December 9, 2020

How to think about scaling support beyond HQ

As support teams scale, it becomes increasingly challenging to keep everyone under one roof. Support teams may start off altogether in HQ but as the company and the team grow, it becomes untenable to maintain your workforce in major metropolitan areas like San Francisco or New York. Whether the need arises for support in different timezones, different languages, or the office just isn’t big enough anymore, support teams will be faced with the question of what to do when they extend beyond headquarters.

Remote work and part-time work have increasingly become staples of a modern support operation, allowing employees considerable flexibility in both time and physical location while giving employers and managers a more resilient workforce. Transitioning work to business process outsourcing (BPO) vendors is another way to expand your support capacity but is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Regardless of the route you choose, each comes with its own benefits to consider and pitfalls to avoid.

BPO relationships require commitments in time and effort

The prospect of offloading the day-to-day work of support to a BPO vendor is always enticing and can result in a significant reduction in support cost and time spent if executed properly. A healthy relationship with a vendor increases your team’s flexibility, opens up additional ways to respond to growing demand and further distributes your support operation.

But working with a vendor comes with serious commitments in time and effort. You’re ultimately trading one set of responsibilities—staffing, hiring, and managing team cost—for another set of responsibilities, namely vendor management. Without the right team members and experience in place, this can quickly overwhelm a small team. Learn more from the workforce management team at Stripe about their transition to 24/7 live channel support with its vendor teams in this panel on managing support challenges as teams scale (skip to 30:54 in the video).

One of the most common mistakes we see is assuming that vendors will manage themselves. In order for both sides to operate effectively, your team needs to train vendors both as they first start and as new products and features are rolled out. Quality assurance programs need to be put in place with significant internal input upfront. And you need to be ready for concerns and emergencies as they take shape; this includes everything from questions about a specific feature they can’t access to a surprise snow day or hurricane day keeping agents from the office far away from your headquarters. You can't assume that making the switch will save you time for the first year as you ramp up your relationship.

"One of the at Stripe is that we always build in a bit of a buffer to our [vendor] staffing plans in general—and this can be 5-10%. Then we...make sure that our actual occupancy assumption for our agents is not set terribly high. which also gives us some buffer."

— Adrien Seldon, Stripe

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. Open lines of communication need to be established and agents bubbling up issues should be encouraged as product feedback rather than discouraged as additional workload. This, of course, needs to be done in a structured way so as not to overwhelm the team. For a helpful foundation here, check out Accenture's Vendor Management Framework, which contains tips and models for selecting a vendor and ensuring their success.

A remote workforce means rethinking employees' concerns and priorities

Remote team members and part-time workforces can also be appealing as you expand beyond your four walls. Part-time employment is one of the best ways to schedule more granularly to your company’s daily and hourly support needs. This allows you to schedule more agents for peak times, like Monday mornings, while ensuring that slower times aren’t consistently overstaffed.

Remote workforces have also quickly proven to be an integral facet of the workplace moving forward. Whether or not you were thinking about the prospect of remote work before 2020, it’s now clear that a remote contingency plan needs to be put in place at the minimum. Beyond their necessity, remote workforces offer remarkable value in allowing you to expand your hiring pool outside of major markets and access potential employees who may not be able to work full-time in an office, such as primary caregivers.

But again, these changes mean that you need a whole new process for employee management in order to keep the team effective. The intricacies, concerns and priorities of part-time and remote workforces are different from those of full-time employees in the office. Your plan needs to take into consideration making these new team members feel connected to the broader team as well as maintaining visibility and accountability throughout the team. For more on how managers are adjusting to the world of remote work, check out our recent post here.

“We don't realize how much we check in IRL during a day in the office and what cues we pick up on in person just by seeing people. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing how they feel in team meetings and I DM them to check how they’re doing."

— Anonymous CX Manager, SaaS Company (150 Agents)

Ultimately, these changes can be extremely fruitful if they’re undertaken at the right time and with an appropriate respect for the investment it will involve—in both time and money. Taking the time upfront to consider the potential successes and downfalls of different additions to the team will save you headache down the line.

Photo by Kumiko SHIMIZU on Unsplash

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