The Support Automation Show: Episode 7

Episode 7 of The Support Automation Show feat. Christopher Rotz

In this episode of The Support Automation Show, a podcast by Capacity, Justin Schmidt is joined by Christopher Rotz, Director of Process and Analytics at American Pacific Mortgage. They discuss the concept that implementing support automation should be focused on the customer experience. For it to truly be considered a success, customers should want to use it, not have to use it.

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Justin Schmidt: Welcome to The Support Automation Show, a podcast by Capacity. Join us for conversations with leaders in customer or employee support who are using technology to answer questions, automate processes and build innovative solutions to any business challenge. I’m your host, Justin Schmidt. 

Justin: Good morning, Chris, how are you doing?

Chris Rotz: How are you doing?

Justin: I’m doing wonderful. Where’s this podcast find you today?

Chris: It finds me in a small little town on the central coast of California called Templeton.

Justin: Templeton. I’ve never been to Templeton, lived in Long Beach for a few years in San Francisco for a few years. Four-ish, total years in California. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Templeton.

Chris: We’re close to like Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo.

Justin: I understand. I can picture it now. Well, cool. Chris joins us from American Pacific Mortgage where he is the director of process and analytics, extensive experience managing people and processes both offshore and onshore as an operations manager. We’re going to talk today about your journey and how American Pacific Mortgage or APM embraces support automation. Full disclosure that APM is a customer of Capacity.

As we’ve done a couple of times on this show now, we’re going to really focus on support automation and in as much as Capacity is brought up in that conversation, we’ll cover it but this show is really for support leaders and how they can embrace automation in their organization. I’m very excited to talk about Chris with that today. Chris, how did you get into processing analytics? What brought you to the position you’re in now?

Chris: I started working in smart automation about eight years ago. At APM, we were trying to find a better way to get information out to our employees. We were starting to spread out a little bit more across the country and trying to live in emails. We started doing some automation using SharePoint and its workflows and forms to study notifications, summaries, newsletters, and stuff like that. Try and get that information out there. Very basic but the workflows in SharePoint allowed us to take that and get that out there.

Justin: Interesting. You came to it through an information sharing perspective.

Chris: Right. Really that is our focus and it still remains that even with what we do today as the company continues to spread out. When I first started, we had most of our support staff or corporate staff and we’d just send Roseville in one building and people could walk around and ask questions and get their information the old fashioned way, I like to say. The company’s in 49 states. We have employees in all of those states. We have corporate employees in 40 of them. We lose that ability to just do that back and forth. Information is power, and it allows people to get their jobs done quickly and correctly. Without the ability to just turn and ask somebody, you have to find ways to get them that information in a way that is understandable, is accurate, and actionable.

Justin: It’s interesting hearing that because for employees in 49 states, APM has been distributed for a while now. I would imagine that when the world was forced into a distributed workforce environment last spring, you guys operationally already had a lot of best practices, technology, et cetera, in place to lubricate that information sharing and leverage technology to get that done.

Chris: Definitely. We definitely had an advantage over a lot of other companies and other industries because we were so distributed. Most of that was centered on our loan officers and originators and our branches, which were spread out across the different states. With this change was- the corporate staff now was starting to spread out and people starting to move to different places, or even just at home and figuring out ways to take that and to- not just the information, but to keep that sense of community.

That sense of culture is a huge part of who we are at APM. How do we maintain that in our conversations and our communications and even at automations. I think that it’s very important that no matter what you do and how you do it, who you are, has to shine through that, that’s what keeps the thread together and keeps people able to interact and get their stuff done.

Justin: When I say the word support automation, this is an interesting question because without my prompt, you said it earlier, but let’s explicitly ask because I’m very interested to hear how you would specifically define this. When you hear support automation, what does that mean to you?

Chris: I think of leveraging automation to help people find the specific information or assistance they’re looking for and be able to do that 24 hours a day and allow the support workers to focus on higher levels of work and tasks, as opposed to just answering repetitive questions.

Justin: Exactly. Through the journey at APM, you went from one location to people in 49 states. That’s a lot of growth. The other thing that everyone needs, I’m sure everyone out there listening is aware of the housing market and how it’s boomed in the last 18 months. One thing I would love to dive into a little bit is maybe what that mortgage boom has looked like inside of a lender such as APM and some of the opportunities and challenges you guys have had as from scale–

Like your loan officers, I’m sure, all had great years. It’s been a fun time for you guys and businesses doing really well. With that growth comes challenges. I’d love to hear some examples of specific things that you guys overcame with this recent mortgage industry boom.

