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Leading a support team throughout the ins & outs of AI with Mercer Smith

Podcasts29 MIN READOct 18, 2023


In this podcast episode, we explore how to lead a customer service support team with the changes ushered in with AI.

Mercer Smith joins us: as VP of CX Insights & Community at PartnerHero, she’s passionate about nurturing teams to be the best they can be – and it truly comes through when she talks about the best approach to take as a leader.

Listen in to learn:

  • How to make your team feel more positive about AI, 
  • Why honest communication between you and your team will always make your processes better,
  • How to overcome problems like a six-year-old.

Mercer Smith has led teams at companies like Wistia, Atlassian, Trello, so she knows what it is like to be at the helm through times of change. 

Grace is your host this season – one of Klaus’ content cats who unites words and wisdom to explore customer service from every angle.

You can read the podcast transcript in full below, and we also recommend: 

Transcript: ​​S3E5

Grace: Thank you very much for joining us for this latest season of Quality Conversations. And for this topic, we are talking all about AI and careers in customer facing roles. So I will let you, Mercer, introduce yourself, please!

Mercer: My name is Mercer Smith. I’m the VP of CX Insights and Community at PartnerHero, an ethical outsourcing company. I also lead up our CX transformation team, which is responsible for managed AI, managed help desk, knowledge base as a service, and a few other managed services related to CX as a whole.

Grace: In your opinion, to kick us off, what do you think that teams stand to gain from AI at the moment?

Mercer: More space. I 100% do not think that AI is going to replace humans by any means. I know there’s a lot of people that are like, “I welcome our robot overlords”, but I think it’s going to give teams more space in the same vein as outsourcing. You can use AI to free up time and energy from low hanging fruit or repetitive processes to empower your team to then take on greater projects or things that are more empowering for them, and excite them more and help them develop an even deeper career within your organization.

Grace: I like that a lot. So hopefully it’s not going to take our jobs, it’s going to make them more interesting, then?

Mercer: Theoretically. Fingers crossed, right?

Grace: I hope. And how do you think leaders can help their teams just enter that space and dive into AI feeling more optimistic?

Mercer: It comes from a place of needing to understand people. If you’re a leader and you are afraid that your team is nervous about AI, then do you understand why? Do you understand what they’re afraid of? Are they scared that it’s going to replace their jobs? Are they scared that it’s going to mean a directive from above to cut costs?

What is the piece about AI that they are nervous about? Because there’s so many things. No one knows all of them. Usually people latch onto one thing that makes them really nervous. So my first tip would be: have a conversation, real talk with them. Say “listen, what are you freaked out about? What is the thing that keeps you up at night about this?”

Because when you have an understanding about what scares them and where their motivations are coming from, you can then speak to that in the solutions that you’re positioning in the future. If they’re scared that AI is going to take their jobs, ask “what do you want to be doing in your job? Do you want to be processing refunds? Twelve times a day? Is that what you want to be doing?”

Obviously, that’s a little tongue in cheek. But talk to them and say “what’s the thing that really excites you? Oh, operations and finding efficiencies is what really excites you. Awesome. Why don’t we find a role where you can do that?”

And maybe you even work in tandem with AI because it’s really well positioned to do that. Maybe we get you a training so that you can understand how you can utilize AI in that space and actually give yourself more time, and more efficacy to do the things that you want to do.

Grace: I love that because also for managers, or leads in and of themselves, that’s not any change that they have to make. If they’re already good at nurturing a team, you’re really just continuing exactly what you’re doing to begin with, right? It’s nothing new and scary you have to learn.

Mercer: Exactly.

Grace: And how is that trust built then? And how do you think that instills more teamwork?

Mercer: Great question. Building trust is different from person to person. So I can only speak to how I build trust. And that might not work for someone whose personality is different from mine, because it might not come across as authentic.

