Browse other podcasts

How to Build an Efficient High-Volume Interview Process


Neil Smith, Senior Director of Support at Iterable


In the four years Neil Smith has led customer support at Iterable, his team has grown 10x to keep up with the company’s rapidly expanding user base - with no signs of slowing down. To make sure he can consistently hire great people at a fast pace, Neil built a three-step, high-volume interview process.

So far, it’s helped him hire dozens of talented support professionals, with a nearly perfect retention rate.

Here’s Neil’s three-step process:

  1. Phone screen. Neil and other hiring managers use this initial 30-minute call to get a feel for a candidate’s experience, what their communication skills are like, if they have any applied technical knowledge, where they live, what they value in a company’s culture, etc.
  2. Panel interview. If candidates pass the phone screen, they move on to the two-hour, on-site (or virtual) panel interview. The panel consists of four people, with diverse backgrounds, from the larger customer success organization. Each panelist is assigned one of Iterable’s core values and three to four competencies to look for in the candidate. And they typically utilize behavioral questions like, “Tell me about a time when you handled a difficult customer?” to gauge a candidate’s alignment with those values and competencies.
  3. Tech challenge. The final step is the 30-minute tech challenge. Candidates are given a technical topic 48 hours before the interview and asked to learn about it and prepare a presentation for the team. After a 15-20 minute presentation, the candidate does a Q&A with the team. “We can learn so much from a presentation like this. Do they have good verbal and written communication skills? Are they able to connect the dots around different technical concepts? Can they talk to both technical and non-technical audiences? It's such a great process. We love it,” Neil says.

Neil and his team also focus on promoting from within to fill more senior roles. That way, they only ever have to hire technical support specialists, their more entry-level frontline role. That intense focus on hiring for one type of role has allowed Neil and other hiring managers to create a highly effective interview process, since they know exactly who and what to look for. Plus, promoting from within has helped improve retention, create clear career pathways within support and Iterable as a whole, and boost employee engagement.

Watch or listen to Neil’s full episode above to learn more! And don’t forget to rate Beyond the Queue on Apple Podcasts. ⭐

See the episode’s transcript

Meredith Metsker: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Beyond the Queue. Today I am very excited to welcome Neil Smith. He is the senior director of support at Iterable. Thanks for being here, Neil.

Neil Smith: Thanks for having me, Meredith. I'm so excited to talk to you.

Meredith Metsker: Yeah, I think we've got a really good topic today. Something I know that every support leader deals with, and that is specifically how to set up an effective and efficient interviewing process. So I've talked with a ton of support leaders who need to hire a lot of amazing people and they need to do it quickly so they can keep up with their company's growth trajectory. So in order to do that at scale, you need a really solid interview process.

Again, it has to be efficient, it has to be structured in a way that allows how hiring managers to really gauge the candidate's skills, their experience, culture fit, all of that. And perhaps most importantly, it should provide a positive experience for the candidate. So, Neil, I know you have thought through all of this a lot and I've heard that you have established a really successful interview process over there at Iterable. So I am excited to pick your brain.

Neil Smith: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, first a little bit of context. At Iterable, we're a customer engagement platform, been in business for eight years at this point. So we are really focused on allowing our customers to provide personalized communications, moving away from this old batch and blast approach that our customers have used in the past. And especially since the pandemic, the focus on that level of personalization is really important.

So that's what our platform does. It allows our customers to do that using our various different workflows that you can generate across multiple different channels. So email and SMS and push notifications. And so we have customers like DoorDash and and Fender Musical Instruments and Zillow all using the Iterable platform to engage their customers. And it's growing very, very fast. So I think when I started nearly four years ago at this point, we had something like 100 people. My team was just three people. Now we have more than 600 employees.

My team has grown to nearly 30. A couple of months ago, we were super excited to announce that we'd passed $100 million of annual recurring revenue. So when you're growing at that level of scale, it's really important to get that interview process really buttoned up. So one of the first things that we did is we decided that we were going to start taking it out of the hands of the recruiting team. Not because we didn't trust them. It's quite the opposite. They do such a tremendous job.

But we typically hire the same position over and over and over again. I guess it's an entry level role, but we're hiring people who are really very skilled. But it's the same position we're always hiring. We've never really had to hire any of the senior roles externally because we focus very much on growing our team members' careers from within the organization. And so we like to promote into any senior roles on the team.

So when you do the same thing over and over again, you get quite good at it or quite used to it. And it means you can take it out of the hands of the recruiting team. We don't need them to be on phone screens all the time. We don't need them to do all that first stuff. So all of our hiring managers, they will always review every single application that comes in. They will be the ones that then do that initial phone screen.

