Optimize employee onboarding to better retain top talent

I once showed up for my first day at a new job only to find that my desk hadn’t been cleaned out — or even dusted. I spent my first hours at work finding the kitchen, unearthing cleaning supplies, wiping down my desk and sorting through (aka throwing out) someone else’s files.

How do you think I felt about my decision to take that job? What if I told you this has happened to me at every single tech job I’ve ever taken, at big and small companies? And, incredibly, it keeps happening to new hires at tech startups every day.

Gallup found that only 12% of U.S. employers do a great job of employee onboarding — the rest are lackluster or downright bad.

A good employee onboarding program can improve employee retention by as much as 25% and make new hires 69% more likely to stick with an employer for three years. In an incredibly tight market for hiring tech talent, retention matters a lot. But onboarding is unfortunately an after-thought for busy tech companies today, which are scaling so rapidly, they often think the recruiting process ends once a sought-after hire accepts the offer.

Big tech companies like Google and Facebook can spend lavishly on employee onboarding (in addition to offering sky-high salaries, of course). But any company, big or small, can create a five-star onboarding experience without breaking the bank. Below are some suggestions that can help your company get new employees engaged from their first day — and, most importantly, help them stick around for your startup’s journey.

1. Start the onboarding process before your new hire shows up

Rippling starts billboard battle with Gusto

Remember when Zenefits imploded, and kicked out CEO Parker Conrad. Well, Conrad launched a new employee onboarding startup called Rippling, and now he’s going after another HR company called Gusto with a new billboard, “Outgrowing Gusto? Presto change-o.”

The problem is, Gusto got it taken down by issuing a cease & desist order to Rippling and the billboard operator Clear Channel Outdoor. That’s despite the law typically allowing comparative advertising as long as it’s accurate. Gusto sells HR, benefits, and payroll software, while Rippling does the same but adds in IT management to tie together an employee identity platform.

Rippling tells me that outgrowing Gusto is the top reasons customers say they’re switching to Rippling. Gusto’s customer stories page lists no customers larger than 61 customers, and Enlyft research says the company is most often used by 10 to 50 person staffs. “We were one of Gusto’s largest customers when we left the platform last year. They were very open about the fact that the product didn’t work for businesses of our size. We moved to Rippling last fall and have been extremely happy with it” says Compass Coffee co-founder Michael Haft.

That all suggests the Rippling ad’s claim is reasonable. But the C&D claims that “Gusto counts as customers multiple companies with 100 or more employees and does not state the businesses will ‘outgrow’ their platfrom at a certain size.”

In an email to staff provided to TechCrunch, Rippling CMO Matt Epstein wrote “We take legal claims seriously, but this one doesn’t pass the laugh test. As Gusto says all over their website, they focus on small businesses.”

So rather than taking Gusto to court or trying to change Clear Channel’s mind, Conrad and Rippling did something cheeky. They responded to the cease & desist order in Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter.

Our billboard struck a nerve, it seems. And so you phoned your legal teams,
who started shouting, “Cease!” “Desist!” and other threats too long to list.

Your brand is known for being chill. So this just seems like overkill.
But since you think we’ve been unfair, we’d really like to clear the air:

Rippling’s general counsel Vanessa Wu wrote the letter which goes on to claim that “When Gusto tried to scale itself, we saw what you took off the shelf. Your software fell a little short. You needed Workday for support”, asserting that Gusto’s own HR tool couldn’t handle its 1000-plus employees and needed to turn to a bigger enterprise vendor. The letter concludes with the implication that Gusto should drop the cease-and-desist, and instead compete on merit:

So Gusto, do not fear our sign. Our mission and our goals align.
Let’s keep this conflict dignified—and let the customers decide.

Rippling CMO Matt Epstein tells me that “While the folks across the street may find competition upsetting, customers win when companies push each other to do better. We hope our lighthearted poem gets this debate back down to earth, and we look forward to competing in the marketplace.”

Rippling might think this whole thing was slick or funny, but it comes off a bit lame and try-hard. These are far from 8 Mile-worthy battle rhymes. If it really wanted to let customers decide, it could have just accepted the C&D and moved on…or not run the billboard at all. It still has four others that don’t slam competitors running. That said, Gusto does look petty trying to block the billboard and hide that it’s unequipped to support massive teams.

We reached out to Gusto over the weekend and again today asking for comment, whether it will drop the C&D, if it’s trying to get Rippling’s bus ads dropped too, and if it does in fact use Workday internally.

