’s what we did:
The most recent Support hires in our Philadelphia Headquarters’ Training Room.
Evaluate Candidate Competencies
When we began evaluating our hiring practices, our Core Values helped us know where to start. While we and our customers use and depend on Linux every day, what’s more important than command line knowledge are the things that we feel are much harder to teach – good problem solving abilities, empathy, and a passion for helping customers and solving problems. The solution, then, was obvious to us: first, we’d change our “ideal” candidate from “Experienced Systems Administrator with Expert-Level Customer Support Skills” to “Best of the Best Customer Support Skills with Hobbyist-Level Technical Experience”; second, we’d build a world-class training system with this candidate profile in mind.
With brand-new job requirements which focused on technical and troubleshooting acumen instead of experience, we could target previously-untapped pipelines like new grads who worked help desk, career changers who ran Linux at home, and service industry employees in a technical environment. We found people through career fairs, college clubs, and user groups. Very quickly, incredibly good candidates started rolling in - but now we had to train them.
Create A Training Team
This is the really hard part.
We got lucky - we had an incredible Support Specialist, Cody, who used to train flight school instructors. His enthusiasm for training, development, epistemology, and learning styles, coupled with Linux expertise, made him the perfect candidate for our first Trainer. We spent about two months creating an MVP training curriculum and we got started training our new-hires. Because our new hiring strategy allowed us to attract candidates with outstanding Customer Support skills – the stuff that’s harder to teach – our new training program, in turn, focused heavily on building technical troubleshooting skills and our Core Values. Meanwhile, training is nothing without documentation and support, so we started working through reorganizing and updating our support manual and knowledge base, an exercise through which we were able to begin modularizing our curriculum. Through modularizing the training, each module can be taught by any of our Training Specialists, or even plucked out of the new-hire training to do a continuing education class. We leveraged the “Acquisition, Application, Reinforcement” learning model into each of our modules in an effort to be both be the most effective trainers we could as well as provide a consistent experience throughout training. We implemented weekly check-ins with our trainee’s manager and a robust documentation system to keep managers and Training Specialists on the same page throughout training. The initial new-hire training was producing incredible Junior or Level 1 Support Specialists on it’s own right, but that is only the first part of the Support Training journey.
When a Support trainee has finished initial training, we hand-off to a Training Expert on the Support team to wrap up their training. While the initial training is structured to the hour, a trainee’s mentorship is unstructured and of indefinite length, intended to tie up any loose ends and reinforce skills learned in training. In mentorship, a trainee is essentially doing the job of an on-boarded Support Specialist, but has a single point of contact and escalation for issues and challenges. Throughout mentorship, the documentation and check-ins that initially informed the trainer of a trainee’s progress continue, but now with the purpose of informing the trainers and the Customer Support Managers of the same. When each box on every checklist has been checked - every skill acquired, competency met, and task accomplished, we can finally on-board a trainee - a huge moment to be celebrated. While a smooth ride for the trainee, each on-boarded trainee represents an incredible investment in talent acquisition, training, people and skills development, and meticulous planning - an investment which is immediately paid off with the phenomenal new Support Specialist helping solve problems for our customers every day.
Every single piece of our training is still being evaluated and iterated on. A module is almost never exactly the same as it was in the previous class. We’re currently working on identifying the Lominger Competencies required for every role in the Support organization and the skills to teach Managers and Training Experts to help develop those competencies. Our Support Manual is still undergoing a huge re-write and re-organization in git to introduce version control and more collaboration. Our mentorship model is always undergoing improvement. While we’ve come a long way, training is one of those things that can never be perfected - we can always get better, and our team is always better for it.
Initial training is instructor-led, after which our trainees move to mentorship to complete their training.
Leverage Your New Advantage
Currently, our Training Team is committed to a brand new group of recruits every two months. Their structured curriculum, mentorship and check-ins with trainees, and maintenance to our Support Manual is a lot of work, but it’s important that we leverage this team to be bigger than just new-hire training. To accomplish this, we designed our new-hire training to be six weeks long. In the other two weeks until the next class starts, our Training Team both iterates on our training and is the perfect group to provide continuing education classes to our existing Support Specialists - retraining on rusty skills, presenting new and exciting technical edge-case training, and refreshing fundamentals. Today, our Training Team runs at least one Lunch & Learn each month for our existing Customer Support team on an existing skill or a brand-new topic. This ensures we have the entire team at the same knowledge level to provide a consistent experience for all customers. Making any team’s purpose bigger than just fulfilling a short-term need is necessary in any do-more-with-less business - plan to make your Training Team more than just an on-boarding team, but instead a critical part of ongoing education and development.
Linode’s Training Team has been an incredible success. Yes, it’s a huge investment, but I cannot stress enough how much I encourage you to create the same in your own Support department. So why do you need a Training Team? Because without one, you aren’t getting the best people into your organization. You’re thinking too small, not branching out, and losing out on the best candidates (and later, employees) to help your customers. You’re relying on someone else to train your people - their last employer. You need a Training Team not just to re-teach skills your Support Specialists already have, but to find new people who will make your team better than it is today. Today, because of our Training Team, we have a steady stream of great candidates, a comprehensive new-hire training, a robust continuing education system, and the absolute best, most diverse, and enthusiastic Customer Support team that we have ever had - and it gets better every single new class. To date, we’ve put 92 new-hires through training and have an average new-hire on-boarding time of 72 days. A significant investment has paid off many times. Our Training Team now consists of a Training Manager, two full-time Training Specialists, and six Training Experts. Furthermore, as intended, our Time to First Response is down, our number of updates to resolution is down, and our Customer Happiness is up. Customers are being helped more quickly and consistently. Creating a Training Team has absolutely been one of the best investments the Customer Support department has made.
I’d be enthused to hear anyone’s thoughts, opinions, or questions on training or creating training teams, and I would be happy to help if this is something you’re trying to take on. Further, this was a very high-level and simplified overview of a very complicated, calculated, and time-consuming topic. If you’d like to chat or would like more detail, please reach out on Twitter or send me an email.