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What we learned building 200+ support teams

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by Alex Holmes
January 30, 2019

In the last five years, we’ve built support teams for more than 200 high-growth brands in the US, Australia, and Europe. Many of these companies have been hugely successful. In fact, five were acquired in 2018 – and another was acquired by a mid-market investment firm already this year!  

We’ve seen how experienced support leaders operate a high functioning team for almost every major online business category: eCommerce, SaaS, mobile apps, hospitality, tech products, tech services, finance, and OnDemand entertainment, just to name a few.

Our own team provides two key services for rapid improvement: both an on demand support service - where clients pay per ticket answered - and dedicated agents, all through a distributed model.  In the last five years, we’ve adapted our service to be able to improve almost any existing support team in less than 30 days.

I had a talk with our co-founder and Head of Ops about just how we got here.  He’s a converted engineer, turned founder, now building a 200+ person globally staffed support team.

Here are his top five recommendations for building your own, and highly-optimized, support team.

Go top down, not bottom up

“If you know you’re going to build a team with more than ten members, get a good, competent manager-type first. Don’t skimp. They will be over-skilled as an  individual player to start, and you’ll think you’re paying too much for their IC [individual contribution] role, but their experience will pay back in dividends once they build a team.”

Strong management is the rock of any support organization. Investing in this capacity early streamlines success – and avoids the problem of needing to hire again later. It sets the correct tone, standards, culture, and systems from the very beginning.  

If you know you’re going to build a team with more than ten members, get a good, competent manager-type first… Their experience will pay back in dividends once they build a team.

This creates a compounding positive effect on your support efficiency and effectiveness as your company grows. At Influx, investing in more strong management is one of our biggest initiatives in 2019.

Set uncompromising high standards early.

“In the beginning, I allowed too many small issues to slip.  

Give frequent feedback early, both positive and negative. Don’t be afraid to criticize. Show radical candor: Care personally, but challenge directly.

This is especially important with your first hire. Letting standards slip with your first hire will be particularly cancerous to your organization.”

Give frequent feedback early, both positive and negative. Don’t be afraid to criticize.  Show radical candor: Care personally, but challenge directly.

Standards are far-reaching: consider output, tone, grammar, communication, attendance, helping others, and general work ethic. Employees with high standards are often the employees that others look up to when building their own careers.

Invest in your customer experience workflow early, especially your knowledge base

“One of the most strategic moves you can make as a manager is to invest in your knowledge base.

Your knowledge base is essential to both your customers and agents. By making it easily searchable, anyone will be able to find information quickly. This significantly reduces agents’ mistakes and helps build a much more effective overall customer experience, improving almost all of your success metrics.

Many companies think about their help desk setup as an afterthought. I’d think about it before even hiring your first support agent.”

Many companies think about their help desk setup as an afterthought. I’d think about it before even hiring your first support agent.

The right support infrastructure repeats and scales, and it’s much easier to establish it early. Once you have the right foundation in place, set aside time to iterate and improve your help desk setup.  

Lastly, your support content can also double as marketing content to help grow sales. Here’s an example from one of our clients. This page is thoughtful, helpful, and easy to navigate. They even added a fun video at the top!

Customers prefer quality to speed

“Most customers prefer a thoughtful answer in 4-8 hours over a rushed, quickly delivered answer that doesn’t really solve their problem.

Speed matters, but only up to a point. Quality and speed can be two competing measures.”

We started Influx to deliver 24/7 customer service, so we wanted to aim for fast answers at all hours. Increasingly, though, we’re finding that most customers want us to think, troubleshoot, and be proactive – and they’ll allow more time for the sake of quality.

Speed matters, but only up to a point. Quality and speed can be two competing measures.

Many conversations still require a fast experience, often provided via live chat.  For example, imagine troubleshooting a failed router: you need a fast solution. However, most enquiries don’t require this speed at a cost of lower quality.

Empower your team to make good decisions

“I always recommend empowerment over procedure. For example, I just talked to Optus - a local telco here - and I talked to an agent who allowed me to cancel my account based on my specific situation. I was ready to do battle, but she listened to my concerns, thought about them, and then presented an answer that quickly solved my problem.

You don’t want your agents to blindly follow processes, you want them to make good decisions based on the information presented to them.

If your policies are too rigid, they’ll only follow the policy.

You don’t want your agents to blindly follow processes, you want them to make good decisions based on the information presented to them.

Instead, set up clear training and regular feedback loops to make sure agents are making the right decisions. You need both a system that enables agents and shows them how to work effectively.”

Editor’s note: For more information about how to empower your team - check out this interview we ran with the Head of Customer at Hootsuite.

Across all of our clients, we’ve seen lenient policies generate the highest output per agent.

For example,  flexible refund policies significantly reduce training, management, and back-and-forth costs, while also reducing the risk of brand damage.

Giving your agents a bit of space, when done effectively, can pay big dividends.

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About the author

Photo of Alex Holmes

Alex Holmes

Alex runs Marketing and Client Success at Influx. He works with both existing and future clients. Favorite support experience of all time: iTunes and Optus.