Chris: Well, it’s interesting. In terms of our growth, we had a lot of branches. We used to say we were big west of the Rockies and over the last year or two, we’ve really expanded out. That does present unique challenges in terms of time zone, in terms of just having people be able to answer questions at a time when people are working. We now have branches in Hawaii and on the east coast. Having a corporate structure where it’s in a central location, it doesn’t always work where we can have somebody, all those hours working.

We do as best we can with the folks and our support desks but having the ability to have automation, be able to answer some of the questions that the folks in those areas. Honestly, even in the regular hours, we did a rollout and we started looking at stuff. The number of questions we were getting answered at 1:00 AM, 2:00 AM when our loan officers were sitting down and had a moment and we’re trying to work through and find it instructing our loans was really an eye-opener for us because we had no way of knowing that before. Now, all of a sudden we can see these, oh, wow, they’re actually working all this time. They had a question, we’ll answer that question.

They’re able to continue working at that time frame when there’s really no way you could have 24-hour support to do that. It was an eye-opener to see, what do we need to do? What do we need to provide for them? When do we need to provide it? I guess, the way it evolves is the philosophy is delivering them that information where they’re at, when they need it. Automation really allows that to happen.

Justin: Fascinating. Chris, when we first started talking about doing this interview, one of the topics you proposed was implementing support automation should be focused on the customer experience. For it truly to be considered successful, customers should want to use it, not have to use it. I absolutely adore that phrase. If you see that in some of our marketing collateral, know that that comes with a head nod and a thumbs up in your direction. I would love it if you can unpack that second part of this for it to truly be considered a success, customers should want to use it, not have to use it. What do you mean?

Chris: Well, it really comes from who we are as a company and in the mortgage space, we are known as a very people-focused group. [unintelligible 00:10:00] that matters. It’s something we espouse as a major driver in everything we do. If you look at what you want from an application or a tool, you want people to engage in it. That’s the only way you’re going to get, not just something to use it. You can get people to use it and say, “Okay, this is the only way that you can get a ticket, or this is the only place you can get an answer.”

They may use it, and they may get something out of it, but they’re never going to move that tool in a direction that will be wildly successful because you’re never going to get feedback. You’re never going to have people talking to other people and having them want to use it. There’s energy that goes along with something that everybody wants to use. The concept of going viral doesn’t have to mean that it’s just a video, but it’s an application or a new process if done correctly and done in a way that people want to use, it has an energy of its own.

It will give you the ability to continue to improve it and continue to drive it because people really want to use it. If they don’t, then you’re going to get the minimal amount of engagement and the minimal amount of improvement. If they want to, you’re going to have people being raving fans, which is a term we use a lot as of that, and they’re going to really drive that to be better, and eventually get more and more out of it.

Justin: Inside of the answer you just gave there is something that comes up from time to time on this show, and that is when automation is brought into the, I’m making air quotes, for those of us not on video, “Knowledge work, white-collar work” can be the old fashioned way to say it. When automation is brought into knowledge work, there can be some trepidation on embracing that, and accepting those tools and that technology into your workstreams. People could think, “Oh, the AI is going to take over my job.”

One of the important things to remember is, it’s not just capacity as a vendor, saying this, this is just also true. The best automation doesn’t replace people, it augments the people you have and makes them better. You touched on this earlier when you said, “Agents get the time to focus on the most important things.” The other side of that is they have to be willing to embrace the technology.

To your point about customers wanting to use it, not having to use it, that customer can be the person on your website looking to get information about when a branch is open, or what interest rates are currently available, or whatever it is, but that’s also on the internal side as well. When it all works, the harmony that’s created by customers who aren’t bothering agents with simple questions, with agents who aren’t being bothered by simple questions, when those interactions do happen, it’s a much deeper interaction.

You get this customer advocacy and this brand, for lack of a better word, brand equity that you might not have otherwise gotten because the customer feels like they have to call an agent just to get a simple question answered. The agent might be a little short on temper or whatever because he or she has just answered the same question for the 150th time that day.

Really interesting to hear how you guys have embraced that. Outside of support, do you take a similar approach to the other elements of the tech stack? I know just from my outsider looking in with the mortgage business, there’s a lot of the tools, technology, processes, et cetera, that are required to get a home loan are pretty extensive. I’m just curious about the operational design at APM if you’ve taken that approach with some of the other parts of the tech stack as well.

