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Aug. 28, 2019, 6 a.m.
Anne Johnson, Support Human

Anne Johnson talks about doing support, including phone support and social media, at The Omni Group. Anne is particularly adept at OmniPlan, but, like all our humans, she helps support all our apps.

Show Notes:

We discuss the challenges of arriving at common names for things when talking to customers — and of using words to describe a visual user interface. And along the way we talk about the Potatotron, The Big Lebotski, and OmniWarble.

Anne, when she’s not at work, is a singer with the Puget Soundworks chorus, and she was formerly with Seattle Women’s Chorus. Does that mean we end the show with a song? We do!

Some other people, places, and things mentioned:


Brent Simmons: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind The Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. Music.


Brent Simmons: I'm your host, Brent Simmons. With me in the studio today is Anne Johnson, support human. Say hello Anne.

Anne Johnson: Hello Anne.

Brent Simmons: So you are a support human. Nice to be a human.

Anne Johnson: Indeed. Yes, I do enjoy being human.

Brent Simmons: Cool. So you do email and phone support, and the thing I'm fascinated by is our phone support because not every company offers phone support, and I think that's really cool.

Anne Johnson: Indeed.

Brent Simmons: What's that like for you? Are you on the phones every single day?

Anne Johnson: No, we do a phone rotation. The intention there is that everyone on the team does some phone support to spread that around a little bit, because it is a little more emotionally taxing than email support. I usually end up on phones, I'd say, two or three days a week. Usually more like two days a week.

Brent Simmons: If you're on phones, you're like on phones that day, and that's mostly what you do?

Anne Johnson: Yeah. But we don't have a high enough volume of incoming calls that that would be all that I would do in a day. On the days when I'm on phones I'm usually answering emails between phone calls.

Brent Simmons: Oh, okay.

Anne Johnson: I would say it's like 50/50 on a phone day.

Brent Simmons: How long is the typical phone call? Is it a couple minutes, hours go by?

Anne Johnson: Probably… average would probably be 15 minutes. But some calls are only two or three, and then you've got the less frequent hour long phone calls.

Brent Simmons: I imagine it's sometimes… it might be a little like when I'm talking to a relative trying to help them on their Mac or whatever, and they have different names for things. How do you navigate that whole ...

Anne Johnson: That's probably the biggest challenge of our phone support is you don't know what you're going to get when you answer the phone, whether the person on the other end has ever used our app before or if they've ever used a Mac before. Occasionally I've had to walk people through how to copy and paste in the past. And then you've got users who are very computer savvy and they're just getting an error and... It's the whole gamut. You just have to kind of feel it out, each phone call as you go.

Brent Simmons: I think of the terminology problem, especially. Like, so if they're calling something by the wrong name, are you usually able to get it? Not that they're wrong. We have a technical name for a thing. They might call it the whatever. Right?

Anne Johnson: Yeah. Sometimes you have to decipher what it is that they're actually talking about. Sometimes people won't know what the Inspector is called or they'll call it the Sidebar. Those are both, the Sidebar and the Inspector are both things that exist in the app, but often they'll call [one] the opposite thing.

Brent Simmons: [Call] one the other thing?

Anne Johnson: Yeah, you just have to figure it out as you go along, with a lot of them. And so I'll usually have my device. I'll figure out which app they're using and which device they're using it on, and I'll try to get mine out and get it in a similar state that I think they're in. If I'm totally lost and I don't know what they're talking about, that usually helps me figure out like, "Oh they must be talking about this, the cleanup button," or whatever.

Brent Simmons: Oh right, sure, the little weird broom thingy.

Anne Johnson: Right.

Brent Simmons: I see that sometimes in email people say they need help with their "Omni." So the first step is figure out which actual app it is, right?

