Insights · 9 min read

Building a customer support culture for management and growth

The FullStory Team
Posted April 26, 2017
Building a customer support culture for management and growth

Results from 2017 customer support professionals survey conducted by FullStory and Support Driven.

In partnership with Support Driven, we sent a survey to 87 customer support professionals to learn more about what the support landscape in 2017 really looks like. We were interested in understanding what skills support professionals wanted to learn, where they wanted to improve, and how they hoped to further their support careers.

The big question underlying all of these, however, was where do the desires of customer support team members (“frontliners”) and support team leads and directors (“leadership”) intersect — and what can we learn from the areas where these two groups are misaligned?

Clear trends emerged from the wide range of responses we received. In particular, we saw where leadership and frontliner goals can be out of sync. However, thoughtful consideration of each group’s efforts — with a helpful dose of empathy — suggests solutions both roles can take to work together for mutual benefit and the success of the organization.

Leadership prizes proactive team members, efforts that scale.

Managers and Directors — a.k.a. leadership — are mostly removed from day-to-day, hands-on interactions with customers and necessarily rely on metrics and aggregated results of their team to track and understand progress. They have to operate at the level of the big picture. That’s their job.

Measurement and scale.

One manager in our survey noted, “Setting up appropriate processes, procedures, SLAs & KPIs for a small support team while being prepared to scale quickly” was both a goal and an area for improvement. A separate team leader noted, “[Better measurement] would enable us to see the impact of work more clearly.”

Proactive behavior at the front lines.

While scale and measurement are primary areas of focus, surveyed leadership repeatedly brought up a desire for team members to “step-up” and be proactive. One team leader channeled Napoleon Hill’s “Habit of Performing More Service than Paid for” when they said they wanted to see frontliners “taking initiative to do the thing not specifically specified — because they see it needs to be done.”

Increased communication and focus on proactive problem solving within teams came up over and over again. “I want them thinking more holistically and proactively,” stated one manager, while another said, “If there is something you want to do, thoroughly research it, go through the pros and cons, and put together a proposal.”

One director perhaps summed up the zeitgeist of support leadership saying:

I would like my team to learn the value of ownership in their positions. It is easy for them to respond to a ticket and click solved then go home at the end of the day, but if they can understand the impact they can have by checking in with a customer, or taking steps on their own to learn a new skill for the department, it would free up my time as well as make them care more about the department.

Leadership’s focus on self-sufficiency and proactive behaviors at the front lines was consistent with another theme from management: reduce “hand-holding” — solving individual problems doesn’t scale.

Support leadership clearly prizes self-sufficiency within their team as it both develops their customer support agents and frees up their time so they can continue to focus on bigger picture problems. If a team member comes forth with a problem *and *a scale-able solution — “that’s a major skill to have.”

Frontliners want career growth, management clarity.

Support team members — our “frontliners” — deal with the day-to-day demands of helping customers in need. The queue is always there. The help is always needed now. Putting out fires makes it difficult for frontliners to spend time thinking about leadership’s objectives. Understanding the day-to-day of the frontlines helps frame their perspective.

Looking for career growth.

What concerns support team members on the frontlines most is “owning their career” and self-development:

“I’d like to learn how to take control of my own career in support and build a path for myself.”

Our survey found that frontliners want managers to provide them with more clarity around the requirements and goals for their roles — e.g. what they need to do to add more value to the organization and what they could do today to shape their careers in the future. One front liner summed it up saying:

“[My manager] could learn how to help direct my career. I have an inexperienced manager who doesn’t really know which options are available and how to get me where I want to be.”

Skill development.

Not all frontliners are looking to their managers for help in career growth. One respondent noted, “I’d like to learn how to take control of my own career in support and build a path for myself.”

Frontliners also want to become stronger operationally and do more to document the team’s knowledge. “Proper document sharing and more efficient communication strategies are important,” wrote one respondent. Another said that they wanted to learn “how to leverage and add to the resources offered to them.”

Tell me what you want.

Meeting the expectations of your boss is a necessary requirement for success no matter the job, so it’s not surprising that our survey found that frontliners want clear lines of sight into what their manager’s require of them. “My boss could learn how to better communicate expectations and goals,” said one frontliner. “It would help give me some clarity about where we’re going, and how we plan to get there.”

Marking the gap between the frontlines and support team leadership.

Summarizing the disconnects our Customer Support Culture survey brought to light, frontliners clearly want to progress in their careers but don’t always know how. They don’t focus on or prioritize scaling efforts — and the metrics most important to frontliners are the individual customers they’re trying to help.

Leadership, in contrast, understands that the individual customer cases combine to create organization success or failure, as measured by efficiency and other metrics. Scale is an important ingredient to optimizing their teams and reducing cost.

How can these different viewpoints reconcile to build a better customer experience, reduce turnover on the front lines and generally improve company culture?

Bridging the gap between frontliners and support team leadership.

For support team leadership.

There is no easy fix for managers here. Managing to the big picture has to be balanced with support for team members. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Work from a place of empathy. Understand that work at the frontlines of customer service limits your team member’s ability to see the big picture. Give your frontliners a chance to and keep an eye on amongst your team.

  • Give frontliners the skills they need. Build in opportunities for continuing education — don’t just pay lip-service to the idea. Initial onboarding and early training for support team members is important but so are additional trainings that add skills to your team. Investing in your team’s education will ultimately improve the level of support your customers receive. This approach is akin to “teaching a man to fish.”

  • Be clear in your expectations and give team members more autonomy, not less. If you expect team members to handle problems proactively and lean on one another for help, make sure they know proactive problem solving is both valued and encouraged. Be clear in your objectives and show your team how their work rolls up into the metrics you manage and how those metrics drive organizational success.

Don’t micromanage team members — that will encourage them depend on your judgment, which is the opposite of scale. When the people who are running support can handle themselves, that makes everyone’s job easier — including yours.

For support team frontliners.

A little help from leadership will go a long way. But team members also need to put in a little more elbow grease to fulfill their duties and keep support running smoothly.

  • Work smarter, not harder. Show your team leaders that you’ve got the initiative they value. Work with your team to identify the biggest problems holding you back from more efficient work and then make a plan to chip away at those. If your current support environment isn’t conducive to this kind of teamwork, put together a researched, thoughtful proposal and present it to your management team.

  • Look for opportunities to scale. You know that scaling customer support solutions is important to your managers, so when problems occur, don’t stop at the one-time fix if you could turn that solution into a scale-able process. Get in the habit of documenting processes that seem inefficient and proposing solutions that scale. Leadership will thank you for it with career growth.

  • The habit of doing more than you’re paid for. A “Law of Success” from Napoleon Hill that was coined nearly 100 years ago is the. Take control of your career by doing more than you’re paid for and leadership will be quick to notice — and even if they don’t, you’ll have acquired new skills in the process.

Finally, don’t stop asking managers to help you when you truly need it — but make sure you really, really need their help before asking. Keep developing your skills and your career and realize the onus of career growth is on you, not your manager.

Bridging the gap takes time. Keep building.

If we’ve learned anything from this year’s support survey, it’s that customer support culture has a good bit of opportunity for improvement with one of the most glaring challenges being reconciling the efforts of leadership and frontliners.

Bridge the gap. Build mutual understanding through communication and empathy. The end result of working together will be great customer support, a better customer experience, and hitting all the metrics that drive organizational success.

Support Driven is an online community for support professionals and they recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a brand new kind of event for support professionals called SDX. SDX is focused on gathering people from all around the community to teach you the skills they use everyday to build better support organizations and pave their own paths in the world of Customer Support.

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