And that phone screen, it's just half an hour long. They don't go very deep. We're just getting a feel for the candidates experience, what their communication skills are like, if they have any applied technical knowledge, where they live and that kind of stuff. One thing we do get into a little bit though is company culture. We want to start that conversation about their values and what's important to them.

Then the next step if they pass through the phone screen is we do the onsite or it's a virtual onsite right now, of course, with the pandemic. And in fact, 60% of the folks on our team have been hired since the pandemic began and they call themselves the COVID crew. They have their own Slack channel and everything. It's pretty awesome. So with the panel, they meet four people all from the customer success org.

But we try and focus on providing them a panel with fairly diverse backgrounds. So they're going to meet someone who would be their peer. They're going to meet a customer success manager. They're going to meet a manager from my team. And then for now I interview all of those candidates as well. As we scale I'm sure I'm going to have to back away from that a little bit. But up until now, I've interviewed everybody.

And so each interviewer is given one of our four core values to probe on and three to four different competencies. And so our four core values, growth, mindsets, trust, balance and humility. And we really focus very much on values both as an org just day-to-day, but we bring it into the hiring process. And that's not just my team, that's across the company. So each one of those team members on the panel, they've got one value and then we give them a number of competencies to probe on.

And we also provide them with sample questions. The reality is we've only got a couple of hours with this candidate. So each minute is gold. It's valuable. And so we don't want to waste time. We don't want to have interviews asking the same questions over and over again partly because it's not a great experience for the candidate as well. You don't want to have to say the same things multiple times.

So I'm always pushing my team to utilize behavioral questions. Very much the, "Tell me about a time when you..." Those kinds of questions. Because the way I see these interviews is, the goal is to gather evidence of whether the candidate has the values and competency alignment. That's really all we're doing, gathering that evidence. And the best way to do that is to have them talk about how they've done that in the past, how they've lived those values or exposed those values and those competencies in the past.

So I use a model that I call PARLA, which is problem, action, results, learning and application. There's a bunch of other different models out there I think that are fairly similar. But basically, what happened? What did you do? What was the end results? What did you learn from it? Have you been able to apply it since then? So everybody on my team who participates in interviews, I run through a training explaining all this to them so that they feel fully empowered to have a successful interview.

So that's the panel. And then the final step is a tech challenge. So what we do is we give them a technical topic 48 hours before the interview, and then we ask them to go away and learn about it and prepare a presentation for us. And we tell them, "Present as if you're presenting to a non-technical audience like a person in the street." And then following that 15, 20 minute presentation, they're going to get Q&A from the team.

So we usually five, six team members in this presentation, and they'll ask much deeper technical questions. We can establish so much from a presentation like this. Do they have good verbal and written communication skills? Are they able to connect the dots around different technical and deep technical concepts? Can they talk to both technical and non-technical audiences? It's so revealing. It's such a great process. We love it.

We've actually had really promising candidates come into this and then really fall down in the presentation. And following that we've said, "We wish you well. We're not going to proceed." And then converse, we've also had candidates come into the tech presentation that we're like, "We think they might be a good candidate. Let's run them through the tech presentation and see." And then they just knocked it out of the park and we've hired them pretty much on the spot.

So that's the overview of the structure. It's very fast, really. Half hour phone screen, two hour panel and a half hour presentation. And after that, we should be fully equipped to be able to make a decision.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. So just to clarify that, so you said half hour phone screen, two hour panel. And then how long for the tech challenge?

Neil Smith: It's 30 minutes. Yeah.

Meredith Metsker: 30 minutes. Okay. That's really interesting, especially the tech challenge part. I'm curious, what made you want to add that to your process? And have you done that before or was Iterable the first time you tried that?

Neil Smith: I actually brought that in at my last company. I'm not quite sure why I did that. I think we did want to establish whether they both had the technical competencies that we were looking for, but also can they think on the fly, can they communicate remotely? At that company, obviously we were in the office, it was pre pandemic, but we realized that most of the communications that the support team members were having with customers obviously were not in-person.

They were either over the phone or through LiveChat or something like that. And so for the tech challenge there, we specifically said, "This is going to be a remote presentation. You are not coming into the office for this." To simulate that environment that they would have in their day-to-day. And so it seemed to work pretty well. And so that's why I implemented it here at Iterable as well.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. Cool. Yeah. Well, thank you for giving me that overview. So I'm curious, why do you like to structure it that way, with the screening, the panel, and then the tech challenge?

