Unicorns and Customer Support

  • August 3, 2016
  • Scott

Adobe Spark-6Lauren Smiley wrote a truly great piece on the trend of unicorn “startups” sending their customer service departments to far flung parts of the United States in “Congratulations, We’re Moving Your Department to Tennessee.”

It does a great job of describing two very real trends:

  1. People joining startups in entry-level jobs like customer support often have designs on moving up and out of that department into other roles as the company grows. They are literally looking at it as getting in on the ground floor.  This article tells the story of folks that made that journey successfully.
  2. As the startups become unicorns, it becomes economically impractical to keep customer service jobs (and other functions) in the Bay Area or in San Francisco proper.  And so they move vast numbers of jobs to other parts of the country.  Or more accurately, they start only hiring in those parts, and encouraging their teams to move.

Of course, if those departments are moving to Tennessee today, they are also moving to Austin.  I’ve heard several companies that opened offices here that after bringing a seed team down here from San Francisco, people started asking to transfer rather than waiting for the company to force the issue.  Their friends were opining about the high quality of life in Austin and they wanted to try it out.

But there is a real dilemma for these companies, and their workers:  how to have career advancement when they’re nowhere near the mothership.  The article doesn’t have answers for this.  Neither do I, really.  The snarky response might be, hey, at least those jobs are going to Tennessee and not another country far away.  That’s true. 

I suspect most of the unicorns may not really care. They see roles like customer support as non-core to their business.  I would argue that customer support is core to almost every business.  These companies aren’t going to change easily, and likely aren’t worried about the lack of advancement opportunities for folks in these functions.  

But they should be. Because when those opportunities exist, you attract better talent for the jobs.  You develop your farm team for leadership of customer support, for example.

For companies that care, how can you change the dynamic?

  1. Put more than one function in each location.  Take Apple for example. They put their “Americas Operations” group in Austin, TX.  But they also have chip design, software development, business services, and big chunks of HR and Accounting here.  It makes a difference in making them an attractive employer in Austin because you don’t have to move to Cupertino to advance.
  2. Invest in the community.  Don’t just have an outpost in a research park, get your team engaged with the community. Purpose within the company and purpose without are great connectors.
  3. Get big. Don’t let the operation stay small, figure out how to grow it. The more critical mass you have, the more attractive the location becomes for a number of job functions and employees. 
  4. Keep the perks consistent if you can.  Employees will notice and appreciate it.


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