Given Gusto has raised $516 million10X what Rippling has — you’d think it could just outspend Rippling on advertising or invest in building the enterprise HR tools so customers really couldn’t outgrow it. They’re both Y Combinator companies with Kleiner Perkins as a major investor (conflict of interest?), so perhaps they can still bury the hatchet.

At least they found a way to make the HR industry interesting for an afternoon.

How to ramp up your Customer Support team using Intercom

As your business grows, having an excellent customer support team who can keep up is critical. Ramping up that support team, however, is easier said than done.

If you don’t have a process or tools in place to help scale your support team, you’ll be reinventing the wheel each time you onboard a teammate – redirecting precious time and resources away from the customers you should be helping. Support reps come from diverse and often far from technical backgrounds. It may seem overwhelming to bring them up to speed on every aspect of your product, workflow, resources, company voice and common customer questions.

However, by capturing the great work of your current rockstar support reps, you can ramp up your support team in a cohesive and timely manner. We use tools that are baked into Intercom to do each of these jobs (and you can too), but any online business likely has similar resources at their disposal. A support team is going to have a lot of non-technical hires, and setting them up for success, while difficult, is one of the most important things you’ll do.

1. Pace the speed and expectations for learning customer support

A huge part of a support rep’s day is managing their workflow and continually iterating on how they tackle difficult conversations. These key concepts are hard to put into a training manual without real life examples.

Give your new support rep the chance to take a look at real life conversations

Instead of creating examples or having your new reps guessing about what these conversations and workflows look like, give your new support rep the chance to take a look at real life conversations your team is having with your customers in real time.

If you’re hesitant about having someone new taking a look around your real data, you can add some bumpers to your new support rep’s lane with Restricted Access.

This restriction will prevent them from exporting user and company data, assigning conversations, deleting messages from the inbox and sending messages to more than one person at a time. This feature is excellent for learning while reducing the risk.

2. Use “learning tags” to get a feel for past conversations

Once your support rep is in your Inbox, they will start to get a feel for all the different types of questions your company deals with. They will get to see difficult conversations and common questions, and they will develop a sense for how feature requests, handovers, follow ups and updates are handled.

While navigating through these conversations, if they find one they’re curious about or want to follow along with, they can add what we call a learning tag. A learning tag allows someone to search the Inbox for all of these conversations each week to review them and see how a current support rep handled them, along with how often they followed up and how they ultimately resolved the issue.

Ramping up Customer Support with Intercom

After reviewing, the rep can delete the tag so that next time you search these conversations, you’ll know exactly where to pick up. If a conversation has a lot of back and forth and isn’t fully resolved, keep the tag on to follow up on how the conversation was resolved.

To take this a step further, have your team set goals for how many learning tags you’d like each teammate to add to conversations while training. As training continues, encourage those who are onboarding to sort the Inbox by the longest wait time and add a learning tag whenever they come across a conversation they are unsure about.

After onboarding, this can be continued as well. At Intercom, our product is continually changing as new products and features are released. Learning about these features right away is key to helping our customers adapt as well. Adding a learning tag on a conversation allows you to learn from each other throughout your tenure and encourage continual learning on the job.

3. Utilize resources and tools

External resources and tools you use each day may seem intuitive to you but not necessarily someone new coming on to your team.

Creating an aspect of your onboarding geared towards helping your team learn and become aware of what resources are available will save each teammate a valuable amount of time.

Tools you use every day may include third party tools like Gmail, Text Expander, Slack and also resources within Intercom like Saved Replies, similar conversations or Help Center Articles. These tools and resources will help your support reps ramp up more quickly and will benefit their efficiency.

Familiarizing yourself with what Saved Replies are available is a great way to start learning the answers to common questions your customers ask.

Ramping up Customer Support with Intercom

Another tool you can utilize from within the Inbox is Smart Suggestions. Operator will suggest three articles based on the question your customer asked. You can use this to start learning what Help content your company has available, what features are capable of and help you to recognize which articles will be most helpful in certain situations.

Similar to learning tags, past conversations are an invaluable help resource. Although the current conversation you’re tackling is a new customer or question, chances are something similar has been asked before. A quick search through Intercom can show you if the answer to this question has already been discovered or if a workaround exists

Familiarizing your team with the help content you already have at their disposal will save time for your teammate’s day to day workflow and during the onboarding process. Having support reps that know exactly what information is within each of your Help Center articles will also ensure that your customers are receiving the best and most timely responses possible.

4. Follow up on previous work to continually improve

While someone is ramping up, they aren’t going to be able to handle each and every conversation. For example, if a customer needs additional engineering support to look into a technical issue or a customer wants to speak with a designer about the newest brand refresh, it’s important for your new hire to follow up on these conversations to see how they were resolved. This way, they can potentially handle the conversation the next time around.