Neil Smith: Yeah. There's a number of reasons. I alluded to one of them earlier, which is to take the load off recruiting. The reality is, our recruiting teams, they're having to hire so many positions and a lot of them are niche or one off, or the first time they've hired for a position like that, or more senior positions, therefore really difficult to fill. So whatever we can do to empower their success by allowing them to focus on those, we want to do that.

We've used the same approach over and over. We're familiar with it, and we can do most of it ourselves. The second is that it's really fast. That 30 minute call to our panel, 30 minute presentation, we're not asking much from the candidate. Because each we've made sure that we've optimized it to get the most out of it. Yeah. As they move through this, we walk away from each step with the maximum amount of information that we can get from that step.

And then the third thing with structure is it really allows us to probe on both competencies and values. So I think a lot of people when they go into interviews, they're using it to gauge a candidate's experience. We try and do it to gauge a candidate's values alignment first. That's the most important thing for us. Competency alignment is second. And for me and I think for a lot of people at Iterable, experience is third, especially with support roles.

And I've listened to a couple of the other interviews that you've done with your guests, and it seems to be a little bit of a theme with some of them, is that the reality is a support role applied role specific experience doesn't necessarily seem to be a strong indicator of future success. We can make them successful if they don't have a bachelor's degree or if they haven't worked support before.

I've got one person on my team who was a pediatric speech therapist. And then she went and did a coding boot camp and she's been tremendously successful. Someone else came from an entirely different background, very academic background but had done a lot of work with R, the statistics coding language in college. And that's a really difficult language to work with. And when I saw that on her resume, I was like, "Oh, that's interesting. I like the look at that." And we talked to her and she just did awesome in the process. And since then, she's now in one of the senior roles on our team.

The, the thing is, if they aligned with our values, I don't see there's anything that we can really do with them. One of my side interests is motor sports and car racing. And there's a saying there that, "It's easier to make a fast car reliable than a reliable car fast." And I think about it the same way with hiring. It's easier to take someone whose values aligned and build their experience than to take someone who has great experience but doesn't align with your values. It's very difficult to change someone's values.

Meredith Metsker: Yeah. It's a really great point. Sometimes I wonder if there's so much focus on experience in job interviews because it's, I don't want to say easier to gauge. But in some ways it is. It's more of like a hard skill. There's clear evidence. Whereas with values and competencies, you got to dig in there a little bit.

Neil Smith: You do. Yeah, absolutely.

Meredith Metsker: Yeah. I'm curious, especially in the phone screening, how do you get a feel for whether they'll be a value fit just in the short 30 minutes?

Neil Smith: In the phone screen, it's a little bit less on the values piece. We do ask a question in there about what is important to you in your next company in terms of culture and values. So thank is a little bit of an indication. To be honest, we focus the panel really on establishing the values alignment and the competency alignment. So the kinds of questions that we ask are really through the lens of, "Give us an example of a time where you were dealing with a really angry customer."

That gets to the competency of humility, gets to the competency of staying calm under pressure. Every single question that we ask is there because it is probing for a value or a competency.

Meredith Metsker: So in addition to that question, what are some of the other "tell me about a time when" type of questions you've asked.

Neil Smith: Yeah. So something like, "Tell me about a time where you had to very quickly learn a new technology." That's a really good one for figuring out are they a fast learner? Are they technical? Are they intellectually curious? Something like that is really interesting. One of the competence or one of the values that I pro bono in my interviews is the value of trust. It's not an easy question because not everybody actually has an example of this.

And so if they don't, then we have to use a hypothetical. But if they do, it's really interesting. Tell me about a time where you are asked to do something thing by someone in a position of seniority that you felt was not in the best interest of the customer? Yeah. That's always interesting to see what answers you'd get.

Meredith Metsker: Yeah. Both in how they handle the senior person and also the customer.

Neil Smith: Exactly. Yeah.

Meredith Metsker: Very cool. So you mentioned that the second part of the process, this panel interview, you bring in... I don't remember how many people you said you bring in.

Neil Smith: Four people.

Meredith Metsker: Four. And each of them is assigned one core value and then three to four competencies. What's your reasoning for that and bringing in multiple people, each of them having their own responsibilities, looking for different things?

Neil Smith: Well, it's a heavy workload to try and really establish if somebody is going to be a good fit for the role. And so just from a logical perspective, you want to divide it up. You don't want people overlapping with each other. So it makes sense to keep everybody really focused on a small set of competencies. And I have a big list of all the potential competencies that are out there. And then I've used that list narrow it down on which are the ones that are really important to this particular role, the technical support specialist role that we are usually hiring for.

And other roles within the org might have different competencies, which are important. And it's up to those hiring managers to figure out how they're going to probe for those. But I think most support leaders would probably coalesce around a few things that are really important like obviously communication skills, time management, staying organized, staying calm, but also wanting to be constantly learning constantly growing.

