Often Imitated is a podcast about remarkable experiences from the past and how they inspire people to create great customer experiences today.
This episode is all about developing your communication ethos. How smoke signaling on the Great Wall of China paved the way for mass communication, and what customer experience (CX) leaders can learn from their processes. In this episode, Often Imitated host Ian Faison is joined by Erica McMannes, founder and COO of Instant Teams. Keep reading to learn how she’s created a customer communication ethos to streamline their CX.
Ian Faison: Few Disney films raise the stakes so quickly as the opening minutes of Mulan. The terrifying villain Shan Yu leads his men into China while the Chinese soldier bravely stands up to him and lights the fire, sending a signal to the other watchtowers along the Great Wall of China.
Luckily, right as it starts to get maybe a bit too intense for little kids, the story moves on. But if we look beyond the scary, we see one of the world’s earliest forms of communication at play...the smoke signal. And while Mulan isn’t historically accurate in every regard—–it turns out Mushu wasn’t a real dragon—the movie's creators did get this bit of history right.
So, when did the Great Wall of China get built? That is a more complicated answer than you might think. Because thousands of years ago, what’s now known as China was full of several kingdoms at war. And a lot of them had built walls to protect themselves.
Then in 2020 BC,,, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, united the kingdoms and unified the wall. Then, for the next few dynasties, people would add a little here, or remodel a little there. Then in the Ming Dynasty—which ran from 1368 to 1644—they built another 4,000 miles. That’s pretty much where it ended. At a whopping 13,000 miles, give or take a few.
Every few miles— depending on the threat level and altitude—there were big watchtowers. Each consisted of three stories. The top floor serves as the lookout, with a bundle of wood ready to light in case enemies are approaching. And the bottom floors had bunks where the soldiers slept, storage, and farm animals. The great wall was an architectural and military feat that built a lasting legacy.
The primary function of the Great Wall of China was to defend against attacks from the north. Being a massive physical barrier wasn’t enough; they also needed to be able to share military messages across the kingdom and wall as quickly as possible. If an enemy was approaching the wall, there were a number of different signals a guard could send. If it was during the day, then it would be smoke. And at night, it would be fire. There were different signals for one person, 50 people, or thousands of people approaching. So regardless of circumstance, everyone knew what the signals were, what they meant, and what the plan of action would be if they went off.
Signals would quickly travel down the wall and then be relayed back to the generals and emperor. Making sure everyone in the military had the same information as soon as it was available with everyone working in sync. And for the most part, it worked.
Except for King You, who briefly reigned in 781 BC. So, this was 500 years before the wall was officially joined together. But the signaling systems were already intact. King, You wasn’t the biggest fan of his wife, and because men in power can do whatever they want, he got rid of her and their son, deciding instead to make his concubine his queen. Apparently, it was hard to make her laugh, and the only thing that did the trick was having him fake putting up smoke signals. This caused the noblemen and military to come running to defend him when in reality, there was no danger. It seems like the two of them had a very sinister sense of humor.
He went on to do this a couple of times, and then people started to get fed up. Particularly the father of his previous wife. So, when the ex-father-in-law and his buddies showed up to overthrow King You, he sent up the signal, no one believed him, and his kingdom was overthrown.
So now we have this incredibly robust communication system that worked for thousands of years. But we see that when one person gets a little too indulgent, it can ruin it for everyone. As experts have studied the Great Wall of China, they’ve been able to find remnants of this old form of communication. Whether it’s bundles of wood aging back to the Han Dynasty, ancient poems about warfare, or petrified piles of animal scat.
It’s pretty wild to think of how far we’ve come, but also how little has really changed. We’ve all played the game of telephone in elementary school. It teaches us the same lesson as the story of King You: Clear, consistent communication matters. We all learn about the boy who cried wolf. When everyone is on the same page, life can go smoothly, and your kingdom’s protected. But if one person veers out of line, then it’s mildly embarrassing when you tell the teacher you heard the wrong word, or your kingdom is overthrown by a vengeful grandpa.
Ian: For this episode, we talked with Erica McMannes, founder and COO of Instant Teams, to see how CX leaders can better communicate with their customers.
Erica McMannes: So, if you can treat communication just like you would any other process flow at a very high level, it makes all the difference.
Ian: Buckle up—and make sure your father-in-law isn’t plotting behind your back—because today we’re learning about developing a communication ethos. Erica McMannes and the people at Instant Teams work to connect military spouses to remote work around the world.
Erica: At Instant Teams, we are building high-quality customer support and operation teams using a globally located, military-connected talent group. We are bringing a tech-enabled, managed services solution to the table. Our proprietary technology allows us to build these teams in five to seven days, which is definitely a marketplace value when you're looking to outsource and scale up or down with customer support.
