Coping with high volumes in customer service: Automattic in peak demand!

No one needs reminding that it’s been an incredibly tough few months. And for many, it’s not over. 

Many companies that largely had physical stores, and did the majority of business in person, found themselves having to move online to keep business alive. Due to the forced shift from commerce to e-commerce, some of our customers saw their product adoption go through the roof.

It’s been an extremely busy time for Automattic, one of the largest players in their industry. High volumes are inseparable from high stress levels, but here’s how they coped, and then thrived, against the odds. 

Automattic & WooCommerce  

Thousands of customers flocked to WooCommerce (run by Automattic), an open-source e-commerce platform, to take their business online. Jessica Gardner, who leads a support team of Happiness Engineers in the WooCommerce division, reflects on the Covid-19 crisis.

“[When it hit] in mid-March, our volumes went way up. We were somewhat firefighting but, at the same time, not wanting our support agents to get burned out. Our policy was, ‘do your work as usual, don’t try to do more’. It was up to us, the leadership groups, and the operations team to figure out strategies”. 

Self-care the priority

Coping with high volumes in customer service is always a challenge, but the most important thing for WooCommerce was that people were looked after. They made provisions for people needing to take unexpected leave and also encouraged everyone to take extra time off for self-care. They went as far as suggesting that people take time off where they ordinarily wouldn’t feel like it. 

"It was all about being more proactive, ensuring everyone was managing their stress levels as best they could”, says Jessica. 

Optimizing and integrating

So what did WooCommerce/Automattic do to cope as their volumes quadrupled? 

By optimizing access to documentation for users, they ensured their customers could find the answers they needed without having to contact them directly. 

What they did was integrate documentation with their support contact form, allowing automations to help customers to self-serve. Bringing together “asynchronous tools” was beneficial to both the customer and the organization. 

Cross-training agents and thoughtful ticket filtering

In a business with as many teams at Automattic, knowing how to manage your workforce effectively was invaluable. When demand was fluctuating between divisions and teams, they needed to work out how to move people where the demand was needed

“We also thought about how to cross-train different agents from different divisions so that as one queue went down, we could move them to a division where volumes were still high”, says Jessica. 

 To do this, and to avoid mounting more pressure on people handling tickets that they weren’t used to, they needed "more thoughtful filtering” of their ticket types. By making the queues more specific, those with less experience around a certain area could still help on certain queues. 

The workforce management team were full of praise for the staff:  

“Our staff really stepped up to meet the increase in customer demand. In a time where any reasonable person would have expected less output and less productivity, organizationally, ours actually went up. Our team delivered in a big way, despite all odds and their own personal stress”.

Effective one-to-many customer training sessions


Another thing Automattic started doing was to do lots more webinar hosting in the form of one-to-many training sessions. With thousands of new people needing to get their websites online, they looked to broadcast their help in the most helpful way possible. 

Jessica explains, “We really wanted to see how we could reach people in a very efficient (for us) and real-time, impactful way for our customers”. 

The results were very promising. There was continued engagement with the sites that had been created previously and there were fewer people contacting support about the sites that they had created during the webinar. This was a big win by helping reduce the high ticket volumes.

Learnings from the crisis

Since the majority of the WooCommerce team are based in the US, they’re not out of the woods yet - they’re just over the first spike”.

She says that the crisis has nevertheless highlighted areas for improvement and made the company think of new solutions. The main way in which they are doing this is through analysis: 

"A situation like this highlights the need for investing time and effort into building an analytical infrastructure that a support operations team or leadership can tap into at a time of need (i.e. when we see rapid business changes, for any reason). Investing into this type of work is frequently overlooked in support centers as it’s often seen as a non-critical and unnecessary cost-driver”. 

They’re keeping a close eye on what can be done to improve the agent onboarding process, since troubleshooting involves sites that are built with open-source software. 


What has changed in b2b? 

“I have noticed that, when I’m a customer of b2b products, I feel like [the experience] is more personal”, says Jessica. "If I contact Miuros, for example, it does feel very personal. I don’t have video chats in b2c, so there is that extra touch in b2b”.

With the emergence of Slack and other technologies, one thing that has changed is the (expected) proximity of customer relations in b2b: 

"Having integrated Slack channels with the companies we have relationships with makes it feel even more personal. I see you (Miuros) as part of my work environment, rather than a different channel where I need to go find you”.

How has Covid changed business forever? 

“I think it will normalize communication online”. “I’m thinking specifically of how much tele-health has become a normal thing and I don't think that should go away”, she adds. 

Key Takeaways 

  • Encourage your people to take extra time off for self-care when necessary. 

  • Optimize the documentation available for users so it is as easy as possible for them to access. 

  • Train agents in different divisions or on secondary queues so that you can distribute your team in relation to the demand. 

  • Offer one-to-many training sessions for a real-time, effective and impactful way of reaching your customers and solving their issues. 

  • Consider offering b2b support through Slack to make your relationships even more personal. 

But businesses transitioning online also needed to find new ways to ship their products…. Enter Sendcloud! Read how they navigated the crisis here.

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