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.

by Lisa Hunt, Support Champion, Geckoboard

When your team is constantly in the weeds and you’re right there with them trying to get all the tickets answered and keep your customers happy, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a lot of time to think about your overall support strategy.

Eventually, you should find – or build in – a little more room and flexibility. This will allow you to take stock of all the data you’ve been collecting and decide where your energy will be best applied to improve your team, your product and your customer experience. While it’s good to keep your hand in the queue so that your skills and knowledge stay sharp, the real role of a support manager is to see the whole picture and make decisions accordingly.

How do you decide where this time should be spent to have the biggest impact?

Check your data

In our section on how to choose the right metrics, we talk about the types of data you might want to collect and why. If you haven’t been able to put this to use yet, now’s the time.

Make sure your metrics are useful

Once you have some time to spare, take the opportunity to throw out data and metrics that don’t help you and your team make support decisions or get buy-in from product and leadership. Like most things in life, your choice of metrics should never become set in stone: just because you’ve always done things in a particular way doesn’t mean that you need to continue to do so.

Show your team the big picture

If you don’t have a dashboard to share information, consider adding one at this stage. Whether this is a TV dashboard with the key metrics you’d like to communicate or a whiteboard where you keep track of projects being worked on, it can be a great way to make sure that your team knows how things are going.

A real-time TV dashboard can be an excellent complement to sharing monthly totals and longer-term trends in the form of an email or report. This combination allows your entire team to see up to date progress and priorities as well as their performance over time in order to react faster to issues, confidently make decisions themselves and stay focused on the right things.

Remember, though, that metrics don’t show the whole picture and aren’t a stick to beat employees with when they underperform - think of them more as a compass to guide you towards understanding your customers, team and product.

You need to have this constant flux, not only the hard data but the story that’s behind it. Like, ‘Why did you do this many tickets?’ or ‘Why did the post that you said you would publish this week not go out?’ The why behind that usually informs a lot of where the company’s trending. And lots of little whys make up the whole company story in the end.

Valentina Thörner, Happiness Team Lead at Automattic

An employee who starts with a backlog of tickets every day will always have a slower first response time, while one who only handles more difficult queries is likely to have a slower full resolution time. Your dashboard should be a tool to celebrate team successes, to help you make decisions, and to encourage communication.

Make data-driven decisions

You’ll also want to do some deeper analysis and gather some more qualitative information to decide what your next steps are for the team and where you’d like to focus on driving change in the company. If you don’t know where to start, take a look at our guide to data analysis.

Do your research

Every company and every support team is different, but it’s also easy to get caught up in your own work without knowing what the best practices are. While we’re becoming better as an industry at sharing our knowledge and successes, you may need to go looking to find out what other teams do and how you can improve.

Find external resources

As a support manager, you’ll want to keep yourself informed about the world of Support and Success. This can help you generate ideas to improve your team, but also to benchmark your metrics against teams of the same size or in the same industry. A good place to start with this is Zendesk’s benchmarking. You should also join communities, like Support Driven and Support Stories, and subscribe to relevant blogs and newsletters, like those for Help Scout and NiceReply.

Right now, there aren’t a lot of customer support-themed conferences, but the number of these does seem to be growing each year and you may find them, and the connections you’ll make by attending, very valuable for helping your team to grow.

You’ll find more resources in the Above & Beyond section of this guide.

Understand your team

You should also be sure to talk to your team – what are they excited to work on? How do they want to grow? What are their daily frustrations? Knowing these things will help you make plans that use your team’s strengths and show that you value their growth.

Prioritize based on your goals

It’s likely that there are a lot of competing goals that you need to take into account when deciding how you use your time and that of your team. Not only that but the day-to-day work of talking to customers won’t go away. However long you think a project is going to take, it’s likely to take even longer because customer support teams need to carve out the time to work on it.

Remember your mission statement

The first thing to keep in mind, and ensure that your team knows, is that your priority is always to do the best you can for your customers within the capacity that you have available. This means that you shouldn’t focus on other work and simply ignore the customers who need help but, at least at first, you should concentrate on projects that will free you up a little more by delegating tasks, building resources or processes to improve your team’s efficiency or preventing tickets before they happen.