But it's the talent pool that sets us apart—we are mission-driven to employ the military-connected community. Right now, we have about 300 employees, and 96% are military spouses. This is a unique way to bring social impact to a community that I'm a part of still to this day and care a lot about. It’s also bringing something that's innovative and very functional and solving problems in the business space as well.
Ian: Erica saw a huge opportunity in what was an overlooked community, so she got to work.
Erica: The need that led us to start Instant Teams was twofold. I have a co-founder, she's an entrepreneur, she's also a software engineer. So, she brings the tech side to the house. She was a software engineer building solutions and saw the need in the tech space for access to quick remote teams—people you could scale up and down when you needed. And there was no ready way to find those people or know where to go. At the time, I was also building user acquisition teams for startups in California. But I was doing it with my ready community around me: military spouses.
I'm not sure how many people are familiar with the military-connected community. I’m very nomadic. I've moved 12 times in 17 years. As a military spouse, I saw the need for, “Hey, if I'm going to progress anywhere in my career, I need a remote component to this. I need something that can move with me.”
So, when I saw that I could do that with what I was building for these startups out in California, I had that aha moment: There's a bigger scale here. We can build big remote teams using this talent pool and bring the solution to these customers. These companies don't even know these people are sitting here highly qualified, highly ready to be employed, digitally savvy. So, bringing all of that together is really where we set out with it at Instant Teams. And it's been really cool to see that we're getting there.
Ian: Bringing together a vast military community is easier said than done. Erica had to figure out what to tackle first.
Erica: One of the first things we created at Instant Teams was a remote communication ethos. And I know ethos is a strong word, but it was beyond SOP, beyond policy. How do we actually communicate? What are the modes we use to communicate? And how do we brainstorm together?
A lot of times, it's making really weird images in Canva with boxes and words, and then you have a conversation about it, and you screen share that. It is helpful to have that visual. So, whether it's pictures, pictorial form, or SOP, I have found that making people sit down and write a flow, write a process, is not a natural skill for a lot of people. If you can train people to put the steps in the flow and then bring that to a call to talk through the problem, and then in real-time, Google doc commenting and sharing and working on it together—it’s how we've built our organization.
That visual component in a shared document component, when you can't paint on a wall and whiteboard together, it's not the same, but it can be just as successful.
Ian: Finding what communication workflows work for your team takes trial and error. But before you undertake any of that, Erica told us that you need to figure out what your communication ethos actually is.
Of course, establishing an ethos isn’t enough in and of itself. A great line of communication isn’t just about processes and technologies; it’s about the people who manage it.
Erica: When you're a founder sitting there with just your co-founder and, okay, we're going to build to greatness someday. Where do we start?
We built that ethos for remote communication when we hired our first employee. I was already able to see, communication-wise, people bring such different communication styles to the table. People process differently. ’Our learning type differs. And so, you have to get everybody on the same page, literally, with understanding how that flows.
If you can treat communication like you would any other process flow, it makes all the difference. We focused on things like over-serving versus oversharing. By that, I mean, if you need to cancel something, or you need to reschedule something, or there's a problem—over-serve by paying attention to the whole conversation versus oversharing details. We've built a complete process and outlined what that looks like in paragraph form. It's become a tool we've even been able to use in a lead gen funnel. What is the remote communication ethos? And it kind of grabs people's attention. So, the over-serving versus oversharing is not forgetting that you might be working alone, remotely in a bedroom corner, like I do all day long.
But your interactions, workflow, and productivity are touching hundreds of people. It's like a weird mental space to be in. It’s being cognizant that as a remote worker, you may be quiet, you may be working alone, but what you are doing is connected in our organization to 300 people and 65 customers.
And if you can keep that in the forefront of your mind, it puts you in the mindset that my work is meaningful, my work has impact, this is connected, other people are seeing this. It can bring in that remote work fear factor that comes into some organizations. And I have those conversations a lot, and it can put that at ease.
Ian: Now, the consequences of a failure to communicate are not as great for us as they were for the Ming Dynasty. None of us face the threat of a northern invasion. At least, I don’t think. Has anyone checked on Canada recently? Regardless, a single failure to communicate can have dire consequences for any organization.
Erica: A really clear example of the over-serve versus overshare concept would be in this past year. People are working remotely, and we also have spouses, children, neighbors, and animals in the house surrounding us while we're working. If you're on a call, or you're talking to somebody, and you need to hop off for a second, or you need to reschedule something: By taking that conversation from a very customer service level, overserved would be to explain, “I'm sorry. This isn't convenient right now, but I'm going to need to reschedule, or I need just a minute.” Right?
