The short path from Swedish lawn bowling to advocacy training & development

By Suzanne Barnecut

Published December 1, 2016
Last modified December 1, 2016

Some of us aren't always so great about opening the door when opportunity knocks. Not the case with Justin Helley. Justin manages the Advocacy Training & Development team here at Zendesk, and in just three years he's held four different roles, ultimately moving from Tier 1 into leadership. It's a long way from his start in environmental science, when he contracted as a research scientist for Monsanto, focusing on corn and soy. There he collaborated with brilliant scientists who were working to end world hunger, but he knew that he didn’t see himself at Monsanto long-term. So when a former colleague reached out to him about a job as a support advocate for a tech company, Justin took a leap and said yes.

Thus, history was made. Justin soon found that he loved advocacy, as well as the culture of Zendesk. He began in Tier 1, spending most of the day on the phone, and worked to learn Javascript, CSS, and HTML on the side. From there he was promoted to Tier 2, and then Team Lead, where he spent a lot of time on customer service training and onboarding. That made his move into Advocacy Training & Development a natural progression in what’s been an unanticipated career path.

Justin and his daughter

Get to know Justin:

Name: Justin Helley
Tenure at Zendesk: 3 years
Overall years in a support role: 4 years
Personal mantra: There’s a quote that I love: “Frankly, there isn’t a person you couldn’t love after hearing their story.” That applies to my co-workers, our customers, and strangers you meet on the street.
When you’re not at work, how do you like to spend your time? I’m pretty inclusive about my hobbies. Here in the Madison office, I’m known as the “Kubb King.” (Kubb is Swedish lawn bowling.) We go out and play it on the Capitol lawn. I also play a lot of ultimate frisbee and soccer, and every summer I get a team going for the office. For the past year, my wife and daughter and I have all been taking martial arts together. I also have an unhealthy obsession with kickstarting board games. Every once in awhile, one will show up at the office.
You have a great story about your wife. How did you meet? Yes, I married my third-grade bully. She used to chase me around on the playground and then beat me up—because I liked to tease her. We didn’t actually begin to date until about 21 years later. But we were born on the same day, in the same year, on military bases, half a world apart. Our fathers were also both letter carriers and worked at the same Post Office, though they never met. We are a good anecdote for quantum entanglement.

Justin and his wife, in third grade

We talked to Justin to learn more about his journey and his team’s plans to provide training and professional development for the entire Zendesk Advocacy team.

Can you tell me more about what it’s been like to progress into your current role as manager of the entire Advocacy Training & Development team?
I didn’t see myself in management. My father, working for the post office, ended up being a supervisor. He hated having to tell people to do things that he didn't agree with or that he didn't want to do himself, and ended up quitting. That always stuck with me and I didn't want to be in that position either. Zendesk opened me up to a new way of leadership, more of a servant leadership, and when we first talked about it, our recruiter helped me to see that a lot of what I was doing in the office, organizing departments into games and extracurricular activities, were examples of leadership. That’s what got me thinking harder about it.

Honestly my largest challenge here is that I have a great team—they’re all extraordinarily intelligent, highly-motivated self-starters that do great work. Any type of leadership position I’ve had in the past came from a place of mastery, because I practiced a lot and was good at it—being captain of the soccer team, or something like that. This role is unique for me in that I don’t have formal training in learning and development, which is why I hired people to fill my gaps in knowledge. I function as more of an enabler for the team. They are so good at what they do that my job is to identify anything that’s standing in their way and to remove those roadblocks. I help set vision, strategy, and goals, and then make sure that the team has everything they need to knock it out of the park.

As a newer team with a large scope—supporting every tier and team within Advocacy, including the leadership team—where do you begin?
We have this greenfield, so there’s a lot of freedom and creativity in what we can do. That said, we’re too new a team to be able to meet the entire organization’s needs at present. So now that we’ve hired the team out and laid some foundation, we’re working on implementing a training framework using the ADDIE model and focusing on improving the new hire onboarding experience.

We are piloting a program to transition away from a presentation-based new hire training into skills workshops. We want to train advocates to be the best advocate they can be, regardless of the product they’re supporting. The new training is more facilitation-based, with more interactivity, exercises, and group discussions. People have a lot of experience to bring to the table and it’s nice to be able to tap into that and to share it with others.

What are some other projects in the pipeline?
We’re working on a product release framework designed to get ahead of all our product releases. The science dork in me loves inputs and outputs, and so we take all these features that might be in development and we run them through this flowchart. It’s almost like a giant Plinko game. Some of these releases will have a training component, so the output of that becomes the input to our team’s framework. We also have a project around encouraging more professional development and mapping courses people have taken that have helped them advance in their careers so that we can make suggestions for areas where people might improve their technical capabilities based on their aspirations. We believe “a rising tide floats all boats.”

How do you balance scheduling time for training & development at times when queue volume might be high?
Everyone on my team has some kind of customer service background, so they get it. That said, we’ve put some work into expectation setting, so that other teams know what we’re working on and when we plan to roll it out. Sometimes we have to reschedule a training. That can be deflating for my team, but we’re all working towards the same goal: to give our customers the best people-first experience, which includes responding to them in a reasonable amount of time. Our customers are our most important asset, and we’re all here to take care of them.

Zendesk advocates are front and center with our customers and our products. This series highlights the people behind the tickets and their perspective on what makes great customer service. See past posts from:

Abel Martin, on building great internal partnerships
Arthur Mori, on what everyone should know about Tier 1 support
Benjamin Towne, on mentoring and offering constructive criticism
Rodney Lewis, on setting up an internal shadowing program
Sarah Kay, on her move from advocate to data analyst
Ramona Lopez, on rolling out an advocate recognition program
Aurash Pourmand, on practicing customer empathy
Anna Lee Ledesma, on the skill every great chat agent needs to have
Mark Fado, on providing dedicated 1:1 client support