The main thing about building trust is that you’re no bullshit. And whatever no bullshit looks like for you. For me, that’s just being very straightforward and honest about how I’m feeling, how I’m showing up that day, and how I’m interfacing with the conversation. For other people, that might look differently. But I think the way that I’ve always cultivated trust with my teams is by being right there with them.

They’re like “this sucks.” And I’m like “yeah, this sucks. You’re right. It doesn’t feel good. Let’s figure out how to make it feel better together. How could it feel better for you? This is how it could feel better for me. Is it similar? Okay, let’s make it work.”

And I don’t think that works for everyone. There are people that are different from me that would come across as you’re trying a little bit too-hard-Jim, or whatever. But for me, that’s what works to cultivate trust. And that’s how I get the team on board.

On the flip side, to a certain extent, if your team is really freaked out about something and you’re like, “this sucks, I agree.” They’re gonna be like, “why are we doing this then? If you think this sucks and we think it sucks, why are we doing it?” And I think you can be honest about that, too. I think by saying we need to figure it out, this is the way the tides are turning. Everyone is trying it, so we need to at least see what it looks like for us.

Ultimately, maybe we decide that we don’t want to move forward with it, but we at least have to give it a try. And being honest about your motivations, too, even if you’re a naysayer yourself.

Grace: I suppose that goes into something I was going to touch on: what if you want to communicate a certain thing to your team, but then probably what you’re hearing from higher up might be a different message? So you think honesty is still, always, the best policy for that?

Mercer: I do. I think representing your perspective, obviously you need to couch it. You need to toe the line. I’m at the executive level. I have been in my past three roles, so I understand there is a level that I need to represent my first team, which is the executive team. And then also the team that I’m leading.

But I think there is value in saying “I don’t necessarily get it either, and here’s why we’re doing it, and here’s why I think it’s still important that we do it, even if I don’t necessarily 100% get it.” You can either say there are people that understand this more deeply than I do, that are saying that we need to try this, or, I think that there are opportunities that we could be exploring that we aren’t yet.

Grace: Yeah, I think that’s especially true right now when everyone seems to be quite experimentational with how they’re approaching it – because we have to be, right? There’s unfortunately way too much out there for us to be able to take too strategic an approach. It’s 2023 and there are so many tools on the brink, or developing and evolving.

So the space is not a black and white area, right? There needs to be an approach that’s flexible.

Mercer: Right, and I think that’s the thing – if you say “I’m never gonna do that ever” about AI or about anything in life, you shut yourself off from so many things that could potentially be delightful. 

If you go through life being like, “I’m never gonna do this. This is my opinion, I hold really strongly to it.” You’re just missing, or you have the potential to miss out on so many great things because you’re not open to it. You’re not even willing to say “okay let me question my assumptions about this.” Especially with AI when it feels like there’s some new bonkers technology coming out every single day.

If I had said “Oh no, I hate AI” six months ago, I would never have been open to this meeting planner that I use. It’s AI and it schedules everything out for me, which makes my life so much better. And I think, especially in the CX space, there’s real potential there.

Who knows what people are going to do with automated documentation or any other kind of bonkers stuff that’s going to come out in the next few months, or few years, as AI continues to mature and get better. Of course, there’s going to be really terrifying, horrible things that happen too, and things that aren’t good for your business and that you maybe shouldn’t implement.

But if you’re not open to exploration, you’re going to miss out on the good stuff and the bad stuff.

Grace: And that comes down to the customer as well, right? You have to always keep in mind, to an extent, that you are very much fulfilling their needs so you’re very much doing this for them, too.

Mercer: 100%. It’s not even about your fears necessarily, it’s about being open to presenting the best experience possible.

Grace: Do you have any examples of businesses that are doing that that you think? Or do you have examples of ones that are doing it wrong?

Mercer: I do…

Grace: They can remain nameless…

Mercer: Well, I think a lot of people are using AI for chat and they try to pretend that it’s like not a bot. And I think that is one of the shittiest things that you can do. If you’re going to give me a bot, that’s fine – own that it’s a bot. Just say “Hey, this is a bot.This is not a human being. You’re probably going to get the same question four different times. This is the price that we pay for you wanting a more quick response than you would get via email” – or something like that. 