It seems fundamental, but just verbalizing the need and the situation versus saying, “Hey, my dog just ran out of the house, and my son dropped a dish.” You would be surprised at the details that people give sometimes when they don't need to give all the details, they just need to give that service awareness of the situation.
That was happening a lot. Perhaps it was just professional inexperience, and they hadn't been in the space long. They weren’t bringing that kind of basic customer service lens to the conversation.
They were giving away too many details about what was happening in their environment— even team member to team member, right? Just respecting that everybody is human and that everybody has a lot happening. Bringing that to the table without oversharing those details of what is happening behind the scene.
There's still business that needs to be done. You're still serving others. You're still putting a solution in front of people, and we still have jobs to do. It's a very careful balance of “show up for what you need to show up for.”
We are respectful that we are in very family-heavy environments right now and being able to balance that is something we put a lot of time and effort to.
Ian: According to Erica, a communication ethos is about more than just what we communicate about work. We have to bring openness and transparency to every facet of our communication, and that includes how we talk about our lives outside of work.
Erica: I am very operationally minded. If there's a problem, or something's not working, I'm going to ask to see the process. I like to see the visual process. If somebody is having a problem or this isn't working, we need to overhaul it. Being able to put it into a visual way helps. Especially when you're remote, everybody can see what you're seeing, right? Get it out of your brain so that other people can consume it and then give you feedback.
That might seem fundamental, but overhauling anything in an organization, you've got to put it down on paper. And I think people forget about that because we're so digital, right? Everything's on computers. You can create beautiful slide decks but getting that function and that foundation down on paper to say, “Hey, what do I want the customer to hear? What is the first thing I want a customer to hear? What is the first thing I want a customer to see?” And building out those nurture funnels to pay attention to those different gateways throughout the customer experience makes a difference when you're looking at how you can improve it.
Ian: Erica pointed out that an effective communication ethos has long-ranging effects. It’s not just about communication; it also builds a culture of effective operations and customer support.
Erica: We specialize in high-quality customer support and operation teams. When we first started, as with most startups, we were very passionate. We'll build a remote team for anybody in any industry. Great idea, except anybody who's done that or is in the space knows that's not scalable.
It's been interesting that the more successful we've become—and the bigger we've grown—it's because we've niched down. It always seemed like one of those cliche things to me when I was a very young entrepreneur, but you're like, “Oh, now four years later, I totally see how that is a real thing.”
So, we started out building any team. “Hey, you need a team’; we’ll build it for you.” And that's not scalable because then your process is different for every type of team. Where we've found that niche is in customer support and operation teams. We do that in our big five specific industries.
The customer support operation teams have been really successful in FinTech companies, ad tech, med tech, cybersecurity, and ecommerce. We've been able to operationalize, mostly across those five industries, the same type of implementation and the same type of programming, to deliver high-quality teams that are meeting the KPIs and giving white glove, great customer service, to whomever the customer is within those areas.
For a cybersecurity example, we stood up about a team of 20 a little over a year ago, and it's a 24/7 crisis response hotline. It's a very large cyber security firm with very high-level customers, and our team of military spouses at Instant Teams is the first responders.
And it's cool because it's a soft skill that the community has a lot of. We're trained in crisis response. We're trained in emergency readiness. It's that extra layer of service that the team is able to provide 24/7 response to these cybersecurity firms.
And it's also 24/7 because our military spouses live across the globe. So, somebody might be working in Japan, it's their daytime. It's a normal daytime job for them, but it's overnight because the company in crisis is US-based. So, it's an extra perk of working with Instant Teams. That 24/7 component is US-based citizens who just happen to be spread out across the globe.
Ian: As you home in on what makes your customer experience team exceptional, you need to find out what works best for your CX philosophy. Erica has a good one.
Erica: Our overarching customer experience philosophy is to act as that trusted advisor. And if you do, there's a lot of research out there on different methodologies. Because we position ourselves as relational sellers, that trusted advisor role is kind of that step two. Our sales team are the relational sellers. Our CS team becomes that trusted advisor. And that allows us to have hard conversations. It allows us to celebrate successes together. So really, that philosophy of customers come first, we serve with excellence, but layering in that trusted advisor level is important to everything that we do.
Ian: Erica’s story shows what happens when a leader creates a communication ethos and follows it rigorously. Your ethos might be different from Erica’s, but the important thing is that everyone is on the same page in terms of how you communicate.
Once your communication ethos is in place, your team will be better equipped to handle whatever your customers throw at them. And then your CX will be...in the infamous words of Shan Yu...perfect.
The Often Imitated podcast is sponsored by Oracle.
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Analisa is a Content Marketing Specialist for Oracle Advertising & CX. She works with the Modern Marketing Blog.