June 25, 2020

Future proofing your support team

In our last post, we took a look at the common mistakes that support teams make in leaving money on the table as they scale and adapt to the changing landscape of customer support. In this email, we look to the future. From staffing and planning to analytics and bridge-building, we take a look at the steps that modern support teams are taking to ensure their effectiveness and long-term success.

1. Commit to not being underwater

Managing support teams can sometimes feel like drinking from a firehose while someone else controls the spigot. It’s easy to fall behind and once you do, it’s difficult to feel like you’re safely above water again.

Between constantly hiring, managing teams and fighting fires as they pop up, the work to structurally adjust to rising support volume can sometimes be pushed aside in favor of all-hands-on-deck approaches. Stopgaps are put in place by deprioritizing project work, having the team work overtime, and handling cases a few more cases yourself than you’d like.

The issue with this approach is that things never structurally improve. While it may help get through the day, effective support teams commit to not relying on these measures. Instead of sinking more and more effort into your system as-is, the most efficient long-term move is often to take a step back and improve the system itself.

Ask yourself the hard questions before they bubble up and become more widely noticeable problems:

  • What are the specific customer issues that you’re encountering most often? Is there any way to change the underlying product or processes instead?
  • Where are you creating work for yourself? Can any of the issues that you’re running into be solved through self-service FAQs and documentation?
  • On a team level, how many team members do you need to hit your targets consistently? Are you hiring at a rate that supports your conclusion? (more on this in point #2)
  • Is the team productive enough to handle the workload with the current systems in place? How can you improve this before making an ask for additional headcount?

Modern support teams have answers to these questions and are able to produce a long-term vision of sustainable support as a result.

2. Make informed decisions about hiring and team management

Modern support teams keep up=to-date with new methods of hiring and team management but also recognize that every new decision comes with the work necessary to make it effective. Whether it’s a dedicated support office, using a support vendor, or hiring part-time employees, the work only begins when the decision is made to move forward.

The prospect of offloading the work of support to a vendor is always tantalizing. But it comes with serious commitments in time and effort. You can't assume that making the switch will save you time for the first year as you ramp up. Nor can you assume that vendors will manage themselves—which is one of the most common mistakes we see.

You’re ultimately trading one set of responsibilities—staffing, hiring, managing team cost—for another set of responsibilities, namely vendor management. Over-reliance on vendors without effective management in place can also mask issues as they pop up, preventing them from getting to the people and teams that can fix the root causes.

Remote and part-time workforces can also be appealing. Part-time employment is one of the best ways to schedule more granularly to your company’s support needs. And remote workforces have quickly proven to be an integral facet of work moving forward.

But again, these changes mean that you need a whole new management process in order to make the team effective. The plan needs to take into consideration maintaining visibility and accountability and making these new team members feel connected to the broader team.

Effective teams realize these progressions come with work of their own and that while they can help significantly in the long-term, can result in an increase in short-term workload.

3. Use analytics as an input rather than an end in itself

Metrics are critical for measuring team success. Without them, it’s impossible to know how success is defined and which direction those key indicators are moving in. But effective support teams realize that they should not be viewed as an end in themselves.

For one, maximizing for metrics can create unintended consequences. For example, if you decide that average response time is a key metric, one way to maximize for this is to allow people who have been waiting the longest to continue to wait and handle cases just as they come in. Alternatively, you can achieve a 5 minute average response time for the week with near-instant responses from Monday afternoon through Friday and 45-minute waits on Monday morning.

Secondly, the conversation around metrics needs to take the morale of the team into account. One way to achieve an increase in service level attainment is to ask all of your team members to work overtime indefinitely. But these short-sighted stopgaps create problems of their own, like employee burnout and increased turnover.

When using metrics to make decisions, support teams of the future recognize that these are just one reflection of the way things are on the ground. They can be useful and should be used but should be considered along with a heavy dose of common sense and should not be the only input to decisions.

4. Educate the whole company on the value of support

You see the value of support day in and day out but communicating that value to the rest of the company can get lost in translation. Effective support teams are able to convey the value in tangible terms.

The metrics you measure should track to broader company goals in a real way. If they don’t, consider modifying existing metrics or tracking new metrics to address this. Whether your company is focused on brand awareness, customer experience or revenue, support interactions play an integral part in the success of these measures on a day-to-day, customer-to-customer basis.

If you don’t make this case, support will be relegated to a secondary position and consistently underinvested in. Leadership should view support as a crucial source of feedback and information about customer sentiment rather than as a cost center. Providing them with concrete numbers to back that statement goes a long way.

Effective support is ultimately about tradeoffs. Every CEO wants an instant response time and 100% productivity. Managing these expectations and educating leadership about the various costs and benefits of these tradeoffs is crucial.

Yes, you can respond to every user within 5 seconds, but it means that you’ll have a lot of team members waiting around without any customer contact for most of their day. On the flip side, you can improve cost dramatically by reducing the amount of downtime to zero but when spikes occur on Monday mornings, it will mean abandoning customers.

Adaptable support teams set and manage high expectations by tying their work into the company’s larger goals, educating stakeholders on tradeoffs and establishing common vocabulary to discuss these decisions.

5. Spend time building bridges with other teams

Finally, truly exceptional support teams build bridges between key stakeholders in the company, particularly with the product teams whose products they provide support for.

The divide between business and engineering perspectives is most evident in support. From a support standpoint, you’re providing a constant stream of feedback from users to the company and it can feel like nothing is being actioned. From a product standpoint, you’re managing known tactical issues while receiving a constant stream of feedback seemingly at random, some of which is precisely detailed and helpful and some of which doesn’t make a true attempt to understand what the user is encountering.

Separately, the lines between support work and that of sales, customer success and marketing all become blurred as a company grows. What issues are encountered during onboarding due to misunderstanding of the product? What’s the long-term operating model for handling issues with high-value accounts? How do you manage social media and ensure that customers receive a unified response and consistent tone?

Investing the time and effort into discussing and resolving these issues pays dividends in the long run. Establishing relationships with other teams and sharing your goals and challenges ensures an open dialogue with the people who can actually solve your problems, grounded in understanding of each other’s priorities.

Modern support teams make the most out of limited resources and help align their goals and their success with the company as a whole. They spend time on the long-term levers to reduce friction with the product and customer interactions and reap the benefits of doing so.

Check out our blog for more resources on the journey to becoming an efficient and modern support team: https://www.assembled.com/blog

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