[PING!] Got a second to chat?

Let’s go back to mid-December. I’m sitting in the hotel lobby trying to get shit done. I’m building a new feature for HelpDocs to help users draft their docs easier.

It’s early days for the feature. I’m really still thinking it through. Making sure we build something powerful enough that it solves our users’ problems. Simple enough that it makes their lives easier.

PING!

It’s a message from my team in Slack. Something innocuous. Probably about payday (hey it’s December whatcha gonna do 🤷‍♀️). Or a user with an issue.

I shoot off a quick reply and get back to work.

Actually y’know what I’ve stopped anyway. I’m gonna grab a coffee.

10 minutes passes.

Ok so about that feature. I just need to… PING!

😩

Journey to Notification Hell

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been distracted in the last year by instant messages. From my team. From customers. Friends. Family. Across a half dozen platforms.

It’s a sad story. I’ll sit down to do some deep work. Or shallow work. Any work really. I’ll get about 5 minutes in and the dreaded ping’ll drag me right back out.

Now I’m no stranger to notification hell. I disabled those annoying pings on my phone years ago. My iPhone’s been on Do Not Disturb since it’s glorious debut.

But at work? I have to be available right? I mean that’s my solemn duty as a founder. Right?! 🤔

Reclaiming My Time

I got so used to minimizing my response times and making myself available I never stopped to ask why.

Did I really have to respond to that cat GIF in 20 seconds?

Could the customer’s “urgent” billing question about their plan that won’t renew for 3 weeks really not wait half hour?

Do I need a notification every time a payment fails given they’ll go through an automated dunning sequence anyway?

That’s a hard no on all counts.

I was at breaking point. Notification hell was dragging me in a thousand different unimportant directions each day.

Making myself available to everyone all the time was wrecking my productivity. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done any deep work.

Enough was enough. In the now infamous words of Auntie Maxine I had to start reclaiming my time.

Muscle Memory…Of the Mind?

I did what any sensible person would do. I rage disabled all notifications.

Team communication notifications? Gone. Live chat notifications? No thanks. iMessages from my partner? They can get their own coffee.

I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.

I got back to work.

Things were good.

Until they weren’t. Despite having notifications disabled everywhere and that distraction-free environment I’d craved I still found myself checking in.

Because while I wasn’t seeing the notifications I knew they were still there.

What if my team needed me? What if a customer knowledge base had a production issue I needed to fix asap? Or my card had been declined for my Spotify subscription? 😏

All I’d managed to do was trade notifications interrupting my day for me interrupting my day. I did more checking in than ever.

I needed a more radical change.

An Easier Way to Team

Now I’ve been a founder long enough to know that switching tools very rarely solves problems.

Sure you might get some incremental improvements. But if you suck at writing blog posts in one editor you’ll probably suck at writing them in every editor.

Wary but with resolve I ventured into the world of team communication tools. My goal was to find something less realtime. Less stressful.

After some quick research and testing I settled on Twist by Doist (one of my absolute favorite remote teams). Doist made Twist to solve their own problems with comms across timezones and different working hours.

It’s like the threads you get in Slack but without the realtime firehose of notifications. You can choose who to notify every time you send a message.

There’s no status indicators. Who cares if several people are typing? Communication becomes fully asynchronous. As it should be.

Honestly I freaking love this thing so much I’m gonna write a whole post about it. But that’s for another day 😅

Team communication ✅

Not gonna lie I was pretty pleased with myself by this point. My time was now finally my own. No more intense checking in. No more distractions. Now where did I leave that feature? Oh yeah!

PING!

Goddammit.

Dante’s 10th Circle of Live Chat

At HelpDocs we make pretty great knowledge base software. But if you asked our customers I’d like to think what they really love about us is our support.

We try to make the support experience as fabulous as we can. We’ve always had low response times. Fast times to resolution. High quality answers.

Human, friendly, engaging support. The kind we wanna see when we reach out to other companies.

We’ve had live chat since day 1. It seemed like a no brainer. People want answers quick right?

As we grew from 1 to 100 to 1000 to now, well, significantly more users the strain started to show.

I’m proud to say our response time barely slipped. If anything we continued to improve. Most chats were completely resolved in minutes. Almost all within a single working hour.

What I’m less proud about is the toll that took on the team. The toll it took on me.

We were wrong. Customers don’t want quick responses to their live chat messages. They want instant responses.

In practical terms that meant one of us had to have our chat software open at all times.

I was clearing the ticket queue at 8am and still chatting away at midnight. I spoke to customers while I was working out. At dinner with my family. Doing my makeup. Watching Netflix.

My mind was always half focused on live chat. I’d have half conversations with Jarratt each day. While we were supposed to be spending time together as a couple I wasn’t really there.

I was a ghost.

I know the rest of the team was feeling the strain too. Work was bleeding into life. And that’s not a good place to be.

Trading Live Chat for Being a Live Person

So I turned live chat off. Not just the notifications this time. The whole damn thing.

We no longer offer chat support as a company. Customers reach out to us through a contact form built into our in-app help widget Lighthouse. Lighthouse suggests knowledge base articles as users type their query. If they don’t find anything we get sent their message by email.

I switched everything over and waited for the influx of angry “WHERE IS MY CHAT GONE I CAN’T EVEN SPEAK TO YOU NOW“ messages.

Then…nothing. Nobody cared. Customers are still getting their responses quickly. They just get them by email rather than chat.

The messages we get are less “Hello?” and more “this is my specific problem. Can you help?”.

Our reply time’s slipped but our time to resolution’s pretty much the same. If not quicker in most cases.

All while focussing on our mental health as a small team.

Editor’s note: if you also do your best remote work when you can unplug from distractions we’re hiring a bunch of roles. Come work with us 🌈

Nobody’s expecting a reply to their email in 5 seconds. It’s easy to surprise and delight a customer when their expectations are so low.

It’s no secret that most companies suck at email support. We’ve all had experiences where you fire off an email and hear back a week later. Or worse not at all. I’m still waiting on a reply from a vendor I emailed in June 😆

But when companies don’t suck at email it’s a magical experience. A one hour response time is great when the expectation is 24 hours or more. That’s opposed to live chat where 30 seconds feels slow and disappointing.

As a company leader I know which experience I’d prefer to give.

Happier Team === Happier Customers

My search for an exit from notification hell was a purely selfish endeavor. I wanted to feel whole again and not get constantly dragged away from my work.

I spent a lot of last year doing 16 hour days. Most of the time in retrospect was spent context switching. I wanted to have some time to myself. To spend with my spouse. I wanted to not kill myself working.

Fast forward to now and I’ve been working fully asynchronously for three weeks.

That feature I’d been distracted working on for weeks? After finding my balance in a distraction-free work environment I had it built and shipped to staging in 2 hours.

I’ve replied to a higher volume of customers than ever.

Our customers are as happy as ever. I’m less stressed. My code quality and quantity are both way up.

I’m more productive in a 30-40 hour focused week than I ever was in my 100+ hour weeks of distraction hell. And I feel better than ever.

PING!

Oh.