It might sound obvious, but the needs of a 10-person support team are dramatically different from the needs of a 100-person or 1,000-person support team. What’s less obvious is how to take a support organization from point A to point B and beyond.
I first encountered this challenge when I was a member of the BizOps team at Stripe. My colleagues Ryan Wang and Brian Sze, who would later go on to co-found Assembled with Stripe alum John Wang, were working with Stripe’s support team to build tools that would help agents answer tickets much faster and more accurately.
At the time, Stripe was experiencing its own challenges with support at scale. As the company quickly grew from less than 100 employees to more than 1,000, support volume skyrocketed.
Stripe’s co-founders were committed to maintaining the same standard of customer service regardless of how big the company grew. They’d even have employees from departments outside of support come over to their apartment for support rotations, where folks would jump into the queue and answer tickets.
In a lot of ways, it was Stripe’s commitment to investing in support ops that inspired the vision for Assembled — a mission I was happy to join as Assembled’s first business hire.
For my part, I’ve always gravitated toward challenges that require you to tackle them with scale and efficiency. So, customer support was a natural fit. But there was something more that drew me in.
Not only are the people who work in support incredibly humble, empathetic, scrappy, and resourceful, but they’re also the backbone of how consumers perceive and engage with a brand. And over the past few years, businesses have been taking notice.
This rising tide of interest is just as exciting today as it was back then. And judging by the fact that 63% of customer support leaders are committed to improving their support ops in 2023, it’s safe to say that momentum isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
A roadmap for building customer support from seed to scale
Since joining Assembled in 2019, I’ve learned there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to growing a customer support organization. That said, I’ve observed a few patterns, and it typically goes like this.
When a company is just getting started, there’s no real business justification for a support team. At that point, it’s all hands on deck, with founders and early employees jumping in to do support. This was certainly the case at Stripe (it wasn’t just employees jumping into support rotations — it was the co-founders too!) and this was certainly the case at Assembled.
In fact, in the early days of Assembled, we had shared Slack channels with our customers. We were committed to doing everything we could to make them successful, so we felt this direct line of communication with our team was essential. Obviously, this doesn’t work as well as a company and its customer base starts to grow, but I’ve seen a lot of startups adopt this mentality in their early days.
Ultimately, how much the founders care about and embed customer support into the DNA of their company will set the tone for how the support organization evolves over time.
As the company starts to grow, founders begin to build out their team, often hiring someone focused on the business side. While they may not be 100% dedicated to support, they will most likely be involved in some capacity. It's common for an early hire in sales to eventually be followed by a post-sales hire, who essentially handles a mix of customer success and support tasks.
In the early stages of a company, customer success and support are often deeply intertwined. This is because, at the end of the day, the goal is to drive value for the customer. By solving their problems and gathering their feedback, the post-sales hire helps to inform the product team about what to build and how to better serve the customer base.
During this phase, it's crucial for the company to maintain a strong focus on customer support, as it's still forming the foundation of its brand identity and reputation. By continuing to prioritize support and ensuring that new hires understand its importance, companies can ensure that their support organization evolves in a way that stays true to the founders' initial vision.
As the company continues to grow, it eventually reaches a stage where there's enough work to justify hiring a dedicated support team. This milestone typically depends on factors such as the number of customers and the volume of incoming support requests. When this point arrives, companies begin to staff a full-time support team, which may initially consist of just a few people overseen by a manager.
At this stage, companies tend to start with email support. There are a few reasons for this preference. For starters, email support is often easier to staff than phone or chat support. Since it doesn't require agents to be constantly available during specific hours, a smaller team can effectively handle the workload. This is particularly beneficial when the support team is just starting out and all members work standard hours, such as 9–5.
Another advantage of email support is that it allows for some flexibility in response times. If a customer writes in with a query in the evening, for example, the support team can prioritize responding to it first thing the following morning. This approach enables companies to build their support foundation without overextending resources or sacrificing the quality of customer interactions.
As the company continues to expand and support volume increases, the next stage involves refining the customer experience strategy. There are several aspects to consider at this point:
- Channels: Decide which additional support channels to offer, such as phone or live chat. Offering more channels often requires increased staffing to accommodate the demand.
- Hours of operation: Initially, support may be available from nine to five, but as the company grows and serves an international customer base, it may be necessary to provide 24×7 support.
- Response times: Establish goals for how quickly customers receive responses. For example, you might aim to answer all emails within an hour.
Once these strategic decisions have been made, the focus shifts to staffing models:
- In-house vs. outsourcing: Consider whether to staff your support team entirely in-house or to utilize business process outsourcing (BPO) services.
- Full-time vs. part-time: Determine the optimal mix of full-time and part-time staff to efficiently manage support volume and provide excellent service.
- Schedules: Establish work schedules that align with your hours of operation and ensure coverage across all support channels.
By thoroughly addressing these factors, companies can develop a robust support strategy that meets their customers' needs while scaling alongside the organization.
The road to support at scale looks different for every organization
As I mentioned earlier, there's no one right path for how a support team can scale. The growth and development of a support organization depend heavily on the strategy and priorities set by the company. Investments in customer experience, channel expansion, and staffing models all contribute to the support infrastructure that a company builds.
The key is to first set the strategy, determining the level of support that aligns with the company's goals and customer needs. From there, businesses can focus on implementing new channels, adjusting hours of operation, and selecting the appropriate staffing model. As the support organization matures, the focus shifts to optimizing the existing infrastructure, seeking ways to enhance efficiency and reduce costs while still delivering an exceptional customer experience.
By understanding the various stages of support growth and adapting their strategies accordingly, companies can successfully scale their customer support organizations to meet the evolving needs of their customers and maintain a strong brand reputation.