I forget the business that did that, but there was a business that owned it. It was like “Hey, this is a bot. We’re working on it. We’re trying to figure out how to make the model work properly. But this is what we’re doing to try to offer really quick efficient responses. If it doesn’t work for you, just press this button now and we’ll shoot you straight to email.” Holy cow, that’s so good.

That gives me the option and empowers me as the customer to know I don’t have to be in this if I don’t want to, but I can go along for this ride if I really want an answer quickly. I think that’s a really powerful use.

Also, for instance, Zendesk just released this AI tool that suggests documentation for you. I think that’s an amazing thing that could be really powerful for a lot of companies that are smaller. Documentation is like hot mess express for most companies. How do you update your docs? What does the process look like? Who’s writing them? It’s such a bee’s nest to have to manage.

So the fact that Zendesk is now doing this, and I hope other companies do it so that it’s not just Zendesk thing. No offense Zendesk, I think you’re great. But…

Grace: …but for maybe smaller companies that don’t have that solution…

Mercer: …Yeah, working with other knowledge base or helpdesk softwares, that’s such an amazing thing that I don’t think anyone really ever expected,

Grace: It also comes down to throwing it to the customer in a way that keeps it very open and honest. It’s letting them in on the experiment a little bit too. You’re saying, listen, we are trying to be as sufficient and as fast as possible for you, but also you are part of this conversation so you can tell us if it’s not working.

Mercer: Yeah, and I think there are some businesses who’d say they can’t do that, the customer is gonna hate it. I think tone and style really comes into play here and there is a way to do that at every level that will resonate with the type of customer that you have, as long as you know them well enough to be able to communicate with them in a meaningful way that matches the type of tone that they’re looking for.

So while I said it pretty casually, I’m pretty sure that the place that I spoke to was very casual about it. If I was messaging Capital One and they said “Hey, we’re experimenting with new CX strategies. Here is, we’re implementing this bot to try to triage your questions more rapidly.” I think many people would be fine with that. I think it’s just a matter of the way that you express it.

Grace: And that you also always offer that quicker option or that more valuable option, maybe, of them bypassing it completely.

Mercer: Yes, you never want the customer to feel like you’re punishing them by making them go through this experiment with you. If it’s not their choice, then that’s a terrible experiment. You need to let them opt out rather than just forcing them to do something that could potentially cause them strife or pain.

Grace: And I guess the same goes with your team. If they do try something and they decide that the feedback is ultimately negative, they need to have the space through which to say that.

Mercer: 100%! That should not even that shouldn’t even be a question. And it makes my heart hurt that it is. Because I know that there are some companies who would say “sucks to be you, deal with it.” 

That’s not how it should be. If your team are being forced to try to use a tool or they’re being required to use something and it doesn’t work for them, you should empower them. Say “Okay, this one didn’t work, but we still need to find a solution to this problem. What are some other creative ways that you think we could resolve this? If not AI, fine. What can we do? If it is AI, is it another tool? Let’s creatively problem solve this together.”

Grace: You’ve proactively covered my next question, which is how exactly managers and leaders can really inspire their team to be a bit more independent, to grow and be a bit more inspirational and take this on for themselves.

Mercer: This might be a little bit wacky, but I have a six year old son, and Snoop Dogg has an affirmation song for children, And it’s called the Affirmation Song. And one of the lines in it is ‘every problem has an answer.’

My six year old gets really angry when he can’t figure out how to do something. He’ll just shut down and say “I will never do this again.” And that’s such a natural thing. As humans, when we come against a wall we’re like “damn, this sucks, I don’t want to try anymore”. And you need to understand that. 

To bring it all full circle, every time he gets mad about this, either myself or my partner says “Malcolm, remember, every problem has an answer. We just need to find it together.” 

