Customer Stories: James Baldwin from

March 9, 2018

With almost 229 million users scattered across the globe (in 196 countries to be exact), is the biggest petition platform in the world. You’d think they’d have at least 50 people working on customer support, right?

Actually, not. They cover everything with just 10 people.

But how?

What tools do they use? How can they possibly provide support across 196 countries? How many languages do they speak?

A couple of weeks ago,’s Senior Manager of Customer and User Support, and one of our long-time customers, James Baldwin, paid us a visit in Lisbon and I got the chance to sit down with him for a quick chat.

James explains his team’s structure, talked about the challenges of global growth, and revealed what he considers to be the secret to great customer experience.

Our thanks to Cafe Tati in Lisbon for hosting our chat. Watch the whole interview below, or read through the transcript below that.

Watch the whole interview here or read through the transcript below.

Matthew: We’re recording now, right? Okay, cool.
Hello, you are James from

James: I am.

Matthew: How’s it going? What do you do over at

James: My official title is senior manager of customer service and support. Essentially, what that means is, I oversee our global support operations and efforts on a daily basis.

Matthew: Okay, fantastic. has, I believe, a quarter of a billion users in 196 countries.
How is it even possible to provide a great customer experience for all those people?

James: It’s challenging, but if I could sum it up in one word, it’s consistency. Once you understand what you want to do and really fine tune the best way to provide support or just a general experience across the platform, you start nailing consistently, day in, day out, no matter where a person is, what language they speak, that consistency is what helps us get us there, for sure.

Matthew: How do you deliver that consistency? How many people are you interacting with, say, on a weekly basis?

James: Across the world, our support team itself will handle roughly about 1,000 different interactions, just on a support side. We do also receive abuse flags for problematic content on our platform, and that receives about 1,500 flags a week as well.

Matthew: Wow, pretty big. How big is the team that is able to handle all of that?

James: The team is actually relatively small. Most days, we’re running between eight and 10 people for the entire support organization.

Matthew: Just globally?

James: Yeah.

Matthew: Are you all based in one place?

James: Most of us. I work remotely outside of Toronto. We have Zo Silver, who’s the head of the department, and Jimin Lee, who’s our trust and safety lead sitting in San Francisco. Then our support team actually works remotely outside of Winnipeg, and then we have a few contractors that work remotely around the world as well.

Matthew: Wow, okay. 196 countries, I imagine not everyone speaks English.

James: No.

Matthew: What kind of percentage of the people you interact with in other languages?
How do you go about that?

James: We have probably about, 40 to 45% of all our interactions are English. Trickle down from there, we’ll see Spanish and Russian, Italian, Turkish, almost, you name the language, we’ll receive some volume of that on a weekly basis. For the most part, where we can, we’ll try to staff somebody who speaks that native language in house. Those are generally gonna be our French, our Spanish, Russian, and German. Every other language, unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense for us to hire for that, given the volume, and so we’ll use someone like Unbabel to help translate those messages out to our users.

Matthew: Nice. Okay, we got the brand mention out of the way, so we can get a move on to this other stuff. Obviously, 223 million users around the world doing everything from animal rights to politics. What kind of petitions are on the rise at the moment?
Where is the trend, or where are people making the most use out of at the moment?

James: At the moment, like you said, it’s very topical based. It’s very hard to predict what’s happening on our platform on a daily or even sometimes hourly basis because we can go viral with certain issues. A lot of the times, what you’ll see on our platform is very reflective of what you see in the news. When Donald Trump was elected, we saw a whole slew of petitions around that, both in favor and against. The recent French elections, the same sort of thing around the political candidates there.

Right now, there’s a lot of animal justice petitions happening on our platform. There’s also a lot around women’s rights. That’s really big on our platform at this particular moment.

Matthew: You’ve been at since when?

James: Since early 2013.

Matthew: Since early 2013. How have things changed for the company over the past five or so years?

James: Quite a lot. When I joined the organization, we were sitting at around 40 million users, so between then and now, we’ve gone to, like you said, 223 million and counting every day. There’s a lot of scale that needs to get built into that. Not only from my team in support,
have we had to learn how to scale, and trial and error, but same thing with the organization itself, trying to really figure, how do we grow every aspect of the organization to meet our users’ demands, and ensure that we’re always providing that absolute best service at all times, and again, making sure our product is as easy to use as possible.