Anne Johnson: Right. The vast majority of our support traffic is for OmniFocus. It can be a safe bet that if they're talking about "Omni," they're talking about OmniFocus, because generally speaking, customers who call us about our other products know that that's what they're using. I'm not sure why, but that just seems to be the case. And if not, I'll either ask them, "Which app are you talking about?" Or I'll say, "Are we talking about OmniFocus here?" Or something along those lines.

Brent Simmons: Everyone in support obviously has to know OmniFocus, just because of the large volume. Do you have another app that you specialize in?

Anne Johnson: Yeah, a few years ago decided I was just going to learn everything there was to know about OmniPlan, so I volunteered to kind of take that on for a while. We don't specialize now, but I did kind of a deep dive at the time just to get really comfortable with the app.

Anne Johnson: We had a little bit of a void in the department at that time of people who were super knowledgeable about OmniPlan. And it's a project management app. It's not the sort of app that most people would use in their personal lives. It's more of something a person who's managing a big project, like a construction project or something along those lines, would need for, usually for their job. So we don't hear from a lot of customers who are using OmniPlan because they're generally people who are using it at their job and their job provides most of that project management training or education.

Brent Simmons: Oh right, sure.

Anne Johnson: But when we do hear from those customers, it can be really challenging to help them, because we aren't here internally using a project management app very much in support. So most of our knowledge is theoretical, from having learned about the app, used it at work, but there's a difference between "I'm going to input this imaginary project and then play with my tasks and see what they do."

Anne Johnson: That's a very different experience from, "I'm literally trying to manage a project and this is the tool that I'm using to do it." The learning experience is a lot different. So it's been challenging to get really comfortable with OmniPlan, but I am now at this point. So it's nice when I get an OmniPlan call and I can sound like I know what I'm talking about.

Brent Simmons: I imagine their real world issues are a lot different than the imaginary kind of theoretical things?

Anne Johnson: Yeah. And project managers, just in my experience supporting them on the phone and via email, there's a whole set of lingo that they use that I just hadn't ever encountered before. Apparently there's something they need to be able to do called a cost roll-up. So when I hear that phrase I'm like, "Oh, okay, I think I know what you're talking about."

Brent Simmons: When you did a deep dive into this, were you able to get help from the OmniPlan development team?

Anne Johnson: Oh yeah. In my early days here there was another support human who was also the product manager and he was moved to another department. When that happened there was kind of this knowledge void in support. That's kind of the timeframe of when I started digging into OmniPlan. I had him as a resource to help.

Brent Simmons: Is this Aaron Kwong?

Anne Johnson: Yes. Aaron was a great resource through that. And then of course we use our internal chat tools. The OmniPlan development team, including the product manager and the engineers, are all accessible to me through our... Not just through the chat, but the chat is conveniently located in front of me on my computer.

Brent Simmons: On your computer. You're working remotely some amount of the time now, which is kind of a change for The Omni Group that we're doing a little bit more of that. You're home some days?

Anne Johnson: That was kind of a recent thing for Omni in the last couple of years and I started doing three days a week from home a little under a year ago I guess. I've really enjoyed it. My commute can be ugly, so it's nice to not have to do that three days a week..

Anne Johnson: On the days when I'm not on phones, I'm replying to emails and I can do that anywhere that I have my Mac and a network connection. Even the days when I am on phones, we've got... I'm forgetting the technical name for it...

Brent Simmons: There's a system.

Anne Johnson: But there's an app on my Mac that is a little phone that just works.

Brent Simmons: Cool. You have a headset and all that?

Anne Johnson: Yeah. Actually, I mostly just use my Beats.

Brent Simmons: Oh wow. Nice.

Anne Johnson: They have a microphone on them.

Brent Simmons: My notes say something about a Potatotron.

Anne Johnson: The Potatotron.

Brent Simmons: What's the Potatotron?