Know what you’ll gain

Take a look at everything you’d like to accomplish and decide whether it will increase satisfaction and efficiency within your team, allow you to scale, help you achieve specific business goals or improve the experience of your customers. The more of these a project will touch on, the more you might want to prioritize it, but the particular weight of each of these values will depend on you.

Clear your bottlenecks

At this stage, a lot of your time and energy as a support team is likely to be taken up answering repetitive questions and completing repetitive tasks. These are bottlenecks that take up your time and energy, preventing you from achieving more important things.

Make sure you’re using your time well

Review how your time is being spent and decide whether the things you’re doing are valuable. This can be a hard call to make but you can use a similar criteria to how you decide on your metrics: does this time improve you, the team, the company or the customer experience? If you’re spending a lot of time in meetings, decide whether these are necessary. This excellent guide by Lucid Meetings can help you with this. Once you are comfortable with assessing the contribution of individual meetings, you can decide to improve or remove them to best benefit your team.

Create processes for tasks that you perform frequently

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve likely invented a process for things you do a lot. This may not be documented or the most efficient way to do things but it probably exists. Replace it with something you’ve put a little more thought into and avoid setting traps for new teammates.

If you need to spend an hour each week compiling a report with your team’s metrics, for example, consider using a service to automate this process so that you instead have time for analysis and decision-making with this data. Perhaps members of the team are losing time investigating the same issue due to the way customer tickets are assigned. If so, consider creating a workflow that involves assigning or commenting in the ticket when you begin to investigate it.

If you have time at this stage, you can also build processes and templates for rare issues or ones that haven’t happened yet. A process for dealing with an outage and templates for the updates you’ll make will allow your team to work more quickly when they do occur. There may be some trial and error involved in creating this type of process. Having a plan will be helpful in a crisis but make sure that it is flexible enough to survive any changes required by real circumstances. Don’t forget to get your team’s feedback after it’s actually used to discuss what worked well and what can be improved.

Head off common issues

You should see some trends in the types of tickets you see frequently. Maybe these are issues like password resets, queries about pricing, or something unique to your company. Either way, if you’ve been keeping track of these, you can create great self-service content to minimize the number of customers who need to get in touch to resolve them. Making it as easy as possible for customers to help themselves will make them happier and also reduce your workload. You can find out more about this in our guide to self-service.

It’s important to remember that some of these frequent problems are likely to be areas where your user experience is not what it should be. You can also use this information to pitch user experience changes by highlighting the information that’s needed at the time the confusion occurs or preventing it from occurring in the first place.

Reduce single points of failure

In a one-person support team, everything goes through you and you need to know everything. As soon as your team begins to scale, you’ll start finding single points of failure – things you know how to do that no one else does. Even in a team with a large number of members, you’re likely to find that there are people who become experts in particular elements of the product you support or in particular processes, whether naturally or as part of their progression.

Train everyone in everything

There’s nothing wrong with developing subject matter experts or asking individuals to take on tasks that interest them or fit their skills, but you should also make sure to train everyone as a good all-rounder until you have a large enough team to include plenty of back-up for each of your specializations.

You never know when a member of the team will unexpectedly take some time off, need to free up some of their capacity to work on other things or decide that it’s time to take their next career step. It’s tempting to give tasks to the person who already knows how to do them because training can take time, but it’s a good investment. Ensuring that any team member can step into someone else’s place will help things run smoothly.

Back up the training with documentation

Knowledge that isn’t being used on a regular basis can easily be forgotten, so make sure you build out internal documentation and organize it so that it’s easy to search. Encourage use of this documentation to answer questions within the team and make sure the experts write down answers to any questions that they’re asked. If your team chats on Slack, use something like Tettra to request documentation immediately when a question is asked.

It’s important to be mindful of tone while reinforcing internal documentation. You don’t want to shame team members who forget to check or to seem dismissive of their questions. Instead, you should aim to be helpful, encourage curiosity and ensure the team know that they have resources available to learn from.