Within Intercom, teammates are able to add an internal note within a conversation when they reassign the conversation to a new team or teammate. Whenever a new hire escalates a conversation to another teammate, suggest that they @mention themselves in the note first. This way, the conversation will show up in their own @mention Inbox and they will be able to follow along with the conversation.

This way, they will learn how to either ask better follow up questions to help the assigned engineer solve the issue, or they will learn how to resolve this particular issue themselves.

Ramping up Customer Support with Intercom

Ensuring that new support reps follow up on conversations is key to developing product knowledge, creating a better customer experience.

You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time a new support member joins

Another way to follow up on previous work is to have your support rep sort their Inbox conversations by closed conversations to review later on. By reviewing old work, they can determine what they could have done differently, what they did well and strategize other possible solutions or workarounds they could have suggested.

Bringing new members of your customer support team up to speed is a difficult task. Not only do you have to train them on how to use your tools and resources, you also have to teach them how to be an expert with handling customer conversations and how to answer in-depth product questions.

Getting your team comfortable using Intercom while they’re learning all aspects of your support process will help them ramp up quickly and proficiently. It will also encourage continual learning and collaboration. You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time a new support member joins your team. And remember, the faster a new support rep becomes an experienced teammate, the sooner they can help the next support rep in the same way.

The Growth Handbook

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What to expect: Your first few months as an engineer at Intercom

The offer email I received from Intercom ended with the line “Join us to do the best job of your career”.

My first thought was that it’s quite a bold statement, which creates a lot of expectations. I was curious to see how the company ensures that every new engineer has the opportunity to do the best job of their career, and how that would translate to my personal growth and everyday life in Intercom. So how has “the best job of your career” transpired in the Intercom world?

Making an impact as an engineer

To begin with, I loved the fact that I was considered to be a fully productive team member from day one. I joined Intercom on a wiggle week. My team worked on a project that enabled others to build integrations on top of our UI. I got the chance to learn and work with Ember.js, and we built a working prototype from scratch. At the end of the week, I demoed our proof of concept in the “Show and Tell” presentation in front of the whole company. “Show and Tell” is a Friday Intercom tradition, where we showcase the projects that the teams were working on during the week. For a new member of the team, absorbing all of this context and creating something impactful, as well as presenting in front of the whole company, was way more than I would expect to do in just a couple of days.

What can be built within a week at Intercom still amazes me to this day.

The amount of stuff that could be built within a week was also quite impressive. In fact, what can be built within a week at Intercom still amazes me to this day, more than six months later. I have never encountered an environment where things are delivered with such speed. For somebody coming from environments with more lengthy building processes, this speed can be quite daunting or challenging in the beginning. It wasn’t only my technical skills that I had to work on to adapt to the new way of doing things. I had to become comfortable with the concept of “shipping to learn”, which is one of our core values. “Shipping to learn” is based on the idea that software doesn’t have to be perfect to be shipped, and most of the time it is not possible to define what success looks like in advance. By shipping and collecting feedback we can apply our learnings and iterate on our solution. I revisited how to take everyday decisions when building to optimise and achieve results with reasonable tradeoffs.

After the wiggle week, I worked on the “Salesforce by Intercom” integration, a much expected feature for our customers. This was part of a more holistic company strategy going on at the time, called Intercom for Sales. Many different parts of the company had to work together to make this happen. It was fascinating to see so many people collaborating on the same project and delivering with such a great rhythm. The success of this project was proof that even though we are massively growing, we can still operate with the ethos of a small company when we need to.

Even though we are massively growing, we can still operate with the ethos of a small company when we need to.

During those early weeks, I felt productive and impactful in my new role. I had just joined Intercom and yet I had the opportunity to contribute so much to solving problems and building solutions. It’s common for a new engineer to undertake simple tasks for their first few weeks in a new job but you won’t find this at Intercom. I was immediately thrown into high impact projects and even early on, my opinions were requested and valued. I was undertaking challenging tasks and I felt trusted to complete them. Achieving impact for our customers that fast is extremely motivating and empowering for a new engineer.

Setting engineers up for success

It goes without saying that having to learn things and contribute so fast can be quite daunting in the beginning. New technologies, a big complex product, a lot of different tools and a rapidly moving environment is definitely not a walk in the park. In order not to be overwhelmed in your first weeks, a member of the team is assigned to be your dedicated mentor. The purpose of the mentor is to help you through this process and speed things up. In my case, the support of my mentor and my team members was vital to tackle this initial steep learning curve. Questions from everyone are also highly encouraged in the engineering department. Everybody wants you to learn and contribute fast. One phrase you’ll hear quite often is “setting people up for success”. It is the responsibility of the manager and the team to define what “success” means and the steps to get there to help a new person succeed in their role. It’s simple but effective: If people succeed, the company will succeed, and if people grow, the company will grow as well. It’s a win-win situation.