Anne Johnson: The Potatotron is the internal tool that we... and we doesn't actually include me personally, but I'm not sure who all was involved in the creation of it. I know a former support person who doesn't work here anymore did some work on it and I don't know who else, but it's a tool that tracks how many phone calls and how many total minutes and minutes per call every support human logs. Then it runs all that through an algorithm to decide who's going to be on phones each day. Usually by 10:00 a.m. Pacific time, someone will push the button and that makes the Potatotron do its thing, and then we'll all get notified who's on phones that day.

Brent Simmons: How did it get its name?

Anne Johnson: I think there was just a conversation about what should we name this thing? And as a joke somebody said, "Let's call it the Potatotron." And then everybody else was like, "Done. Potatotron it is."

Brent Simmons: That's how we name all our stuff.

Anne Johnson: Pretty much.

Brent Simmons: We also have something called the, what is it, The Big Lebotski?

Anne Johnson: Oh, that is the tool that integrates with our chat that announces the results of the Potatotron. If somebody pushes the Potatotron button, and then magic happens, and The Big Lebotski announces it in chat, the results of the Potatotron.

Brent Simmons: Telling everyone if they're on phones or whatever? Social media is another thing. You're on that once a week or whatever?

Anne Johnson: Yes. I don't seem to get social media duty very often for, I don't know what, why, but so on the days when I am on social media, I'm kind of triaging and replying to tweets, and then I'm also handling emails. Emails every day, but then on the days when you're on phones or social media, you're taking calls and social media stuff and then email between all that.

Brent Simmons: Do you use our own homegrown Twitter thing?

Anne Johnson: Yeah. OmniWarble.

Brent Simmons: OmniWarble.

Anne Johnson: Yes, I do.

Brent Simmons: We have a tool for everything, listeners.

Anne Johnson: I use it because it pulls all the tweets together in one place and shows me, here's all the stuff I need to respond, I need to handle in some way. A lot of it is not really relevant to us because it, I think it just kind of finds anything with the word Omni in it. That'll catch a lot of stuff that really isn't relevant to us at all. Then it's just marking those resolved and then what's left is the stuff I actually have to reply to. Then before I reply, I will usually open them in a browser because there are some edge cases where for whatever reason someone has already replied to them, but our tool didn't notice for whatever reason.

Brent Simmons: Oh sure. Could be a timing issue or something.

Anne Johnson: I think a part of it is that Ken likes to do a lot of Twitter replies, and I don't think he uses OmniWarble, so those, a lot of times, get missed. If I don't open it in a browser first I might end up replying to a tweet that Ken has already replied to. Then that just kind of looks silly. I like to not look silly if I can help it.

Brent Simmons: Especially if you don't say the same things?

Anne Johnson: Right.

Brent Simmons: That makes sense. How'd you come to Omni? I ask everybody if they got here by responding to a Craigslist ad because apparently that was a really common way. So did you respond to a Craigslist ad?

Anne Johnson: I did not respond to a Craigslist ad, but I followed someone who did. I followed April here. April and I were coworkers at a previous place and I had gotten that job through April as well. I'm friends with ...

Brent Simmons: Earlier you called her your job faerie?

Anne Johnson: Yes, she is my job faerie. I'm pretty good friends with her sister. Many years ago I was looking for a job and her sister said, "Hey, my sister's company is hiring," which was, this was prior to Omni. My friend introduced me to April and then April told me about that job, got me hired there. We were coworkers for about two years. Then I left that company because my spouse was in the military at the time and so we were transferred. Then when we came back to Seattle, April had left the company we both had previously worked for and was now at The Omni Group. And so when I came back to Seattle, I got in touch with her and she invited me to have lunch. That was when Omni was in whatever the previous location was.

Brent Simmons: Interbay.

Anne Johnson: I went and had lunch with her and loved it. I was looking for work at the time, and so I said, "Hey, let me know if there's a job or whatever." She sent me... There were two or three different instances, it was about two years from then before I actually got hired here. There were a couple times where she had sent me like, "Hey, we're hiring, here's the link." But it just didn't work out for me for whatever reason. I'd just started this other job or whatever. Eventually it worked out and I ended up getting the job here. That's two jobs now.