Having good internal documentation will help with onboarding and training of new team members, while avoiding the delays that come from needing to wait for a particular team member to be available before you can find the solution to a problem. This is particularly important for distributed teams.

Invest in the future

As a manager, it’s your job to meet your team where they are and help lift them up both to where you need them and where they want to be. In order to do this, though, it’s important that you know the direction you’re headed in.

Talk to the members of your team about how they want to develop and what they want or need from you in order to do this. It may be that they don’t know. Customer Support is still very new to being a career path and we’re inventing some of the roles as we go along.

If a member of your team doesn’t know what they’d like to be doing differently a year from now, ask instead what elements of their job they enjoy, what they dislike, what they find easy and what they find difficult. No matter how great a support agent they are, they’re almost guaranteed to have a part of the role they dislike or would rather not do. Find out why. That will give you a good place to start laying some foundations. You can build on these over time as you get a clearer picture or the right circumstances arise.

Offer opportunities to learn

Your product is likely to be changing all the time and knowing how to learn and adapt is an essential support ability. If your company gives employees a development budget and the opportunity to go to conferences, actively speak to your team about what they want to use these for. It’s easy to let this slide – after all, your team is very busy – but it will help ensure that they feel valued and engaged. Plus, they’ll learn new skills that they can apply to their work.

If you’re at a stage where you have the time for it, you can also encourage skill sharing between departments. If your company has an all-hands support culture, see whether you can pitch this as more of an exchange. Developing relationships between the support team and other parts of the business will help you show your value but also to upskill and understand your product more thoroughly.

You can also consider taking on small technical tasks like fixing typos or small errors that you encounter while working on documentation. This will prevent these types of issues from sitting in a developer’s already long backlog while giving your team the opportunity to learn how your product fits together.

Start planning for progression (including your own)

If they don’t exist yet, make sure to think about some progression paths. These don’t necessarily need to be formalised if you’re not at that size yet, or involve moving into a management role, but should have something to distinguish them. Even if it’s not specifically laid out as a development path, consider how you might offer opportunities for those who want to learn technical skills and those who would rather focus on product knowledge, interpersonal skills or becoming an excellent support team member, without necessarily moving elsewhere for their growth.

Finally, don’t forget about your own goals and growth. Make sure you put some thought into where you’re headed and how you’ll get there. Then do some basic succession planning. You may love your role and want to do it forever, but chances are you’ll need new challenges someday so think about who you’ll train to take on your role when that time comes.

Maybe your chosen successor will end up taking over from you or maybe they’ll move on as a manager elsewhere in the company or somewhere else. Either way, you’ll learn as much from mentoring them as they’ll learn from you. You’ll also be able to take a vacation from time to time. You should aim to create processes and a team dynamic where you can take a week off at any point and they would be fine without you.

Review your progress

You should make sure to check in regularly on how things are going. You should use a cadence that works with how you plan and make decisions. Does your company set quarterly goals? At the very minimum, you should do this at the end of each quarter. Ideally, you should review your progress a few times during the quarter as well.

If you don’t have a pre-set interval for projects and goals, decide on one as a team and alter it as needed. Part of this process can be determining whether it worked for you.

Stage 1: Block out some time for yourself

In order to understand how things are going, you need to really focus on higher level strategy tasks. When you’re used to juggling multiple projects and handling interruptions to deal with the next urgent ticket, it’s easy to forget that you’re responsible for your own calendar and can manage your time in a way that works for you. The support queue might dictate the schedule for your team but management tasks need you to create the time and space to work on them. Don’t feel guilty about making time to step away; the opportunity won’t appear on its own.

Stage 2: Review from a management perspective

Look at what you and your team have been working on over the previous interval and make some notes on how you think it went. Did any changes you made work? If they didn’t work, do you know why not? Review your metrics and decide whether you now have more or less capacity as a team. You should also make some notes on the performance of your team during this time, if you haven’t yet. These will be helpful to refer back to later when it comes to reviewing their development to offer career growth opportunities.

