You’re swamped, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Carving out time to think beyond the barrage of tickets, and being smart about your priorities, can turn things around.

When responding to frustrated customers becomes an everyday occurrence, it can quickly become a ‘firefighting’ routine that’s hard to break. You want to get ahead, but you’re battling to even provide a basic service. Slower reply times prevent you from achieving a higher CSAT score. Working on longer-term planning and strategizing feels like a luxury you can’t afford. Even snatching time to address areas you know will likely reduce the heat – like bolstering your self-service – is impossible.

Perhaps you’re the sole customer support agent or just starting out as a customer support manager, or maybe you’re further along but have reached a plateau. If firefighting is seen as par for the course, now’s the time to break the cycle.

Adopting a more proactive approach to support, where common and potential problems are highlighted and addressed before customers ask for help, can ease your team’s stress levels, contribute to building customer loyalty and improve your bottom line.

There were definitely times when I was just thrashing around, trying to get everything done. Except, everything wasn’t getting done. The problem with firefighting is that sometimes it’s such a blaze that you don’t take the time to frame what the problem is before you have to solve it.

Mike Goss, Head of Customer Operations at Spoke

Look for underlying causes

It might seem obvious, but it cannot be emphasized enough: investigating the causes of the incessant firestorm is the first step towards identifying what you need to do to progress. To do this, you’ll need to be prepared to step away from the queues.

Make the time. Seriously.

You might feel that setting aside time for this isn’t worth the backlog of tickets it will create but if you don’t, you’ll never break the cycle. Any painful short-term hit you’ll take by stepping away from the queues will be worth it.

If you’re particularly struggling to tear yourself away from the noise, here are some tactics:

  • Create a daily to-do list.
    Write down each task you want to complete during the coming work day and rank each according to importance or urgency. With a defined, pre-planned set of tasks, you’ll be able to keep on track throughout the chaos of the day.
  • Create a hitlist.
    Using Trello, Clubhouse or even a physical pinboard to keep track of bigger, longer term ideas along with your daily to-dos can ensure you don’t end up burying bigger things that might seem too tricky to implement.
  • Go offline for the day.
    Far from being the nuclear option it might appear, removing yourself from the day-to-day, if only for a day, can work wonders for giving you the perspective you need to look at what needs to get done. Box off a day in your calendar in the not-too-distant future to think about your longer term goals and how you want to hit them. Commit to staying away from your daily ticket queue no matter what happens. Try making this a semi-regular thing you do each month or quarter.
I literally had two Trello boards running. One was for firefighting tasks, one for strategy. I made sure I tried to tackle something every week on both things. I’ve also learnt not to have too many things on your to-do list. Then review that list every month and ask yourself honestly if you’re ever going to get to round to this. Having too many things and just not doing them takes up space.

Mike Goss, Head of Customer Operations at Spoke

Explore your ticket archives

To make effective recommendations about how you can turn this situation around, you need to explore your ticket archives. Ask pertinent, important questions about all the factors that impact the volume of tickets you recieve.

As you trawl your archives, ask yourself:

  • How many tickets are you receiving per day?
  • Is it possible to answer them all?
  • Do they consistently peak daily at certain times?
  • Where are they coming from?
  • Are they predominantly from a single channel?
  • Are the majority from a certain region?
  • Who is answering them?
  • How many of your team are constantly overrun with tickets?
  • How many of your team have the capacity (and ability) to take on more?
  • What are they about?
  • Are the majority of tickets dominated by a few topics?
  • How long do the tickets take to answer?
  • Do self-service articles exist for the most common topics?

Find opportunities

Now you know the underlying causes of your team’s daily firefighting routine, you can see what needs the most attention to ease the volume of tickets.

These center around improving your efficiency of handling tickets, your capacity to handle the daily ticket volume, and reducing that volume to a manageable level.

Reorganizing your team

If you’ve been firefighting for a while, it’s likely that your team have taken a bit of a battering and might be starting to show signs of stress and fatigue. Firefighting is stressful and forces everyone out of their comfort zone to try make things work. The last thing you need is someone leaving because they’re unhappy.

Take stock of how the team is doing to see what opportunities there might be to optimize their work. For example, some of your team may want to specialize in a particular area of support. Gather the team together for a retrospective, where you reflect on how you’re doing and come up with ways to improve. Go offsite to put them in a different frame of mind and away from their inboxes.

I think one-on-ones are hugely under-utilized. They are a great opportunity to check in with the people on your team and figure out what you can do to actually make them perform better. If I see things coming up over and over again, then this is something I can work with and help them solve. If things come up in one-to-ones of several people, I know there’s a structural problem to look into.

Valentina Thörner, Happiness Team Lead at Automattic

If you find that a large number of tickets come from regions outside where your support team are based, you could experiment with flexible working arrangements that will allow members of your team to start one or two hours earlier or later to cover these time zones.

This might suit parents with young children, long range commuters, or those who simply feel at their sharpest early in the morning or later at night.

Hiring more people

If you and your team simply can’t handle the daily volume of tickets, let alone the unforeseen firestorms, and no amount of reorganizing is going to change this, you might want to consider making a hire.