Brent Simmons: That's pretty cool.

Anne Johnson: It is kind of cool.

Brent Simmons: In your previous jobs, were you also doing support or other different kinds of work?

Anne Johnson: Some, yeah. I have a degree in computer networking. In my previous two positions I was in the IT department doing some network administration and some internal support.

Anne Johnson: I'd never done external customer facing support before coming to Omni, but I had ...

Brent Simmons: That's quite a bit different from internal style support?

Anne Johnson: Yeah. Internal support is basically supporting your coworkers. Your coworker is getting an error or can't print their thing or whatever it is and you're helping your coworkers. It's a lot less formal because most of the time these are either people in my office that I know or they might be in a remote office, but we've communicated via phone and email in the past. Or if not, we at least both know that we work for the same company and it's just less formal.

Brent Simmons: You're on the same team?

Anne Johnson: Yeah. Whereas external, customer facing support, I'm really representing the organization in a customer service type capacity, a technical customer service type capacity. Technologically, it's more challenging. When you're doing internal support as a network admin, I could remote into anybody's machine and do whatever needed doing for them. If they needed to update some software or whatever it was, I could say, "Okay, I'm going to take over your machine, please wait until I'm done." And then just handle the thing for them. But with customers on the phone we don't really have any way of doing that.

Brent Simmons: Do you ever think to yourself, "I wish I could just ..."

Anne Johnson: Many times. Specifically the time that I spent 20 minutes trying to walk somebody through how to copy and paste. Like, "Oh, I love you, but this would be so much easier if I can do it myself." Or even just show them. But you have to get really good at deciphering what they're telling you and asking questions that are going to yield, get them to tell me the information that I need, and then convey information back to them in a way that they'll understand. If it's a customer that's not terribly technically savvy, that can be very challenging at times.

Brent Simmons: And the computer is a visual thing and you're trying to use words. I mean that's just hard.

Anne Johnson: And describing a UI to somebody, especially somebody who is not familiar with software development, it can be really frustrating at times, but you get through it.

Brent Simmons: Do you ever have phone calls where you bring up the idea of email and suddenly the person's like, "Oh that would be great."

Anne Johnson: Definitely. I try to offer that in almost every call because I would say more than 50% of the people who call in don't even realize that that's an option. I think there are a fair number of customers who they want to speak to a person and they have this resistance to the idea of communicating via email for whatever reason. But then once I start talking to them and explaining to them, "Okay, I can, this is what we need to do and I can email you these steps, and later when you're at your computer you'll have it written down. You don't have to take notes while we're on the phone. I'm going to send this to you. And then you can go through these steps at your leisure. It could be 3:00 a.m. if that's when you want to do it and I think it's going to solve your problem. And if it doesn't or you run into trouble, you're welcome to call back. You're welcome to reply to the email."

Anne Johnson: We reply to emails within one business day, is our, that's what we always try to do. So if it's not a super urgent thing, you're going to get a reply within one day or maybe the second day if we're like super busy.

Brent Simmons: Sure. We've just released something.

Anne Johnson: Usually if I can kind of explain it to them in that way, a lot of people are like, "Oh yeah, that actually would be fine." Or preferable, in many cases.

Brent Simmons: I'm one of those people. I never want to call anyone on the phone ever.

Anne Johnson: Me neither. I don't understand why people like to call people on the phone.

Brent Simmons: It's terrible. But we do offer it. People take advantage of it and it's a cool thing. It's rare. Not too many companies are doing phone support these days.

Anne Johnson: Or if they do, it's not well implemented. I don't know. There's either a big phone tree and lots of waiting on hold and maybe the person you're talking to is reading some kind of script. There's just like a robotic feel to it rather than the kind of phone support we provide here, which is just like "I'm helping my friend on the phone," kind of, I don't know. That's how I think of it anyway.

Brent Simmons: Yeah, so listeners, if you call in you might reach Anne and she'll help you.