I think that’s the same thing that goes with managing a team. Understanding that it is frustrating when something doesn’t work the way you want it to, or you don’t want to be doing something and you’re being asked to do it. Come to that with empathy and understanding and then say, “okay if not this, then what? What is the answer to this? If it’s not this thing that you really don’t like, totally get it, totally fine. What is the other solution? Let’s figure that out.” 

I think when people come to those solutions on their own, or when my six year old comes to the solution on his own, and it’s not just me handing him down something he has to do, it goes much more smoothly, we get out the door in the morning.

Or with my team, there’s not so much strife and angst, and there’s even more trust built in that moment where I’m like, “okay, fine. I might not have the answer on how to do this. You are the ones that are doing this every day. You probably know better than me.

Let’s figure it out together.”

Grace: I love that what I’m going to include in the podcast notes is a Snoop Dogg inspirational song.

Mercer: It’s so good. It’s just called the Affirmation Song and we listen to it every morning. Honestly it’s good for me too, it says “there’s no one better to be than myself” and I’m like “yeah, there is no one better to be than myself!” It just feels good, and he likes it, and it’s a thing that we do now.

Grace: I absolutely love it. But I guess coming back to the conversation that we should be having a bit more … It comes back to what we were saying at the beginning, that what teams can stand to benefit is it makes their jobs more interesting.

So that is always going to be the value prop of investigating and trying things out. Maybe learning that it doesn’t work or maybe learning that it does work, eventually. Or that the ongoing process is always going to be that you are hopefully going to be eradicated of the tasks that you don’t want to do.

Mercer: One other tip that I can offer in that space, I do this exercise with all of my teams and I recommend it to my mentees and people that I consult with as well. It’s called likes and loathes. 

For a whole week of your job, write down everything that you really love. The stuff that lights you up that you could all day, every day. That feels so good. 

And then write down the stuff that you don’t like doing. Even if that’s responding to customer emails, be 100% honest with yourself and the things that you really love and you’re really loathe about your job. And then at the end of the week, talk to your manager or do some internal work and think about a role that allows you to step closer to these things that you really love, and away from these things that don’t bring you joy.

The cool thing about CX right now is that there is so much differentiation. There’s Ops, there’s Success, there’s Retention, there’s Support, there’s Onboarding. You can find a role for basically anything that you really love, it’s just up to you to have the awareness in order to get yourself there. And then talk to your manager, so they can help you.

Grace: What is talked about so much in terms of talking to customers is reducing the amount of repetitive answers that you’ll have to give, which is the low hanging fruit. But I think there’s also a diversity in that. Some people will want to do maybe more analytical tasks. Some people will want to go more into management, or go into tier two where they’re handling the much more complex, or even technical questions. Hopefully this will give them space to then progress. It’s not a single path for everyone just to be better at their jobs and do one thing.

It’s hopefully one that’s going to actually diverge.

Mercer: There are people that love answering emails, there are people that just really enjoy doing that. I really enjoy doing that. I miss doing it. And that’s also something to think about. When we say “oh, it’ll make your job more interesting, or it’ll give you more space to do the things that you are passionate about.”

For some people that is answering emails, it’s answering them really well. For others that, as you said, that might be management, or that might be working in operations, or that might be doing reporting. 

Don’t fail to consider that there are people that really enjoy writing emails as well. They may just want to be given the space to not answer the same redundant emails every single day, but instead write things that are really beautiful. Or even maybe work on writing templates for other people to use on the team. Things like that.

Grace: So for some people that is the part of nurturing relationships that they’re missing out on, because they’re having to do so much of the more menial stuff.

I know that you talk a lot about outsourcing and you advise on that in your role. What do you think are the biggest considerations then for someone who is outsourcing a lot of AI capabilities?

Mercer: I think that anyone who is outsourcing should work with their outsourcer to implement AI. If you are working with an outsourcer that is worth their salt and is trying to keep up with the trends, they will be working to implement AI to make your experience better.

