When you start building and selling any sort of product you will need to start supporting it. Here’s some guidance on building a customer support team.
Even if your product is high quality (which is of course, subjective) you will still have questions about it, or returns/refunds and other reasons your customers may want to get in touch with you.
This short guide is for those managers who are building/running support teams of some sort. My history is in online communities and software.
(Note: I originally wrote this article about 15 years ago with a friend of mine. We never published it. I found it on an old DVD (shows how old I am) and it is as relevant as ever – I think…)
Here’s the high level summary:
- Build relationships with your customers
- Optimise your tools and process for your customer’s benefit
- Solve problems once
- Don’t use metrics for individual performance reviews
- Measure everything, but use it to improve the process
- Provide the best environments you can
- Encourage Process Improvement
- Build Relationships with other teams
- Staple Yourself to a customer issue
- Quadruple your communications
- Follow up on all issues in a timely fashion
- Align your team
- Stop all negativity about customers
- Make it easy for customers (internal and external) to talk to you
Build relationships with your customers
If you have the time and the capability, then building relationships with your customers will pay tenfold.
Your ability to do this will depend on scale and location of course, but it’s entirely possible to build a relationship via the phone or social channels. Some companies have so many customers that this task alone would be overwhelming, but contacting each customer and saying “We are here for you” will open the gates to a stronger relationship if you can do it.
Social networks, email and chat tools also allow you to get to know your customers, their businesses, their challenges and what problems your product is solving for them. Today’s social web means location is no longer an excuse for not connecting with people.
Introduce some of the people in your team to your customers. When they phone up to speak to Sam, who is Sam? Wouldn’t it be great if they could look up who is who, so they know who they are speaking to?
A good idea would be to use LinkedIn to connect with them after an initial call – so they can see who they are dealing with. (Of course, this will require good, strong LinkedIn profiles).
Tell your customers what expertise your team have and what roles they fulfil. This has the effect of humanising your team and it will make your customer contacts with you all together more personable.
If you and your team build relationships with your customer, you will build in a level of care and trust you simply wouldn’t get if you don’t know the person on the end of the phone.
Optimise your tools and process for your customer’s benefit
You should be using tools only if they optimise life for your customers, not just for yourself.
It’s common for people to optimise their tools and processes for themselves only, thus degrading their core function; the support of their customer.
Your inbound contact system, your CRM, your issue management process, your internal hardware and your communications process are all areas for optimisation. But try to do this to improve your support for your customer, not for delivering internal metrics or creating paths of least resistance for individuals.
Optimising for both yourself and your customers is perfect, but your customer’s needs should always be more important than yours. Without your customers you have nothing.
Solve problems once
Instead of each member of the team solving the same problem each time they encounter it, try to solve it once.
The best solution is to remove the problem from the service, but this is not always possible. So instead of solving and digging each time it is raised, solve it once and document the problem. Then communicate this solution to the whole team and if possible, to your customers also.
When you yourself have a problem with a product, do you phone the support line first? Or do you do a quick search online? Provide your customers with answers online so they don’t waste time contacting you, and you don’t waste time solving problem over and over again. And make it easy to find the solutions. Several security gates, log ins and hard to find information will infuriate them.
Don’t use metrics for individual performance reviews
The minute you start using arbitrary targets to motivate, measure and reward your team, the minute you start introducing ways to destroy the support service for the customer. Targets such as time on call, number of up-sells, number of resolved cases, cases in queues etc. can drive the wrong behaviour.
When you have customers with problems the important metrics are whether you solved the problem, and how fast you solved it.
When teams are managed by metrics and targets they begin to change the process in order to meet the targets, rather than to provide service to your customers. This is why any metrics and targets used should be in line with your team’s purpose.
Misplaced targets and metrics manifests itself in various ways such as the bouncing of issues around departments, partial solutions meaning the customer has to call back again at a later date, issues that get ignored or deleted, and a general culture of looking after individual performance levels rather than your customers.
I once saw a team bouncing customer cases between teams (queues) just as the weekly measurement snapshot was taken. Why? So the number of cases in their queue was low and they avoided being “told off”. Who suffers in this situation? The customer.