So that intellectual curiosity piece that I mentioned a little bit earlier is absolutely vital for us. So when we distill it down, we find what are the 12 top competencies? And I can't remember all 12 off the top of my head. But flexibility, motivation. Those are a couple of others that are important. Analytical is another. Let's see. Yeah, I can't remember the rest of them off the top of my head. But, yeah, we focus on those 12 and divide them up.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. And then remind me, what are the four values that are split amongst these folks?

Neil Smith: Trust, humility, balance, and growth mindset.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. I suppose doing it this way, but this panel interview is also a good way to reinforce those values consistently with other members of the team.

Neil Smith: Yes, that is true. I will say though that Iterable does such a tremendous job of really keeping values front and center. That we don't necessarily need to be reminded what our values are. Every Thursday we have a all hands town hall, and one of the first slides that's always put up is our four core values along with our current mission statement as well. So, yeah, it's really front and center with us.

Meredith Metsker: Awesome. I love that.

Neil Smith: Yeah.

Meredith Metsker: So earlier you were talking about how one reason you've set up your interview structure this way is because it provides a more positive candidate experience. So can you just share with me, in your mind, what makes a positive candidate experience and then how you kept that in the front of your mind as you structured this interview process, and how it provides a positive candidate experience?

Neil Smith: Yeah, it's so important. The first thing I would say is it seems really obvious, but be respectful of the candidate, be respectful of their time, be respectful of their background, be respectful of any personal challenges they have. I remember one interview that I had with a candidate. He was great. A really nice guy. But in the middle he started to appear super distracted. And I thought, "Oh, my goodness, what's going on? Is everything okay?" And it turned out that his kid was sick, was actually literally being sick in the next room.

Meredith Metsker: Oh, no.

Neil Smith: Oh, my God, I felt so bad for him. I'm a parent. We have three members on our team who are currently out on paternity leave right now. So we're going to have three new parents on the team, and there's four others who are also parents. Balance is one of our core values. And having that balance between work and home is super important. So we made sure that he felt he could go take care of his kid. There'd be no penalty on this. Let's just reschedule. We're not going to penalize you for this. It's important to us to communicate that to them.

Another way of being respectful is to not have them repeat themselves. That's why dividing up those interview questions is so important. And it also demonstrates to them that you as a company, you've got everything buttoned up pretty nicely.

Meredith Metsker: That's true.

Neil Smith: It's clear that you are all organized. And if you're organizing the interview process, then hopefully it indicates that you're organizing all other parts of your business too. The second thing I think is it's so important to be human in panel interviews in particular. I mentioned the training that I do for all of my team members who do interview. One of the things I are saying there is the very first thing you do when you speak to the candidate is you just check in with them, do you need a couple of moments for a bio break? Do you need to go get water? Particularly in these remote interviews where you're on Zooms, it can be a real situation. The candidate could feel like they can't step away to go use to the bathroom or go get some water.

Meredith Metsker: Right.

Neil Smith: So just a touch like that I think really helps humanize the whole experience. Introduce yourself, make sure that they know who you are. They're about to reveal a whole bunch of about themselves. The least you can do is reveal a little bit about yourself as well. And just try and take a little bit of that note nervousness that is always evident. Take that out of the room. Also try and take out any power dynamics that are in there. The reality is, an interview is a weird power dynamic.

I have a job, you want the job, I can give it to you. There is a power dynamic there. And whatever you can do to take that down is really important, especially when you're hiring for junior roles and especially when you're in a situation where you have a male interviewer who's in a position of seniority who's interviewing a female identifying candidate. That's especially important.

If it's a younger female identifying candidate speaking to an older senior male interviewer, I'm conscious of the fact like, "Okay, I'm 45. I have senior director in my title. You're a candidate who's female identifying. You're maybe 23. You haven't been out of college very long." There's a huge power dynamic there. Whatever I can do to remove that and humanize the situation is so, so important.

One thing that I really don't do is ask about the candidates personal life. So humanizing situation is very important. But the one hack that I don't use to do that is to talk about the candidate's personal life. So I train the team, no questions on hobbies, no questions really even about, "How was your weekend?" There's other ways to connect on a human level, and their personal life is basically irrelevant to the role.

Yes, there's maybe things that they do in their personal that could indicate that they have the competencies, but let's get that from questions about their professional experience, not through other questions. I mean, if they reveal something that's related to one of the protected classes such as their family situation or their religion or something like that, you're getting into really potentially awkward territory.