How does engineering support happen day-to-day in a fast-paced environment like Intercom? A new member of the team has to ramp-up their knowledge of various technologies and tools. Apart from direct exposure to projects, there are a lot of other ways to support engineering growth. Training, seminars and knowledge sharing sessions are a significant part of the engineering life. We do lunch-and-learn sessions to educate ourselves on new technologies. Regular feedback is an indispensable part of the growth process. Engineers tour other teams as a way to learn about the different parts of the application. A tour involves an engineer transferring to another team to undertake a specific project in that team’s domain, and every new engineer at Intercom will typically complete two tours shortly after joining. Above all that, we focus on ensuring that everybody has all of the necessary resources, knowledge and help to succeed in a task.

The focus isn’t only on engineering skills though. Engineers get to do a “customer day” when they join and work as part of the customer support team for a day. Similarly, there is the opportunity to do a “sales day” as well. This can help a person upskill in areas outside of their daily responsibilities and gain a more holistic perspective of the product, the whys and the hows. In the Intercom world helping a person succeed is part of everyday activities that combine being challenged and receiving support.

If people succeed, the company will succeed, and if people grow, the company will grow.

Choosing the right technology

We use a lot of different technologies for building, shipping and monitoring our systems. We are never afraid to try new ones, aiming to find better ways of doing things. Some of our engineers recently spoke about rewriting one of our core systems from Java to Go, as there were many performance and maintenance benefits for the team. The phrase “this is how we always did things” has no place in our everyday vocabulary. I could see this from my early days in Intercom, as experimenting with new solutions to measure the impact and ultimately become part of the roadmap is a common thing. This cultivates a culture of engineering excitement and passion.

At the same time, we do appreciate the value of standard “boring” technologies. On another occasion, we stuck with our main technology, Rails over Go, to build a new Integration. Rails was a better option for us at the time since it would ensure better maintainability and consistency among the different projects we own. Our engineers have already spoken about the importance of standard technologies in our product success. Being reliable and building good solutions fast have to be the ultimate target. Achieving this balance between engineering excitement and building reliable solutions is one of the biggest factors of success in our engineering teams.

Solution focused engineering

How we take everyday decisions about building our products also reflects this principle. We always measure the impact of a solution before we begin and acknowledge what we do not know. Afterwards, we proceed, being aware of our assumptions and our data. Shipping early helps us collect feedback from our customers and then iterate. This prevents us from spending our time over-engineering solutions without adequate information. We do love technology but we love to build great solutions for our customers more. This approach allows us to make smart decisions and build fast, ruthlessly prioritizing when needed.

Wearing more hats than your engineering one during the day helps you upskill in unexpected ways.

Engineers participate a lot in those decisions. The way we operate as a product first company creates the need for close collaboration between the different principles. Having experience in more strict environments before, I was impressed by the power given to engineers. It is strongly desirable that people have a word on decisions about the product, the roadmap, the processes and our culture shaping. We are also encouraged and supported to write and speak about our work. Wearing more hats than your engineering one during the day helps you upskill in unexpected ways.

The future is bright

Intercom has the fascinating combination of a late-stage startup environment and a complex expanding product. The scaling challenges it faces on this journey give its engineers the opportunity to grow to their maximum potential and have an impact on something big. Working with so many smart and passionate people makes every day an inspiration. For me, getting challenged every day and developing myself in multiple ways definitely sounds like a great step in my career.

If this sounds like the sort of place you would like to grow your engineering career, we’re hiring across the board.

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Successful employee onboarding should focus on culture

Onboarding new employees is a hard process to do well. You might think of onboarding as something you just have to check off your list, but it’s easy to forget that things which are second nature to you are totally new and unknown to someone that’s just started.

I joined Intercom a few months ago as an engineering manager and onboarding for the first time in a while made me realize some things I hadn’t before.

One area that’s especially fraught with challenges is your company culture. Neglecting to onboard a new hire into your company culture poses a huge risk of misalignment. You should invest in good and detailed onboarding focused on culture for all of your new employees, and more specifically, for your managers.

If you value your culture and want it to evolve in a controlled and predictable manner, you need to make sure you teach it to your new employees and don’t just expect them to absorb it by osmosis.