Chris: That’s a great point. I’ve long looked for and hoped for the concept of a single pane of glass because there are a lot of tools. There are a lot of tools for originating loans. There’s a lot of tools for marketing. There’s a lot for tracking, for anything. If you go online and type in mortgage tools or marketing tools, there are just hundreds of them. They’re great, and the technology has allowed so many amazing things to be done by an individual, but it also makes it hard to figure out, “Okay, which one am I supposed to use here? Am I supposed to be entering this here or entering that there? Or do I ask this person or that person for help or guidance for that part of it?”

That caused a lot of angst. You ended up calling multiple people or going to multiple places, or updating multiple things. Our goal, and it’s still aspirational as we work towards it, is to try to bring it to a single place where you just ask the question, and how it gets answered and routed, and all of that is not something you really should care about. You’re going to get the right answer from the system or the bot or a person, and you’re going to be able to do that in a way that is just a single trusting place that you can go to as opposed you’re trying to figure out all of the rest of it.

It’s become an industry with a hybrid focus on everything going on, and being able to do this has really become a huge part of the industry. Even Microsoft has released their Microsoft Viva, which is actually a customer experience platform, which allows you to use API’s and to bring all of the different information to different places into one spot. You just have to look in one place, you can see updates from multiple applications, and you don’t have to keep bouncing around.

They’re not the only ones, but it’s just interesting that this concept is becoming more and more important, honestly, because more tools are coming out. Once again, people are using this platform as a hybrid worker to go to and to be able to get all of their stuff in one location.

Justin: Yes, it’s especially important too in something like mortgage, where one of the most important things for a lender is to get that loan close as fast as humanly possible, which, given all the regulations and all the paperwork and everything that has to happen for a loan to get close, it’s a much more arduous journey for a mortgage lender to get a mortgage closed and sent off to servicing or whatever than it is for, Best Buy to sell a television. It’s a long, hairy process.

To be able to bring in that automation, even if you can make the whole experience from lead to close 10% faster, that can give you a huge competitive advantage. Obviously, you can free up your LOs and your desks and other various people in the firm, to then close more loans. Really, really interesting stuff. When you think about your journey through implementing automation at APM, and if you could think back to when you first started that journey, knowing what you know now, what’s one piece of advice you would give to yourself or to any other leader in a business who’s getting started on their automation journey?

Chris: Oh, good question. I think the first thing is I would start small. I had a boss who was very good at this in talking about building something as an example in a key area and then building a desire for people to use it. Here’s what we built, it can do other things, and then people go, “Well, that’s great.” Then they start asking for more and more and more.

I think that allowing the automation to grow organically like that allows you to, once again, go back to people who want to use it. Did the business want it to exist and to leverage it because they’re asking for it. We start off with something small for a certain segment like benefits or something and it’s very specific to that, “Oh, that was great. You can do this too.” It’s like, “Oh, wow.”

Then people start asking for it, and it grows in a way that you have these fans that are built-in as you go each segment to the point where you get critical mass and it’s like, “Okay, we have to use this for everything. This is great.” That’s one of them. The other part is going back to the people part of it, it should reflect your company. Well, we use Capacity and part of what we’re working on is it should sound and it should feel like part of the company.

It should reflect our culture and the way we talk and whenever possible because one of the reasons people don’t like dealing with bots is it just seems mechanical and it doesn’t seem like they’re talking to someone. By making it more conversational in a way that reflects the way you talk in the company, it breaks down that barrier for them. Let’s face it. The most people’s first example of bot and automation is calling someplace and going through that automated voice and having [crosstalk]

Justin: Press 1 for–

Chris: Which is a horrible experience. It’s frustrating. We learned that early on and it gives us that negative feeling about automation. By making it more conversational, by making it more a reflection of your company, it should tell jokes. If it tells jokes, that would be told in your company. It should have fun remarks at the end. Those things really do drive adoption and usage of the tool.

Justin: Right. You don’t fear calling the 1-800 number knowing you’re going to go through 15 menus of triage.

Chris: The one other thing I would just [crosstalk] is know what– We have basically three uses that we can use it for because as a people-centric company, we don’t want ever to just be automation. That’s another fear people have, it’s the bot or nothing else. There’s things that automation can do very well. It can identify what you’re asking and you can get you the right person, or just answer a simple question. There are interactions that the bot can’t do, but it doesn’t mean the bot can’t help.