By the same token, if you find that a large number of tickets come from regions outside where your support team are based – tickets that end up having a far longer resolution time – you might want to look at adding to your ranks to cover these time zones. This way you can deal with the after-hours tickets and chats that previously filled up the inbox for the next morning.

Addressing bugs

Work with your developers to triage and prioritize bugs and usability issues. Tackle them regularly and you’ll see your ticket volume reduce in kind. Prioritize the fixes that will impact the most on your ticket volume.

Reviewing your channels

If it’s clear that there are less popular customer communication channels that draw vital attention and resources away from those that are busier and more efficient, you could make a case for concentrating on delivering a better service to fewer channels.

When we had this huge backlog of tickets, we just couldn’t see a way out. But when we ‘zoomed out’ and took a step back, we were able to identify some big, quick wins. We went through and manually closed all of the duplicates in our system, which took a significant number of tickets off our hands. We also reviewed our various channels and took the decision to shut down our Facebook messaging. Between those two actions, we were able to be much more efficient with resolving the number of outstanding tickets the team had to deal with.

Cat Hancock, Head of Customer Experience at Mous

Improving your tools

Are your tools up to the job of answering tickets quickly and efficiently? If not, consider how they could be improved or replaced. Using fit-for-purpose tools will make your team more efficient across the board.

One of the first things I did was rip out a bunch of pieces of software that had been implemented sort of on the fly, and we replaced them with Zendesk. With all of these different pieces of software for all of our different communication channels, it was very challenging to set things up in a way that made it easy to see things like how many chats we’d had in the last month or how quickly we were responding. Tooling was extremely important just to lay down that foundation for us as well as collect data. I’m a huge fan of data-driven decision making and if it’s not there, it’s easy to feel a bit lost.

Teri Bayrock, Head of Customer Success at Trussle

Proactive communication

Telling customers directly about major bugs, scheduled and unscheduled downtime or security breaches will result in fewer tickets.

There also needs to be an understanding with other teams that they will let support know of any scheduled downtime or a big mailout that could increase the number of enquiries.

We set up a process for when anyone wants to send an email or a push notification or anything to more than 1,000 customers. They have to write and send along a document that says how many people they’re sending it to, what the content is, and when they’re sending it, so we can give them feedback and say, ‘Actually, we’re understaffed during that hour. Can you delay it a couple hours?’

Because, every once in a while, demand would shoot up and we would ask, ‘What’s happened?’ We’d then find out that someone sent an email that said, ‘Please respond’, and we were getting several hundred people writing in that we weren’t expecting.

Make sure any demand that you can plan, you do it in a smart way. This could be just a very basic Google Doc that people have to fill out with links to all the communication and the timing. Little things like that can make a big difference in having a smooth day versus a lumpy day.

Emma Northcott, Operations Lead at Monzo

Improving your help content

You can deflect enquiries away from your inbox by creating or updating support center or knowledge-base articles and tutorials for the most common issues your customers face. Your customers can then conveniently get the answers they need right when they need them.

Where to begin

Still feeling overwhelmed? That’s okay. After all, it’s not easy getting everything done whilst you’re busy spinning plates and juggling different hats.

If you’re in any doubt as to where to point the water hose first, focus on the optimal solution that provides the most impact for the least amount of effort and cost. You may need to accept making short-term sacrifices for long-term gain.

You have to start somewhere, sometime, so you might as well start now!

Remember that you don’t have to solve everything today at this minute. Sometimes you have to play the long game, especially in customer support. There will never be resources for everything, so we’ll prioritize and accept that these priorities will never make everybody happy. Sometimes, even though I would have made a different decision, I understand the business sense, so I’m going to roll with it. Letting go is okay.

Valentina Thörner, Happiness Team Lead at Automattic

Read other posts in the Center of Happiness series


The Center of Happiness

Stages of a customer support team

Levelling up

You can’t firefight forever. It’s time to get some fundamental tools and processes in place, so you can give consistently brilliant support to your customers.

Above and beyond

Your team is firing on all cylinders and your customers are delighted. How do you take things to the next level?

Advice articles

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Channel overload: less is more

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Persuasion & buy in: how to sell customer support internally

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Metrics: how to choose them and define what success looks like

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Hiring: getting it right

Finding, recruiting and interviewing quality candidates can be a daunting experience at the best of times, but stick to the fundamentals and you’ll have a great fit in no time.

Motivation & happiness: stay energized!

Providing great support is hard, so it’s really important that managers understand how to motivate their team to keep them happy and productive.

Self-service done well: help your customers help themselves

Move beyond a simple knowledge base or FAQ and reap the benefits of a channel that’s efficient, functional, relevant and open 24/7.

Onboarding team members: make the first weeks count

As you bring new talent into your team, get your new hires off to the best possible start by helping them to integrate into your company structure, processes, culture and tone of voice.

Distributing workloads: balancing inbox zero and long term improvements

Your team knows more about your customers than anyone else. Organize regular time out of the queue for them to work on long-term support projects that will benefit the whole company.