If you have to reject a candidate, you never want to have them even have the slightest thought that the rejection is due to something that they've talked about that was related to a protected class. But the moment you signed that offer letter, then I want to know all about your personal life.

Meredith Metsker: Right.

Neil Smith: Like, "Tell me what you do. What are your interests?" I want to know you as a person after that.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. So it sounds like it's a mix between both the logistical side of things. Scheduling efficient interview processes with that phone screening, with the panel interview, with the tech challenge so the candidates know exactly how much time it will take for each step of the way. But then also kind of the human side of it. Making sure that the candidate feels respected, that the team knows what's expected of them.

Neil Smith: Yeah, exactly.

Meredith Metsker: Yeah. And I'm curious to learn a little bit more about this training you said you do. So before interviews, you said that you... Or maybe it's just a regular thing. But you train your team on how to be great interviewers. So I'm curious what you go over with them.

Neil Smith: It's really pretty lightweight. I know that our learning and development team is... They have a training that they've used in the past. And I think is currently being revamped and is going to be rolled out to the company as a whole. And once that's in place, great, I'm going to let them take care of it. But in the meantime, it's literally just half an hour. And I know that many of the people on my team are earlier in their careers, maybe not as familiar with the process of interviewing.

And I think it's important to just add one or competency to the list of skills that they have, the experience that they have. And a lot of what we're talking about right now is really what I cover in the training. The how the interview is structured, the goals of the interview, how we ask the questions, and then the legal gotchas, the stay away from the personal questions. So it's really pretty straightforward and pretty lightweight, and it literally only takes half an hour.

Meredith Metsker: Oh, nice. Okay. Keeping up with that efficiency theme.

Neil Smith: Yeah.

Meredith Metsker: So I want to back up a little bit for a second. With the tech challenge, so that third part of your process, what are some of the scenarios you're giving these candidates to research and present?

Neil Smith: Oh, that's a fun question, because I'm not going to tell you because-

Meredith Metsker: Okay. You don't want to reveal the secret sauce.

Neil Smith: Yeah. I can give you a high level of it, of course. Part of it is that we want to make sure that the candidate has not been exposed to the technology that they're going to be presenting on. And we have actually had a couple of candidates in the past where the technology that we normally use, we can't use, we have to switch to a different one because they have experience with it in the past.

But generally speaking, we're going to ask them to present on a platform or a technology that we use actually within our own infrastructure. So we as a team are relatively familiar with how it works, what it does, the history of that platform, the challenges of using it, the benefits of using it. And so we are in a good position to be able to ask good questions and evaluate whether their presentation is really on point or not. Yeah, that's usually what we end up doing. We take one of those core pieces of our infrastructure and we ask them about that.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. And they have to talk about how to use it. Is that generally it?

Neil Smith: Yeah. We give them a little bit of a direction. You may want to talk about the history of the platform, how it works, the benefits, when you would use it, when you wouldn't use it. How it compares to other similar kinds of platforms and maybe some use cases in the real world.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. That's really cool.

Neil Smith: Yeah. It's fun.

Meredith Metsker: Yeah. I can see how that's a great way to evaluate a candidate's ability to learn something new. I know that's one of the values to communicate well, to answer questions on the fly.

Neil Smith: Yeah, exactly.

Meredith Metsker: Very cool. Okay. So now I want to go back to the more human side of your interview process. I know that you have mentioned before that diversity and inclusion is a big value for you and your team. So what specific things are you doing in your interview process to make sure that it is more inclusive?

Neil Smith: Yeah, you're right. We really do value this very, very highly. The first thing that we did around ensuring that we could drive towards a team that more accurate represented the diversity of our community is to overhaul our job descriptions. There's so much bias built into most job descriptions. Things like requirements that are super exclusionary or unnecessarily aggressive language.

I've seen job descriptions where it says something like, "We're looking for someone who can crush it." I mean, so aggressive and just totally inappropriate because that immediately can put off a large cohort of potential candidates. And again, job descriptions focus generally a lot on experience. And we've discovered that experience is not necessarily a success factor, especially with support. People from all kinds of backgrounds can thrive in a support role.

The question really is, are you smart? Are you personable? Really, those are the two buckets of competency and values that are important to us. If you are, you're probably a good fit. And just because you don't have a bachelor's degree or maybe you haven't worked in support before doesn't mean you're not smart or you're not personable. So we went through our job descriptions with the proverbial fine tooth comb through that lens of diversity. And we really focused on what our must haves and make sure that they really are must haves.

And so I actually wrote them down here. I looked at the job description this morning. And there's only four. One is a demonstrated ability to solve technical problems. So that doesn't necessarily mean professional experience, but somehow a demonstrated ability to do that. A desire to teach new customers about the platform, an ability to answer product and technical questions, and passion for startups, software and SaaS products.