Your customer has an issue – solve it and work out how to reward/measure your team by some other mechanism.
One to ones with team members, a culture of process improvement, customer engagement metrics and open and honest feedback are simple ways to start building the right culture. Measuring based on arbitrary measures is a sure fire way of gaining a high performing support team (against the measures) but a poor customer service function (their purpose).
Measure everything, but use it to improve the process
Measure everything. Even if you don’t think you will need it.
The time you do need it will be the time you wished you had measured it.
Measurements can tell you important things. They can point you at trends and patterns. They can help you reduce waste in the system and they can help to tell compelling stories.
Numbers alone won’t give you answers to your problems though, but they will help you identify ways to make your service better for the customer.
Measure things like cycle time (i.e. how long work stays in your system).
A good measure of this is the cycle time between them raising an issue and it getting resolved. This time should be as short as possible. Isn’t that a measure worth measuring?
Use metrics to track this and spot areas for improvement. Use measurements to find patterns and anomalies not to reward individuals. Try to avoid turning these measures in to targets – that’s when behaviour will change and not always for the better.
Provide the best environment you can
Provide an environment that is comfortable, well equipped and suitable for your team to get work done.
If your team need more than one monitor (which I suspect, they do) then sort it out. If they need test environments or hardware to replicate issues, then sort it out for them.
If they need training to run systems queries or to learn more about dealing with argumentative customers, then provide it. The cost will easily be off-set by customers being happy and staying with you.
Provide internal training sessions and opportunities for your team to share knowledge. Provide the best phones and computers you can. Provide quiet areas to make sensitive phone calls, provide standing desks to keep them alive longer, but most of all provide them with a safe environment to question how things are done.
Make it the norm to have robust and honest conversations about improvement. Don’t let them work in fear. I suspect your customers will suffer if you do.
Encourage Process Improvement
There are always things to improve. Always. Teams and people can always be better.
Provide a way to get these things noticed and worked on. Provide a way for your team to change the environment for the better. Give them the opportunity (and training) to understand how to improve their work. They already know what needs changing (trust me) but it’s your job to provide an environment where they can make these changes.
Listen to your team, engage with your team and take on board their ideas. Even if you cannot change anything, the act of listening to people will make them feel included in the process. There will always be things that cannot be changed; explain the reasons why honestly.
Build Relationships with other teams
If you support a product or service, then you no doubt have a delivery team. Get to know them and break down the barrier between teams. Do this with all teams in the business. Work out where your work comes from and where your work goes to – and build relationships at these boundaries.
Barriers between teams will mean you have to hand off work. This is fraught with communication challenges, is often slow for your customers and let’s be honest – can often be pointless.
The more you know the work of the other teams, the more you’ll hear about about a change or work, that directly affects your team. If you work with other teams, then make that working relationship as smooth and seamless as possible. Work together to solve common problems.
It’s not easy and it takes a lot of time, but it is possible. Start by talking to the department managers. Take them out for coffee, invite them to join your team meetings, share your ideas for the business with them and get to know them.
Make sure it is not just you who does this. Your team will need to this also. Cross functional team relationships will mean you can support your customer in a more holistic manner, rather than bouncing their problems between departments who don’t talk to each other.
Staple yourself to a customer issue
If you staple yourself to your customer’s issue as it flows (or doesn’t flow) through your system, you will start to realise where the problems exist for your customer.
If you put yourself in the shoes of your customer and visualise the flow of their issues you may be surprised at how ineffective your system is. Looking at a system or process from the outside (and deep inside) can open up new ideas, observations and problems you’d never have considered before.
Optimise this process for your customers.
Tie this customer journey back to a real customer and make it emotional. Real customers are dealing with you (and your processes and system) every day. Was it a positive experience for them, or not?
Would you like to have been that customer?
Quadruple your communications
Within your business you probably think you’re communicating well with others. The chances are you probably aren’t.
Whatever communication you think you are doing – double it. Then double it again.
External to your business you are probably not communicating anywhere near enough and you probably know this too. Again, double it, then double it again.
Within your business articulate what it is you do on a daily basis, the challenges your team face and the positive experiences that happen.