Anne Johnson: I will do my best for sure.

Brent Simmons: Especially if it's OmniPlan. She's the one to talk to. They're going to call in and ask for you now. Did you grow up Seattle area, Pacific Northwest?

Anne Johnson: I did. I did. I was born on Capitol Hill and I've lived most of my life in the greater Seattle area. I moved away for a couple years and came back.

Brent Simmons: Anywhere exotic?

Anne Johnson: Oh no. I was in, near St. Louis, Missouri for a couple of years, in the St. Charles and St. Peter's areas.

Brent Simmons: That's kind of exotic, at least to me. I've never been, well, went to the airport once.

Anne Johnson: I did really love that area. There's something charming about the Midwest that I enjoyed. I have family there, which is another reason I was there. I learned how to drive in the snow there.

Brent Simmons: That's key.

Anne Johnson: I can drive in the snow like nobody's business. I was also in Fayetteville, North Carolina for a couple of years when my husband was transferred. He was in the army and was stationed at Fort Bragg for a while.

Brent Simmons: I've heard of that. It must be one of the larger forts.

Anne Johnson: Yeah. It's pretty big. I was a terrible army wife, so I don't really know all the things that a good army wife probably would know about it. But it was one of the bigger army bases, but... Lots of sprawl. That whole area, everything's really far apart as far as like all the cities around Fayetteville, and even Fayetteville itself.

Brent Simmons: Seattle certainly has its suburbs, but I like the fact that it's so constrained by geography. I mean there's water and mountains. We have to all fit on these several hills.

Anne Johnson: From an environmental standpoint, I'm in favor of keeping cities dense. Let's figure out how to get homes for everybody in this area that we already are, instead of creeping out and cutting down more trees, but we need to figure out how to do that in a way that is sustainable and affordable and meets everyone's needs.

Brent Simmons: Sure, and quality of life too. Density done badly is not a good thing.

Anne Johnson: Seattle sprawl is also awful.

Brent Simmons: Yeah. It really is. And again, environmentally... And my mind goes to the animals whose habitats are being taken away. I'm just like, it's just heartbreaking.

Anne Johnson: Well, and even the people, because what generally seems to happen is that, like right now we're having this housing crisis in Seattle where to live in the city houses are super expensive. So to afford a house you've got to move way far away. But then you're way far away from jobs and other things, and then you have to drive a car because you're so far away.

Brent Simmons: You may even have to drive a car just to get to where you could take a bus or a train. That might be a distance too. I think now that we're doing/allowing more remote work, I think that helps in some ways. Because some of us have a long way to go. Not me, but some people.

Anne Johnson: I know the commute to and from the office here can be really rough. We've got the neighborhood that here, South Lake Union, there are days where to get from Omni to the freeway on ramp, which is not far, but there are days ...

Brent Simmons: It's a 10 or 15 minute walk.

Anne Johnson: Right. And there have been days where it's taken me 45 minutes in my car because everyone's driving a car and there just aren't enough roads for all these cars. I need to take transit to the office. That's what I should be doing.

Brent Simmons: I take a bus in from Ballard and so it's, I don't know, a half hour on the bus and that's a little while, but at least I'm just reading or something.

Anne Johnson: From the other direction it's harder. I'm making excuses though. I should figure it out.

Brent Simmons: You have a couple of kids, still pretty young?

Anne Johnson: I do. I have a three year old and a six year old. They're awesome. They're a lot of work. Balancing all the things, parenting and working full-time...

Brent Simmons: Six year old's in school though maybe, almost in school?

Anne Johnson: Yeah, starting first grade this year. I feel like I want to say September 6th is the first day of school or something like that. We'll see how that goes. I don't really know what to expect. The transition from daycare to kindergarten was a little rough. I'm hoping that the transition from kindergarten to first grade is less rough.

Brent Simmons: Is it a longer day for the kid?