That's it. Everything else is a nice to have. So previous experience in a B2B tech support role at the SaaS company, experience with email, push, SMS, experience with Jira or Zendesk, familiarity with APIs, DNS, HTML, CSS, all that kind of stuff. That's all just nice to have. So once we put that job description out there, yes, it meant we had a much wider pool of candidates supplying. And that meant we had a larger number of applications that really were not a good fit.

That's okay. That's the price that you have to pay I think in order to entertain a much wider pool of candidates. And, yeah, that's not a problem. The second thing that we did after we went through the job description overhaul is... And this is something that as a company we've done. This is not specifically support. But being super intentional about the hiring pipeline that you have.

And so our sourcing efforts have really focused on underrepresented minorities. And so we'll do things like we'll go to events like AfroTech or Lesbians Who Tech, the Grace Hopper Celebration, which is the Global Women in Tech Conference. We've had presence at those kinds of conferences and continue to do that. We want to meet potentially diverse candidates at their own places.

So we've attended virtual job fairs at historically Black colleges and universities. Carnegie Mellon is one that comes to mind. So if you put more diversity in the top of the hiring funnel, you're going to get more diversity out of the bottom of it. And then one other thing that we've really tried to do is once someone is actually in our interview panel, we want to make sure that the panel represents the diversity of our communities as well.

So we're very intentional about who is on the panel. It's not just like, "This TSS is available on this day, so they're going to be on the panel. And this CSM is available on this day, so they're going to be on it." No. We evaluate the combination or the makeup of every single panel. We want to make sure that we have representatives from different locations, different teams within customer success, different gender identification and different ethnicity.

CS within interval is actually a pretty diverse org already, well above our tech industry averages. And support is actually even more diverse than CS as a whole. So we're lucky in that we have a lot of people to choose from to really represent that level of diversity. But I think, again, going back to that candidate experience, I think it's really important for candidates to feel that they are in a place that is welcoming of every background, every experience, different experience, different ethnicity, different gender identification, all of that.

I think that helps put candidates at ease. And especially if you have diverse candidates, if they see people who are like them in the interview process, that gives them the idea like, "Oh, I could see myself here."

Meredith Metsker: Oh, that's awesome. Yeah. I think that we even talked about this earlier. A diverse team is a strong team.

Neil Smith: Oh, for sure. It really is. I mean, I think of the kinds of insights and ideas that come from the people on my team who don't come from a support background. And just do a lot of asking why and really an important why question. Why are we doing it this way? Why is this the right approach? Those are such great questions to have, and you get so many more of those kinds of questions when you have a rich and diverse team.

Meredith Metsker: Yeah. That makes sense. So thinking back more bigger picture here, as far as the overall interview process, given the speed at which you need to hire to keep up with Iterable's massive growth right now, how does your interview structure help you balance that quantity and that quality issue?

Neil Smith: Yeah. You're quite right. The speed at which we are growing means that we have to crank through this stuff. And that's part of the reason that we've optimized the process as much as we have and make it short, and just have those three different steps. The second thing that's been really helpful for us is, if you really, really strongly focus on career development and promote people from within, it means that you're not having to spread your attention on many different kinds of roles hiring for senior roles, hiring for junior roles.

We've been able to make it so that the only role that we need to worry about is our technical support specialist role, which is our standard frontline support role. And with that level of focus, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to get a virtuous cycle going. We find ourselves very frequently with two awesome candidates at the end of a hiring cycle. And although initially we only had one head account open, it turns out, "Hey, we've just promoted someone else from within and so we actually do need two people."

And so that happens really pretty often. We are hiring pairs, which is great for the new hire because they've immediately got someone else who is experiencing exactly the same thing that they're experiencing at the same time. So that's been really cool. And then the other thing that allows us to move quickly is by not excluding candidates from the process just because of a lack of experience. By having that really rich pool, you can...

Yes, you've got to at a lot of different applications. But that's not particularly time consuming. If you have a lot of applications to choose from though, it means that you can keep the cycle constantly going. So it's worked pretty well for us. We have a lot of candidates to look at, but we have a really solid lens of how to look at them to identify who are the candidates we're really interested in.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. I love that concept you mentioned of really focusing on promoting your internal employees to the leadership position so that all you have to really focus on for new hiring is your frontline agents. That's smart.

Neil Smith: Yeah. It's great to see so many folks on the team really building their careers and doing it in front of our eyes. One of the more senior members on my team, he started as a sales development rep in the very beginning. And then he wanted to move into support. He came over, was one of the support teams earliest members. Then he became a senior support person working with more of our premier customer.