As an example for that is, you want to order a new computer and there are things that somebody would need to ask you in order for that to happen, or applying for something else. A lot of what happens if you just send emails into the help desk is then they email you back because they don’t have the information and then you go back and forth. It’s a long process that doesn’t really give any satisfaction or it takes too much time to go through. You have the bot asking those questions and then providing those answers in a ticket or an email, or however you want to use it to those desks or to the people that need help.

They can just answer the question. There’s no back and forth. I have streamlined something even a person is needed in it by giving them the information they need to finish it, which benefits both. You don’t need as much spending, much time on the support side with the person and that person, by taking 30 seconds to answer those questions, has eliminated the emails back and forth, which is never instantaneous.

Justin: Right. Again, getting back to that speed to happy customers, speed to satisfied team members, comments we were making earlier. When you think about the future of support automation, what excites you the most?

Chris: I think it always goes back for me. It goes back to how natural and how conversational it can make things. Today, we are limited somewhat on what machine learning and natural language processing can do. It gets infinitely better every year, but it’s not able to identify everything in every sentence of what is going on. You can see the point coming where somebody can ask the end of a vague question, but it recognizes enough of the question that I can ask a clarifying question and continue the process along as if I were talking to you.

At that point, it becomes powerful enough that really the low level, level one, level zero tech can almost all be handled by that. Now it just becomes something that is necessary to have higher level stuff going on where people actually have to get engaged and type in stuff or order stuff. I see that coming, and I think it’s going to be fantastic. I also see all of this stuff being able to present it in a way that people just go in there and are able to say, okay, what’s going on today?

This able to look at multiple systems, multiple APIs, and here are all the things you need to do across anything that you work in and, hear updates for all of them and you just work as opposed to, okay, now I’ve got to go to Outlook and now I’ve got to go to RLS. Now I’ve got to go over here to my CRM and all it just interacts together. The automation and the APIs, we’re able to pull that stuff together and we’ll get back and forth.

Justin: Eventually, we’re going to do our work the same way Tony Stark did with Jarvis when he’s in his Iron Man suit, and Jarvis can just start, take care of everything. He could focus on saving the world. This has been a great conversation. I think there’s some really good takeaways for people. Chief among them, for me, is to implement automation in such a way that the experience is delightful enough that your customers are going to want to use it, and your team members are going to want to use it.

When you do that and you drive that adoption, you drive that usage, you start uncovering pretty good and meaningful business optimizations, such as seeing LOs cranking through things after hours, and specifically the types of questions that they would normally have to wait until the next business day to answer. In a time of once every now and then growth and opportunity, like what we’ve seen in housing in the past 18 months, that’s extremely valuable. I would love it if we can end with a quick fire round here. Let’s start with, what is the book that you most often recommend to people?

Chris: It’s A More Beautiful Question. It’s actually the full title. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. It’s a fascinating book. I’m a very innovative person. The concept of it is we stop asking questions because it’s forced out of us. As kids, the teacher starts getting irritated. If you keep raising your hand too much and asking questions, you certainly learn. At some point, it’s better off just to stop asking questions.

The problem with that is that you don’t ask questions.

You can’t really innovate or move forward. The other part that it really talks about is, when they’re asking questions, they put their own blocks in there. It would say, we can do this but, and then they stop thinking about the rest of their answer because, well, we don’t have the money for that, or we don’t have the time to do that. The problem is when you put those blocks in place, there’s an idea along that path, somewhere that you don’t get to, that you would have, if you just kept asking.

You may not be able to do 10 of them, but the 11th is a great idea that you were able to get because you suspended belief long enough and everything’s possible, oh, we can’t do that. Well, that’s awesome. That’s something that I find in process improvement and innovative work people do. It’s just a natural way we operate. Well, I know that’s not going to work, so I’m going to stop thinking along those lines.

Justin: That’s really fascinating. I’m going to have to add that to my good reads list. The focus of what we’re doing here on this show and Capacity, in general, and just for me as a knowledge worker in the year 2021 is really trying to be more productive, trying to be more sacred with the time I have and being more effective with that time. One of the things that we do here every year is we have this big productivity hacks blog post/webinars that I do. One of my sources for finding new hacks is to ask the guests on the show. What’s the best productivity hack or tip or trick, however you want to describe it, that you’ve ever used.