On the front line of any business there will be highs and lows, it’s important to internalise these with the wider business. Other people in your business may have no idea what you do and what you have to deal with, or how it feels to be a customer.
Tell your customers that you are thinking about them. Update them with product news and release information, visit them if you can and get to know them, but most of all, treat them well and build a long term relationship with them. They are buying a product or service from you and want to feel listened to, connected with and valued.
Follow up on all issues in a timely fashion
If a customer issue cannot be resolved on the immediate call, then the chances are it will hit some form of internal queue or handover. Keep tabs on it and check on it often.
Keep pushing or pulling the issue around and make sure you keep the customer up to date. Respond to all issues quickly. That case/bug/report/email is yours to own. Make sure it gets dealt with.
Keeping your customers informed of the progress makes the process transparent and gives an understanding of what goes in to fixing or resolving problems.
People don’t always mind waiting, if you tell them what they are waiting for.
If other departments are not working at a rapid speed on your customer issue – don’t blame them. Take a look at yourself and how well you have communicated the importance of that customer issue. Did you throw it in a queue and hope someone would pick it up? Did you articulate the details enough? Did you describe the problem well enough? Do they have problems that hinder their ability to help you?
Look at the hand-offs between you and the other departments and optimise for the customer.
Don’t blame others when talking to your customers; this makes you look like a dysfunctional company (you might be, but no need to broadcast this).
Push at all times to improve the feedback loop with the customer and reduce the cycle times of issues.
Align your team
Make sure that your team are all in agreement and alignment about roles and responsibilities and your departments goals and objectives. Ensure you encourage a friendly and safe environment for constructive discourse and creativity. Make sure issues are aired in a timely fashion rather than left to linger around causing more deep rooted problems.
Getting everyone behind a clear vision with some well-defined goals works a treat. You can read about how to do this in my Turn Around A Team guide.
At any hand-off within your own team try to make sure the process is simple and well communicated.
Your team should know who is available to help out and who is not.
They should know what communication channels your team operate on; this is even more important for remote teams.
Daily stand-ups and high visibility Kanban boards (or information radiators) are effective at aligning teams and tracking progress.
At the end of the day you need to get stuff done quickly and effectively and this means everyone needs to have the right knowledge and information. This means working on the highest priorities, identifying clear owners, and removing as many barriers as possible.
Stop all negativity about customers
Make sure no-one talks badly about your customers. Ever.
The customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so. – Mahatma Gandhi
Without your customers you have no business, let alone a support team.
A support team who don’t respect their customers will struggle to offer good service. How can you offer customer care if you don’t care about the people you are supporting?
Sure, there are customers who are sometimes mean and grumpy, but they have a problem with your product and want your help.
Is it your product that is making them mean and grumpy?
Use your training to deal with grumpy customers but don’t talk ill of them – they are the lifeblood of your business. (You are getting training on how to deal with customers…right?)
Make it easy for customers (internal and external) to talk to you
There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get help but facing resistance in the form of complicated feedback forms, difficult to find phone numbers or overly draconian instructions on getting in touch.
Make it easy for customers (internal and external) to raise problems with you. Make your phone number visible. Clearly articulate what the customer needs to do and what information you’ll need.
Make the submission forms easy and simple by removing unnecessary fields and data. Don’t make your customers do more than is absolutely essential to raise a problem with you.
Be active on social media and find out where your customers are talking about you. Join the conversation and treat your customers well.
In an ideal world the product/service would just work, be super intuitive with a low learning curve and never do something your customers didn’t expect it to.
In reality, products are difficult to use, they break, they do things you don’t expect and have quirks of use; this means you’ll always need product support.
The trick though is in providing a service that meets the needs of your customers and the only way you’ll know what those needs are if you understand your team’s purpose, talk to your customers and follow the work through your system.
Optimise all of this for your customers, not for you. This is easier said than done, especially if management request incomplete metrics and offer incentives that encourage internal optimisation, but if you can resist and change minds then do so.
Your customers don’t really care about your company process, metrics and measures, or the internal politics; they most likely just want a fast, effective service and someone to listen to them.