Of course there are going to be some outsourcing companies that will take as much money as you can give them. But if you’re working with a good outsourcer that actually cares about maintaining a relationship with you, they’ll probably start talking about ways that they can implement AI or automation in your stack to help get you the benefits that are available there.

Grace: So you’re hoping that they will be proactive about that conversation.

Mercer: I think that they should be. I think that if you’re going to try to stay in business as an outsourcer, you need to be with the times. I’m sure Hosam talked about this, but our team is already doing chatbot management for our partners. We have conversation designers on staff and we’ll do that for you. That obviously takes money out of the bank when it comes to the traditional outsourcing, but it’s a much better experience for people that are working with us.

If you’re an outsourcer and you’re not moving in that direction, you’re probably not going to be around that much longer because there are so many great companies that are doing it.

I cannot understand why a business would go and work with an outsourcer that wouldn’t do that for them, versus someone who wants to partner to make this a great experience for you and for your customers.

Grace: Absolutely. It shouldn’t be about the short term cost cutting initiatives. It should be about longevity.

It comes down to quality as well, doesn’t it? Because if it’s a partnership, it’s not a one way street.

Mercer: Yeah, exactly. We never want someone to come and feel like they’re stuck with us. And with all of this AI stuff, it is really exciting. Everyone’s talking about the efficiencies that it can promote and the things that it can do for you. It does do a lot of the same stuff that a good quality outsourcer can do. So matching those two together and really making sure that you’re matching those efficiencies, is like a best of both worlds situation, I think.

Grace: What do you think are the ethical considerations with outsourcing when you’re using AI?

Mercer: That’s a great question. I think it’s important to disclose to the partner if, for instance, you’re an outsourcer that is using AI internally on your side to handle tickets and triage things. You should disclose that to your partners. That’s something that is ethically required.

If someone is paying you to staff human beings, and you are partially using AI to service some of those, I think you should probably say something about it and let them know. You don’t necessarily need to say “Oh yeah, we’re going to use it for every 100 tickets” or something like that. But I think saying “Hey, just so you know, we have implemented some automation and triage processes, or maybe even some QA in there that is AI driven. So just as a heads up, and if that affects our headcount, you will see it reflected in your bill.” 

If an outsourcer is using AI and it affects the number of people that a company working with the outsourcer needs to have, then they should see that reflected in their bill. They should pay less, if that’s the case.

Grace: Absolutely. I know from our point of view at Klaus, it’s very much about being very open with how we work with these technologies and what these technologies do and making sure that’s digestible for people. Of course, not everyone works in the data side of things, but it’s still, I think, everyone’s responsibility to make the explanations clear.

Mercer: I was working on some AI technology on my own outside of PartnerHero, and I learned how difficult it is to explain that to people. I became this de facto teacher about AI for my 85 year old father and he was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, what is AI?” All of his friends said AI is evil. But there are two sides to this.

I think we owe that to our customers, to help them understand what it means, help them advocate for themselves if it comes to their data or their security. All of those things fall to anyone who is working with other companies looking to implement AI strategies.

Grace: It’s interesting you mention your dad, I had a good conversation with my own father about this. He’s not the type that is prey to all of the media hysteria, but it’s difficult if you’re not working in it. The pessimism is increased. It’s the most fantastical way to put it, it’s eye-catching, and of course going to make people click, if the stories are going to capitulate on our fear.

Mercer: I think that’s really tricky. My dad has zero experience with technology. My older brother is an archaeologist. I am the only technologist in the family. Everyone else is really stuck way, way back. And new tech is troublesome for them. They’re like “is that on the TV? Can I do that on my rotary phone?”

AI especially, because we see these articles that AI can lie and AI can be nefarious – and yeah, humans are training it. I don’t know what you expect. Humans lie and humans can be nefarious. So anything that we are building has the potential to do that as well.

It’s what we do with that knowledge I think that’s important.