Then he moved into a lead role. Then he moved into a manager role. Right now he has something like 12 direct reports because we've got somebody out on paternity leave. But it's been awesome to see him grow his career. And that's just one example. In fact, let me back up. In the three and a half years that I've been with the company, we've only had one person leave the support team to go work for another company by their own choice.

Everybody else has been promoted within or has gone to different roles within Iterable. So we are trying to make it so that we are really building people's careers. And then as you say, that means I don't have to worry about any of these more senior roles. I've got everything I need within the team. And we have conversations like, "What do you want to learn? Where do you want to go next?" And let's provide them with the resources that they need to get there because then they're going to stay with us, they're going to get really good at their jobs. And that's going to provide a better customer experience. And it's all great for the success of the business.

Meredith Metsker: It's a win-win all around.

Neil Smith: Absolutely.

Meredith Metsker: Well, I think that's a nice segue to my next question. So what results have you seen from structuring your interview process the way that you have?

Neil Smith: I alluded to it a little bit in the previous question, which is just a great, great team. The end result is you end up with people who are just a great fit for the role, a great fit for the company. And then that gives us great CSAT. So our average CSAT is really, really high. Customers are generally very, very happy with the support that they receive from Iterable. We got that really high employee retention as well.

I think the one person that we've lost, it maybe wasn't a great fit. But everybody else, the values alignment, the competency alignment, it makes it so that they feel very much at home at Iterable. And we have evidence of that as well through our twice annual employee engagement survey. So our support team is scoring 94% on our engagement survey, which is very, very high.

Meredith Metsker: Wow.

Neil Smith: And the most recent survey that we did, there was a score of 100% on the belonging category, which...

Meredith Metsker: Oh.

Neil Smith: I looked at that, I'm like, "Oh, that's so nice." I felt so good about that. And it doesn't just help us as a business to get this right. I mean, it helps our employees. They're happy. I want everybody to be happy, really. If you feel like you belong at work, that really does as raise your overall quality of life. So, yeah, that's one other really great tangible result that we've seen from getting the interview process right.

Meredith Metsker: Wow. Yeah. Those are all amazing. Especially those high engagement scores and the high retention scores. I know that can sometimes be a challenge with support.

Neil Smith: Yeah, it really can. I'm not ignoring the fact that as a company because we're growing so fast, we're able to offer all these opportunities. If we were not growing at this pace, I wouldn't have such frequent opportunities for promotions, for the team. And then maybe you do start to get into the areas that some support orgs have to struggle with where people are in the same role for 18 months, two years, two and a half years, and then burnout can be a problem. So I'm realistic about that.

We are lucky that we have that growth rate. And I'm sure at some point in the future when the growth rates are us to slow down, we'll have to be a little bit more intentional about how we avoid people burning out. But for now, the focus is more on how do we keep that growth going?

Meredith Metsker: Yeah. Well, it sounds like you're off to a great start. So what advice do you have for other support leaders who want to do what you are doing? Build an effective efficient and really inclusive interview process.

Neil Smith: Yeah. The first is definitely revisit your job descriptions. Focus on what's truly important and know what are the success factors for the roles that you're hiring for. So in our organization, it's a fairly technical product as a lot of depth and complexity to it. So we have to focus on bringing people who are capable of handling that. Other support orgs maybe have a more transactional. And so staying calm, working fast, taking a lot of different information.

Those might be the as factors for those roles. But whatever those are, the support leaders need to focus on what's truly important and make sure that that's what's in the job description and pull out everything else that is not important. The second thing I would say is never underestimate the value of the candidate experience. You never know. If you reject a candidate and you do it in a not great way or a very robotic way, you never know. You might need to come back to that candidate and reoffer them the job if your first choice ends up suddenly changing their mind at the last minute.

Or maybe you reject a candidate and their friend is applying for another role at your company. And if they've had a bad candidate experience, they could talk to that person and be like, "I'm not sure you want to apply at Iterable." It's the number of situations where you have those small world moments, particularly in the tech industry, is it's surprisingly frequent. Lots of people know lots of people and word gets around.

So I want to make it so that everybody walks away from an interview at Iterable saying, "Okay, even if I don't get the role, that was a great experience." Or, "Iterable seems like a really good company." That's really important. The third thing I would say, be very, very clear with your interview panel about what their focus areas are. I talked so much today about competencies and values. Make sure that you've got those down.

And focus on behavioral questions. Those tell me about a time type questions. They're easily the most powerful questions out there. A lot of the super clever gotcha type questions, those really don't get you much information. You're gathering evidence of whether they have these competencies and values.