Matthew: I guess the team didn’t grow by six times, or did it, to match that?

James: It did not, no.

Matthew: That’s what I mean, I guess you end up having to do more with the same? What’s the split there between, I don’t know, is it a matter of process? Is it a matter of technology? What’s the inside story of how you scale that?

James: Like many startups, we have a certain budget to operate in, and most companies in general have a budget to operate in. Once we got close to a budget, like you said, we couldn’t just keep hiring people to speak more languages, or bring on these new fancy products, so we had to figure out, how do we scale with the organization? One of the biggest things that we started working on was case deflection, and public knowledge bases, and helping make sure that common questions that users could find answers for or resolve themselves, they knew how to do that. They didn’t need to wait for us to respond to them and go through everything else when they could do it themselves very quickly, very easily. Also made sure that our team were handling the most relevant questions that they had to handle themselves. That made a tremendous difference, and made sure that we didn’t have to keep hiring people. That, today, is serving as one of our biggest priorities. It’s just making sure that users have the information that they need, that they’re able to help themselves when they need to, and when they do need our team’s assistance, that we’re able to respond as quickly as we can.

Matthew: That’s one of the bigger trends in customer experience, customer support, isn’t it? Where self-help, it seems like, to some people, it might’ve instinctually felt like, “Oh, we’re just fopping people off,” but actually, most people want to take care of issues themselves. The past couple of years, we’ve seen the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools within most areas of business these days. What kind of tools are you seeing, or using, or excited about in that field that will enable you to do a better job?

Matthew: Yeah, it’s a really exciting trend that’s happening right now ’cause I can see a lot of benefit, and I’ve seen other organizations use it. I think the biggest thing that I could see for us is like chatbots, what you’re seeing, where, if somebody can’t help themselves with some basic information, maybe their issue’s too complex, or requires things that need to be done through automation in the back end, chatbots can actually help with a lot of those things. We can program them to say, “Okay, this is what this person’s asking for. “I can do this automatically.”
Even then, if the user can’t do it themselves, we can still avoid having to actually get a human person to step in and do that. Again, not only is that gonna save a lot of time for our users and our customers, and make sure that they’re getting their needs fulfilled, but on our end, it’s a huge cost savings as well.

Again, helps us focus on those issues that we really need to focus on. I think that’s the biggest shift that we’re gonna see in AI in the coming years.

Matthew: You said there’s about a dozen people in the team worldwide?

James: Yeah, probably between eight and 10 at any given time.

Matthew: Eight and 10 at any given time, so how do you divide that work? What are their areas of expertise? How do you measure success within the team?

James: Like I said, at the head, we have Zo Silver, who oversees the whole department. Then we have myself, who oversees the whole support side, and Jimin Lee supports our trust and safety efforts. Like I said, we route everything based off of priority, and based off of type. If it’s something that needs to be reviewed for possible problematic content, that’ll go over to Jimin. If it’s something that’s support-related, that’ll go through my team. We’ll route first based off language to make sure that we have the appropriate person responding, and then based off of skill type. If somebody’s asking for help with a petition, that can go to one person. If it could be a billing question, that could go to somebody else.
Because we are such a small team, everybody’s cross-trained across the board with everything.

Matthew: Nice, and what are the metrics that you’re looking after to ensure that you’re delivering the service that you want? Is it customer satisfaction, response time? Things like that.

James: We measure against a few different KPIs, but everything goes off of customer satisfaction. That is the most important thing to us. Everything else that we measure is based off of that.

We want to make sure our users are absolutely satisfied, so we’ll look at stuff like response time. We’ll look at things like quality assurance scores internally. We’ll look at things like that. They all service up to customer satisfaction. We want to make sure that that is always, always our number one priority.

Matthew: And you have satisfied customers?

James: We do, we do.

Matthew: Fantastic, congratulations.

James: Thank you.

Matthew: A few years ago, Harvard Business Review, there was an article where they said, “Stop trying to delight your customers. Delighting them doesn’t build loyalty, but reducing the effort that they have to resolve their problems is.” Do you agree with that? From your own experience, how do you build brand loyalty for through a better customer experience?