Grace: And making sure we have that knowledge too, that we approach it knowing that we are the ones who are able to opt whether or not to use it, or to change it for the better.

Mercer: Yes, 100 percent.

Grace: What would be your practical tips then, to someone working in a customer facing role? What would you say to them, that they should do right now in order to embrace this evolving world of AI that we’ve gotten ourselves into?

Mercer: If you’re an individual who’s looking to implement AI, look at the things that you do every single day and understand what are the things that are repetitive, and what are the things that take up the most of your time. I don’t think that you need to use AI for everything. I have some co-workers that are like, I put this article through AI to get a summary. You could have just read it. Reading would have taken five minutes. You don’t need to put it through AI.

Go through your day-to-day in your work, or personally, and see what it is that you do every day that takes up too much of your time. This also comes down to that likes and loathes list. There’s probably tons of stuff on your loathes list that you could use AI for.

Then professionally, at a team level, do the same thing. Have a look at analytics around your saved replies. Have a look at analytics around your documentation. Look at your automation. How many times are you using each automation in your help desk? And from there, you can start to make some small incremental changes.

The thing that I hear a lot of people doing is just “let’s implement it. It exists. So let’s do it.” I don’t think that’s a good way to go about it. I think understanding your own needs as a team and your customers’ needs are incredibly important.

I think we were having a similar conversation, as in CX as a whole, around omnichannel probably eight years ago, I want to say. Even then I was like, you don’t need to implement omnichannel. It doesn’t work for everyone. Some customers don’t need it.

The same thing goes for AI chat. Your customers might not even need or want chat. They might be happy with email. If no one is asking you for chat, don’t implement an AI bot just because you can.

These are things that we shouldn’t be doing. So I guess my best tip is just know yourself, know your needs, know your team’s needs, know your customers’ needs, and from there you can start to chart out where you might be able to make small incremental changes with AI.

I would say everything needs to be small and incremental rather than a vast overhaul or an entirely new implementation like a chatbot if you don’t have chat, because it’s gonna be hard for your team to navigate. You will not be able to see the efficacy if it’s like a brand new thing, right? You can’t, there’s no benchmark.

You can’t tell if it’s actually making a difference. So what’s the point in doing that? It could uproot your customers, right? It could make them feel like, “oh my gosh, what’s going on? This feels really weird. It’s not the same vibe as it was before.” 

That was a really long answer for a very short question.

Grace: Great answer. I like that you talk about building it out. From the individual level, on the team level, and on the customer level. Otherwise, you’re just losing sight of things and therefore jumping onto the bandwagon because it’s moving.

Mercer: There’s definitely stuff that I use AI for in my day to day: I use Motion, which is a thing that schedules out – if I want to work out today, it’ll schedule it on my calendar. If I need to do this for work, it’ll schedule it out on my calendar, so that I block off time to do the things that I need to do.

Scheduling is a hot mess for me. As I said, I have two children and I also have a million pets and I also work full time, so having that for me is really good. I discovered it because my calendar every day made me want to curl up and not talk to anybody anymore. So I thought, what can I do about that? Let me find out if there’s an AI solution for that. And there was.

I think that’s the practice that you should be following to implement AI. It shouldn’t be “Oh, such and such company says they implemented this and saw a 23% reduction in tickets.” You don’t know if you need that. An XYZ company is not you. And XYZ customers are not your customers.

Grace: I completely agree. Start with the problem, not with the solution.

Mercer: Yes.

Grace: The final question you have already answered, but… is AI coming for our jobs?

Mercer: No! No. AI is inanimate. It can’t come for our jobs, it can’t come for anything. It’ll only take what we allow it to take, right? Because we are the ones that are directing it. So no, AI is not coming for our jobs.

Grace: Thank you. Thank you very much, especially considering your scheduling issues. I’m very happy and grateful that you spent the time to talk to us at Klaus.

Mercer: Yes, this was great. Thank you so much. I love Klaus. I’ve loved Klaus for a long time. amazing.

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