Chris: Essentially, I hack my schedule whenever possible, especially as we spread out and we lose our time and people just want to schedule meetings to talk and to interact. I go proactively before each week and block out segments of my calendar to make sure I have time to get stuff done, because we’ve all ended up in a situation where you’ve worked eight hours, you work nine hours. You’ve been in meetings for eight of those hours.

I actually didn’t move anything forward on my list because I’ve been in meetings all day. That’s part of it. Then the other thing you find out is of people that were scheduling meetings. If you block out your time and they realize they don’t have that, they send that email that could have been an email all along, but they just wanted to schedule a meeting. There’s this impact on it because you’d get meetings instead of them being scheduled a lot farther along, you just eliminate them.

The other one in terms of blocking out is if I’m leading a meeting or driving it or giving a presentation, I block out the 15 minutes before that so I have time to make sure I’ve got everything lined up and everything in place, as opposed to just trying to jump from one meeting to something I’m leading because it just never goes well. Then you end up wasting everybody’s time at the beginning of that because you’re trying to get everything organized. I’ve implemented that actually that’s the thing at Outlook where you can set that up where it’s just before every meeting and put 10 minutes, 15 minutes.

Justin: That’s great stuff. Good reminder too that Outlook or Gmail, whether you’re a Microsoft company or a Google company, both those suites have a lot of those types of features buried in the settings of the Calendar functions. I highly recommend everybody open up the deepest menus of the settings of those apps because you’re going to find some really great stuff. If you could recommend one website, blogs, slack, community, LinkedIn group, discord room, subreddit, pick your community platform of choice. If you could recommend one community to support leaders, what would it be?

Chris: Actually not really at this point really had a one specific place. I’m all over the place. You actually use YouTube videos as well, but I follow certain people on YouTube, but listening to the podcast I just was on there and how is the Game, Grow, Retain, which I actually joined up. That’s great.

Justin: It’s really good.

Chris: Highly recommending them. I’ve been using that extensively the last week or so just reading through and looking at stuff.

Justin: That conversation with Jeff was really powerful. He’s a good dude and Gain, Grow, Retain is one of the leaders in the space. Support Driven is another good one that comes up from time to time. Finally to close us out, if you could take one person in the world of support or operations out for coffee or a cocktail, depending on the time of day and the vibe, who would it be?

Chris: Well, I can’t actually take him out because he’s unfortunately passed but it would be Steve Jobs. I say that for a couple of reasons. First, I believe the approach to support starts at the top. Having the person who founded the company, the CEO, how they look at it as an interesting view of why the support exists inside the company. Obviously, the people underneath have impacts but I’ve always believed that the leader sets the tone for how things are done.

The other part is Apple is very customer-focused on their design, and that’s something else that I’m very big on, where everything that they build is as along those lines. If you pick up an iPhone, you don’t have to need instructions for how to use it for the most part. It’s set up where you can just use it, which is awesome. Then actually the biggest reason is his story where he founded Apple and he was- they were successful. He actually got fired from his own company because of who he was in a lot of ways.

He actually learned from that. When he came back, he was a different leader and a different manager and looked at service and support in a different way. I always find it fascinating that people that are able to not just keep failing and we’re actually able to learn from their mistakes and their failures and then implement and make changes and be successful.

Justin: That’s a really good point that oftentimes it’s easy to lose sight of. That is how much influence the top-down culture setting from people like the CEO matters. Most successful businesses understand the value of the customer, but there are certain ones that are really obsessed over it. Amazon’s another example that I think we should all just remember. That’s a good one.

I haven’t heard any of the big luminaries yet on the show. It was fun for me to hear one of those, Pantheon, Mount Rushmore type business leaders being mentioned. Thank you, Chris, so much for your time. This was a great conversation. If people want to connect with you or American Pacific Mortgage further, where did you recommend they go?

Chris: Find me, I’m on LinkedIn, Christopher Rotz. If they want to talk to the company and who we are, [unintelligible 00:34:44] apmortgage.com. We’ve got all the information on the site including [unintelligible 00:34:50]

Justin: Love it. Well, once again, thank you for the conversation. I hope you have a wonderful day.

Chris: You, too. Thank you.

Justin: Cheers. The Support Automation Show is brought to you by Capacity. Visit capacity.com to find everything you need for automating support and business processes in one powerful platform. You can find the show by searching for support automation in your favorite podcast app. Please subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at Capacity, thanks for listening.