And then the final thing is if you find the right candidate, go for it. Right now, especially the market is so tight. If they get through the process, they're probably going to be a great fit and going, "Oh, well, we still got three people in the panel stage and a couple of people waiting to do the tech challenge. And now we've got this one person who did really great on the tech challenge. Well, let's just offer them the job."

The other five people were going to say, "We're going to keep you in mind for future roles because there's definitely going to be future roles, and we'd love to come back to you." So that would be the final thing that I would say. Just keep that in mind. Go for it if you find the right person.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. Yeah. That's great advice. Well, I think I am going to start wrapping us up a little bit. We're nearing the end of our time. But before I ask my final question, is there anything else about our topic that we haven't covered yet that you would like to add?

Neil Smith: Yeah. There is just one. Treat your people team, your HR team, whatever you call them, treat them like gold. Recruiting is such a hard job. It's way harder than people think. And right now it's even harder with the great quitting, people leaving jobs, and there's so much competition out there. The people team, the recruiting team, they're partners in your team. So you should never treat them like some auxiliary or administrative function. So that's the one other thing that I want to say there.

Meredith Metsker: Yeah. That's a great point. They are your best friends in this process.

Neil Smith: They really are. Yeah.

Meredith Metsker: Okay. So now for the final question, it's one of my favorite ones. In general, what advice do you have for up and coming support leaders?

Neil Smith: Yes. I was looking forward to this question. Because I know that pretty much throughout our conversation today, we haven't even gotten to anything beyond when someone says yes to an offer. But there are a few things that I do always try to keep top of mind. The first is be vulnerable, be authentic, be humble. I think it's so important to be able to admit mistakes publicly in front of your team, to be able to say sorry.

I think a lot of particularly new managers, they think they have to have all the answers. They don't. Their job is to support the team to get the right answers. That's really the key there. And it can be a difficult step for new a manager's take to expose that level of vulnerability. But the benefits in terms of building relationships with your team, it's far greater than people realize. So that's definitely the first thing.

The second thing is delegate. A company can't grow and you as a person, as a leader you can't grow without being really good about delegating. I think I was in a management training a few years ago, and somebody quoted a couple of studies I think that showed that delegation is one of the biggest... I think actually the biggest factor in terms of employee retention. If an employee is delegated to, if they're empowered, if they're given responsibility to do other things, that drives growth and it allows you to focus on the bigger things and building your next generation of leaders.

The real reality is that your team member's success is your success. It's not the other way around. So really giving them the opportunity to grow and be successful is super important. So delegation, very, very important. And then the final thing. We talked just a little bit about this as well, is always be talking about career development. For us, it's in every single one-on-one.

That's a whole other topic. Always have great one-on-ones. Don't reschedule one-on-ones. Make sure that you're always talking about how they're doing and how they're feeling about the role and how they're feeling about the company, how of feeling about their manager, all of that. But always have career conversations in every single one-on-one. Make sure that you know what they want from their careers and then do everything in your power to get them there.

Make sure they have individual development plans. And once you've got an IDP, make sure that you revisit it on a fairly regular basis. It shouldn't just sit there and get proverbially dusty. I know that I've got people on my team who are more interested in the customer side of the business, and then I've got some people who are more interested in the technical side of the business.

So folks interested in the customer side, maybe someday they want to be a customer success manager and move away from the support piece. The technical folks maybe someday they want to be a software engineer. That's two entirely different outcomes for two people who are in the same role right now. And so it's important for me and my managers to know exactly that level of detail for every single person on the team.

Then when I'm doing head count planning and figuring out what the next year is going to look like, I can have a pretty good idea about where I want people to go so that we satisfy the needs of business, but also satisfy the needs of the employee as well.

Meredith Metsker: I'm starting to see why you have so much success with promoting all of those internal people in the higher roles. It sounds like there's lots of good thought and structure-

Neil Smith: That right. Yeah-

Meredith Metsker: ... in career development. That's awesome. Well, cool. Neil, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. This was really enlightening. I think it will be super helpful for other support and CX leaders.

Neil Smith: I hope so. Yeah.

Meredith Metsker: Before I let you go, if anyone watching or listening wants to contact you or learn more from you, what's a good way for them to do that?

Neil Smith: A couple of ways. Just if you Google "Neil Smith Iterable," the first hit will be my LinkedIn profile. I double checked yesterday and it is. So you can reach me through there. Also I'm on the Support Driven Slack community as well. So that's proved to be a really awesome resource. So you can find me there as well. I'm always happy to talk to other support leaders. And if anyone's in the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly San Francisco or the North Bay, let's go get coffee sometime.