The disadvantages of the usual onboarding process

Most of us have probably been onboarded before. It’s usually a one or two day interlude before we get to our “real” work. It’s focused on meeting a bunch of people, setting up our computer, walking through benefits and occasionally meeting an executive who talks about the vision and mission of the company. It’s fast, cheap and short. Current employees don’t “waste” their time and new employees can focus on having lots of impact immediately.

Neglecting to onboard a new hire into your company culture poses a huge risk of misalignment.

While these steps are important and necessary, this type of onboarding is generic and shallow and leaves huge gaps. It doesn’t explain the network of values that subconsciously drive almost every decision. It doesn’t teach new hires the unspoken rules and expectations around the office. It doesn’t help people find their feet in a new and different environment. In short, it doesn’t educate people on the company culture.

If individual contributors are onboarded without building an understanding of the culture, their only possible savior is a great manager who will spend hours with them guiding them in their new role. Leaving this to the luck of the draw is never a good idea.

If managers are onboarded without building an understanding of the culture, they will probably act according to their previous experience and pass that down to their teams. Over time, ineffectually onboarded individual contributors and managers will slowly erode the culture that everyone is so proud of until nothing remains and it won’t be their fault.

Personalization, not generalization

The best onboarding is crafted for the position and adjusted to the person. It’s focused on details, not just broad understanding. In my previous company we built a drip campaign in Hubspot aimed at new hires. It would send them different emails over their first few weeks based on their clicks. The drip campaign could be crafted to deliver essential information at a useful time. If you clicked on a link about learning opportunities, a few days later you would receive a follow up email with more details. Don’t overwhelm your new employees with too much information too early. Guiding them and filtering this information will help ease the learning curve.

Don’t overwhelm your new employees with too much information too early.

The simplest way to achieve personalized onboarding is to reach out to new hires and ask for their expectations. It’s the perfect time to hear about what they already know and where they expect more guidance. Before my first day at intercom I had two calls, a lunch and couple of email exchanges with my future manager, just about my onboarding. The first question my manager asked on our first call was, “Kuba, what are your ideas regarding your onboarding?” It boosted my confidence that my manager would help me be successful in my role. If you plan personal onboarding for your new employees, you will better set them up to succeed.

Don’t finish onboarding on the first day

On the first day, you should put pressure on high-level values, the company mission and meeting the leadership team. Getting to quickly grasp the purpose and key motivations of the company is a useful early win for new hires. It gives them the feeling that they made progress right off the bat and made a good decision choosing your company. The first impression of your office, the people operations team and the place where they’ll be working are important, but onboarding should not stop there.

If you stop your structured onboarding at the end of the first day, your new hires will develop their own understanding of how to operate in their new role. This can lead to misalignment between how your new employees understand and operate, and your expectations of their contributions. Having this misalignment from day 1 is a sure way for them to fail.

Guide your new employees for weeks through your culture

Something that absolutely struck me with its simplicity and practicality during Intercom’s onboarding was having a Trello board filled with detailed cards crafted for my role. We use a template and adapt it for each new hire to fit their needs. It’s well structured and arranged by week so that there is a clear path to completion. Every time I felt overwhelmed, I could dive back into the Trello board to see how much progress I’d already made, but also understand what was ahead of me. There were many new words every day, but the Trello board was my guide that said, “You don’t need to bother with that yet, we will cover it in two weeks. Right now, focus on this.” Managers should invest time preparing a well structured onboarding guide for any new employees, so that they know what they need to learn but also so they feel like they are making progress and contributing.

Don’t expect new managers to start managing without understanding the culture.

Don’t teach and manage somebody who doesn’t feel the culture yet

Don’t expect new hires to immediately start working at full speed and don’t expect new managers to start managing without understanding the culture. Let new employees try out other teams, maybe even departments, in order to see how they are different. Give them time and opportunities to develop relationships with people across the company. This feeling of progression, starting from small wins and goals that get bigger and more impactful as they go, builds their confidence and cultural knowledge. It lets them build their network early and without pressure, not on the fly when they need to deliver results.

I temporarily worked on three different teams and had 8 weeks of engineering, filled with meetings and conversations, before I eventually started managing people. Often, the worry is that new employees won’t feel productive during their onboarding, but over those 8 weeks, I felt impactful through my involvement on each team. Day after day I felt more confident that I would be able to have a meaningful and positive impact on my future team.

Long term dividends

You shouldn’t be afraid of investing in the proper onboarding, especially if you appreciate your culture, are proud of your mission and values, and want to stay aligned even during fast growth. Shortening onboarding seems like a quick win, but it’s actually a long term loss. Invest in a thorough onboarding process for your new hires, and it will pay dividends for years.

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