Anne Johnson: I'm not sure if it's a longer day than kindergarten. That's probably something I should know. But I know that the transition from daycare to kindergarten was a shorter day, which was really challenging because then instead of having one thing that they did each day, so I could drop my kids off at daycare and then go to work and then get off work and come home and pick my kids up from daycare and go home. Then I was having to take my kid to before care, and then coordinate their transportation from before care to kindergarten, and coordinate the transportation from kindergarten to aftercare, and then pick them up from aftercare and bring them home.

Anne Johnson: It just got way more complicated and everyone was like, "Oh it's going to be awesome," because public school is free. I'm doing air quotes around "free" because I'm paying for it with my taxes, but I didn't have to pay for daycare anymore, which was great. But it got a lot more complicated, and still wasn't free because I still had to pay for the before and aftercare.

Brent Simmons: Yeah, right. It is a little amazing to me that there aren't better solutions for this kind of thing. No one cares about the children, I guess.

Anne Johnson: They don't, or the parents.

Brent Simmons: Or the parents. Yeah, that's true. Oh well. You're clearly busy, but yet you still find time for singing?

Anne Johnson: I do. I do. I find time for the things that are important to me and singing is one of them. I've been singing with various choral groups since about 2011. I was in Seattle Women's Chorus for what years? Probably five years, six years, and in their small ensemble. Then about a year ago or a little over a year ago, I transitioned from that chorus to a new chorus that has started up in this region called Puget Soundworks, which is a mixed gender chorus with a focus on social activism and social justice, I should say, activism. So that's kind of what I've been doing for the last year.

Brent Simmons: What's the music like?

Anne Johnson: A lot of the music we do is composed by our director, who is a composer by the name of Eric Lane Barnes. A lot of the stuff we do are his original works. He selects all of the pieces that we do. I don't know what exactly all of his processes for that are, but we do kind of a mixture of some of his originals and then also some other pieces that he's sourced places.

Anne Johnson: But there's a lot of thought put into the creation of a performance of a show, and the lineup of the songs, and the messaging that we're trying to share with the community through that.

Brent Simmons: How often do you get to perform for the public?

Anne Johnson: Right now I think Puget Soundworks is doing, I want to say two shows a year, and each show might have anywhere from two to four performances. It's kind of hard to say because we're just beginning the second year of the existence of this chorus, so there's not like a pattern really to, an established pattern yet. But I think that's... Last year we did two performances and I think that's kind of the intention going forward is to maintain that.

Brent Simmons: Well we can't bring up singing without giving you a chance to sing a song. Want to sing a song?

Anne Johnson: Sure. Let's do it.

Brent Simmons: All right. We'll do a song. Let's arrange our microphones and things.

Anne Johnson: All right. I'm going to stand.

Brent Simmons: Listeners, we actually rehearsed the song twice. Twice!

Anne Johnson: I'm really nervous. Don't judge me.

Brent Simmons: We're professionals. I'm on guitar. Anne, obviously, is singing.

Anne Johnson: Should we tell people what we're doing, what song it is, first?

Brent Simmons: It's Joey by Concrete Blonde. Is that right? That seem all right?

Anne Johnson: Yeah. Am I going to be too loud during the loud parts?

Mark Boszko: Nope.

SFX: [singing and guitar]

Brent Simmons: Cool.

Anne Johnson: All right.

Brent Simmons: Thank you. That was lovely. One of my favorite songs. I love the way you sing it.

Anne Johnson: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Brent Simmons: Well, and I think that's going to close out our show. Thanks Anne.

Anne Johnson: Thanks Brent for having me on.

Brent Simmons: Thanks.

Anne Johnson: Thank you, Mark.

Brent Simmons: In fact, my script now says thank Mark, and it says, "I'd also like to thank our Intrepid producer, Mark Boszko." Say hello Mark.

Mark Boszko: Hello Mark.

Brent Simmons: And especially, I want to thank you for listening. Thank you. Music.