Stage 3: Review from a team perspective

Now do the exact same work as a team. Some of this will be a case of sharing your thoughts and decisions from the first stage, but the rest will allow you to ensure that you’re hearing all of the voices of your team. It’s easy to inadvertently introduce project creep into a support team, adding more and more responsibilities to the same number of people without removing any others. Check in with your team about what their workload looks like and help enable collaboration, delegation or dropping of tasks as necessary.

Stage 4: Decide what to do next

Finally, work together to decide on the next priorities and to re-establish your target metrics. At the end of this review, you should have:

  • A documented decision on your goals
  • A list of next steps
  • Specific owners for each task

Get better at making your case

The better your team becomes at developing processes, sharing knowledge and learning from your data and past experience, the more you’ll be able to take on. Despite this, there’s always going to be a limit to what you can achieve with a team of your particular size. It’s not possible for humans to be 100% efficient 100% of the time without burning out and, even then, there are only so many hours in the day.

Eventually, you may need to gain buy-in to bring in more team members, purchase better support software or invest developer time in admin tools so that you have more queue coverage or can take on more projects. There’s no foolproof method for this but you should lay the groundwork well before you need it. Even in some “customer-centric” companies, there can be the perception that the support team is a cost center that takes money without generating any, and you often see this reflected in a split into reactive support and proactive success.

Don’t be the mystery team

Make sure you’re letting other teams know who you are and what you do. If you have an onboarding process for all new employees, use it to introduce them to your team. You could offer a simplified version of the training that you give to new support hires or simply explain who you are and what you do. Make sure to mention additional tasks as well as the types of questions and problems you handle on a daily basis. It’s likely that there’ll be at least one thing they didn’t know your team dealt with.

You can also offer the opportunity for anyone from another team to sit in when you train new support team members. If the people you work with don’t know what your team do all day, they may suspect that you don’t do much. This type of training can be a valuable way to spread an understanding of your work, a positive view of the customer support world and respect for your team’s skill.

I think one of the reasons there can be a negative view of support is, if you do your job well, nobody will know that you’ve done your job because customers are happy and probably fairly quiet. It’s when you don’t do your job well that people will hear about angry customers waiting on hold for hours at a time.

You need to take a proactive stance in any way that you can to show some of the value that you bring. If a customer has had a really challenging time and you finally got them a resolution, you’ve turned somebody who hates your product into somebody who loves your product. That’s something to share!

Teri Bayrock, Head of Customer Success at Trussle

Shout about the value that you add

It’s important to know your metrics and understand how the support team contributes to the company goals. You should also do some research into the value of good support that you can share when making your case. If your executive team is all about return on investment, show them the figures on the percentage of customers who switch provider based on poor service. If the figures are anything like those in Oracle’s Global Insights on Succeeding in the Customer Experience Era, it will be a lot higher than they suspect.

Spend the time to show not just prevention of churn but how your team has influenced revenue. If your product offers a free trial, and you provide support during this, keep an eye on the number of trialists who convert and how many of them contacted your team and were happy with the service. This is money that your team have directly contributed to the business.

Learn how your decision-makers communicate

It’s highly likely that you see a lot of very valuable insights from your customers day in and day out. You should be sharing these with other teams. Just make sure you do this in a way that works for their needs by building relationships with the managers of those teams.

If your product team is numbers driven, focus on the metrics – how many of a particular request do you see, how long does it take your team to deal with on average, how would customers rate the experience? All of this can allow you to put a value on the particular issue: how much it’s costing you in support staff time combined with loss of sales.

If your product team isn’t driven by numbers for decision-making, consider using something like the Jobs to be Done framework to investigate feature requests and work with your customers to find out what problem they’re trying to solve. Basecamp, for example, have an excellent approach for dealing with feature requests.

The support team is the voice of the company to the customer and the voice of the customer to the company. Take ownership of that role.

Read other posts in the Center of Happiness series


The Center of Happiness

Stages of a customer support team


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.

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./blog/hiring-for-customer-support-getting-it-right/