James: That’s a great question. I agree and I disagree at the same time because you need to make sure that, like I was saying earlier, a customer’s effort on your platform is really paramount. Making sure that the reason they’re on your platform is fulfilled quickly, and easily, and effectively, but also, at the same time, when they need to contact the support team, the same sort of principles need to apply. They need to make sure that they’re getting fast responses, accurate responses, and that their issues are being resolved quickly.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, we do need to delight our customers. We need to exceed expectations whenever possible. I think there’s two sides to that. In terms of building loyalty on the platform, it’s the same sort of thing, showing appreciation, showing that what people do on their petition really makes a difference, showing that their signatures really help create the change that they want to see in the world.

Same thing with petition starters. “Hey, look, you’re petition’s fantastic, it’s going viral,” or, “you’re getting a lot of traction, keep it going,” really show that, look, every single signature counts. Same thing in a voting system, every vote counts. It really does.

Matthew: How were you dealing with that previously? f you didn’t have people that spoke those languages, what was the process, actually? How did it start?

James: It was not an ideal process. If we absolutely could not find somebody that’d speak that language, because we might bring on short-term contractors, which had its own slew of issues, then we were forced to use Google Translate or an equivalent type of tool, and basically say, “Sorry, we don’t speak your language. We’ll do our best to help you out. Here’s that in English, and here’s it in your local language.”

We always tried to help our users whatever way possible, but obviously, using a service like that is never gonna be an ideal solution.

Matthew: When did you realize that you needed to find something that was better than contractors, or just copy-pasting Google Translate stuff?

James: Quite honestly, right around that time when we had to start figuring that solution out. Once we started saying, “Okay, we’re getting too many questions in these languages,” if it’s a one off, that’s one thing, but when you start seeing consistent volumes coming in in languages that you just can’t support, you have to figure out an interim solution, you have to figure out a long-term solution.

Our interim solution was those short-term contractors, and it was Google Translate where we needed to. We then had to also, at the same time, figure out a long-term solution.

Matthew: Which was?

James: Which was Unbabel.

Matthew: There we go. What were some of the challenges around finding a vendor to help with that solution?

James: Price is always gonna be a problem, or at least a concern because everything falls under price. From there, it’s looking at integration and quality. We couldn’t find anyone that seamlessly integrated with our existing services and existing flows, and also provided good quality, or also did it at a reasonable price point. That was the biggest challenge for us.

When we found Unbabel, we were really pleasantly surprised because, at the time, we were using Zendesk, and that natively seamlessly sat in with everything that we were doing.
The price was very attractive for us, and the quality was outstanding, so for us, it was a no-brainer.

Matthew: Thank you for helping me to my job. (laughs) Where do you see five years from now?

James: There’s no way for me to answer that, honestly, because if you’d asked me where would’ve been five years previous to this, there’s no way we could’ve told you where we are today. I think a lot of that comes to us evolving our platform for our users and what their needs are. If, for some reason, petitions aren’t effective in five years, we’ll pivot to something that is. I can’t foresee us ever doing that because, right now, we’re seeing tremendous growth, we’re seeing tremendous success in the petition product itself.

That’s a very difficult question for us to really answer with how fast technology moves, how fast industries and trends move as well.

Matthew: Have you ever started a petition?

James: Have I started a petition?

Matthew: Yeah.

James: Sure.

Matthew: Are you willing to disclose any of them?

James: Yeah, I don’t want to go into too much detail. For me, it was a local issue in my town that, I was concerned with how property management was being maintained, so I petitioned our local city mayor to basically say, “Hey, can we do “something to improve this flow?”

Matthew: Did it work?

James: Yes and no. They definitely did improve the services. We didn’t see as much reaction.
The mayor themselves did not respond to the petition, which sometimes happen, but at the end of the day, what I set out to achieve was accomplished, so I consider that a win.

Matthew: Nice. If someone wanted to start a petition today, it’s as easy as just going to, isn’t it?

James: That’s right. You can go onto, hit “Start a petition.” We have a super simple flow setup. Just tell us what you’re trying to petition, who it’s trying to go against, and we’ll help you the rest of the way. We have all sorts of tools and guides set up to help make it as successful as you’d like it to be. You don’t need to have a whole lot of experience in advocacy.
You don’t have to be really good on a computer. You could have a grandmother who’s never really seen the internet start a petition, or you could have young wiz kids in high school start a petition. It doesn’t really matter.

Matthew: Nice. Thanks so much, James.

James: Thanks a lot.

Matthew: Pleasure having you.

James: Pleasure.

Matthew: Cool, that’s a wrap.

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