August 13, 2020

Producing a long-term vision of sustainable support

Sustainable support can sometimes feel like a faraway goal. When the queue is backlogged and new hires can’t start soon enough, it may seem like there’s no end in sight and like whatever you do has little effect on the end result.

Faced with volume spikes and case backlogs, it may seem like the best answer is to throw more resources at the problem—whether that means cutting back on non-urgent work, asking the team to work overtime or taking cases yourself. These measures will eventually backfire in the form of agent burnout, over-reliance on single points of failure and more company-wide visible problems. As you lead a support team, ask yourself the hard questions before they bubble up and become more widely noticeable problems.

Forward-looking support teams realize that these measures aren’t sustainable and won’t scale with the team. To sustainably scale your support operation, the best option can often be to take a step back and examine the structure of your team and its processes. For an idea of how real support teams have moved from scrappy processes to standard operating procedures and the hurdles they encountered along the way, check out this panel with support leaders from Stripe, Daily Harvest and Harry's.

Below, we’ve outlined a few of the key questions that the most successful teams we work with at Assembled ask themselves as they navigate the growth process:

1. What are the specific customer issues that you’re encountering most often? Is there any way to change the underlying product or processes?

  • An informal audit of a single day’s case volume can be illuminating and provide initial numbers to back what agents see and feel every day.
  • Which issues are being reopened the most? Can you improve the support process for these issues?
  • For a real life of how feedback loops impact support success, check out Chris Stolt's (Director of Technical Support and Account Management at Heroku) talk with Heavybit. (Skip to the "Support Masking Problems" section for the bit specifically on feedback loops.)
  • Which issues are being reopened the least? Can you improve the product through a quick engineering tweak so that these quick reach outs can be avoided?
  • Does any single partner account for a large proportion of your support volume? Is there a way to talk to them directly about their underlying business needs?

2. Where are you creating work for yourself?

  • Can any of the issues that you’re running into be solved through improved documentation and self-service FAQs? Can you turn your most common support questions and responses into FAQs?
  • For a primer on ticket deflection—including tactics like establishing a Knowledge Base or community support site—check out Zendesk's compilation of best practices.
  • Are marketing efforts encouraging replies to email? Is there a way to pause these efforts in times of acute spikes in volume?
  • If you deal in sensitive information, is the back-and-forth of user authentication falling onto the support team and delaying real support? If users need to authenticate their session before you can help them, can you encourage authentication through your web experience or app prior to reaching out?
  • Are any particular issues being transferred between teams or specializations at abnormally high rates? Can you create a process to improve the handoff or clarify the ownership?

3. Is the team productive enough to handle the workload with the current systems in place?

  • How can you improve productivity before making an ask for additional headcount?
  • Can you identify any ad hoc systems that outlived their initial usefulness?
  • Can software solutions help to reach your targets and goals more effectively?
  • Intercom's Custom Bots, for example, can help with the initial triaging of support tickets or with lead acquisition, giving customers a quick initial response and saving your team time in the process.

4. 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?
  • Does your staffing need fluctuate throughout the day? Throughout the week?
  • Have you explored intraday staffing flexibility measures, such as offering voluntary time off during overstaffed shifts?
  • Have you explored remote workforces or part-time work to supplement your team? How about support vendors? (more on this here)

Modern support teams have discussed their approach to these issues and are able to produce a long-term vision of sustainable support as a result. When you begin to look at the underlying structure of your support team and the volume it receives rather than the daily issues that pop up, some problems begin to resolve themselves.

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