Manage your amazing customer service team

Published May 10, 2016
Last updated May 10, 2016

Great customer service organizations are made up of a mix of great people, culture, management, and communication. All of these come together to keep customers’ needs in focus to deliver great service. You want your customers to be happy and the key to that goal is the happiness of your own staff. If they’re happy and engaged, there’s a better chance that your customers will be as well. That’s why placing the same emphasis on employee development is as important as being customer focused. It just makes sense to build the best relationships you can—with customers and employees.

Creating a supportive culture, providing opportunities for employee development, giving your team members the chance to explore interests, to lead, and to be creative can help you to build team strength and grow your organization and company. These all also help to define your work culture and what you value as an organization and having clear definition about those things helps to attract and retain top talent.

About this guide

This Relate Leadership Guide focuses on managing the most valuable asset you have, your team and your people. Topics covered in this guide:

Motivating with rewards and recognition

There are many ways to ensure the success and positive attitude of your employees. Using rewards and recognition is just one.

Every company has a different culture and requires a unique approach. Be sure to customize your rewards and recognition program to reflect the norms and values of the environment you want to create.

Rewards can improve morale and job satisfaction, but there are some pitfalls you need to look out for. Here are some tips to guide you in getting the best from your support team.

Avoid monetary rewards

Focusing on monetary rewards won’t necessarily produce the results you expect. It might look good initially, but often ends up creating a competitive environment and bad vibes. If you do decide to take that route, proceed with caution. Typically, introducing a bonus structure that maps to clearly defined goals is the best approach when it comes to monetary rewards. Many companies call this “variable comp”— or compensation based on performance results. These monetary rewards are targeted toward individuals meeting performance targets. Monetary bonuses that incite competition have a different effect. For example, the person who solves the highest amount of tickets wins $200 is a monetary bonus.

Using variable compensation drives individual performance instead of competition among the team.

Set achievable goals

Setting achievable daily and weekly goals should already be part of the normal management program. Understanding and communicating those “normal” goals makes it easier to define what it means to go the extra mile. Putting goals in place ensures your team knows what you expect of them. This allows them to measure their own success, which is critical to employee satisfaction.

Be selective

Institutionalized rewards lose their power. When rewards become too much a part of the everyday we stop striving for them. When employees go those extra miles, that’s the time to turn on the spotlight. Set up guidelines for how often you want members of the team to be recognized and make sure as managers you are recognizing really good achievements when they occur. Another way to reward your staff is to recognize when they have just finished a tough call or have come through a really hard experience.

Enable supportive culture

Encourage your staff to praise the successes of other team members. A simple way to do this is to give a shout-out on a collaboration tool such as Yammer (or whichever one you’re using) when an agent receives an especially hard-won satisfaction rating after a getting through a tough customer interaction. Team meetings are also a good place to share these successes. Take a few minutes at each to read out the the most enthusiastic comments from good customer satisfaction ratings.

Encourage your staff to praise the successes of other team members

Design gamification systems thoughtfully

Leaderboards and badges are great ways of using gamification to provide instant and public recognition, but be careful to drive the desired behaviors and outcomes. For example, if you would like to see more articles in your internal knowledge base, rewarding on quantity alone will drive staff to publish less-than-good articles just to hit quota. Recognizing quality is more important. The language you use when talking about your gamification system is important too. Keep the conversation focused on personal bests rather than some being better than others.

Remember your employees are individuals

Where some people like a fanfare, others prefer a quiet word of encouragement. So remember, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to rewards and recognition. Your staff will recognize your appreciation as genuine if you take the time to offer praise that appeals to their personalities.

Consider entry level syndrome

It’s also important to think about the generational aspects of what motivates employees. Most of your entry level employees are twenty-somethings (“millennials”) who have a different set of expectations about their work relationships and how they are recognized and rewarded. They want their work to be meaningful, they want lots of feedback, and they want opportunities to grow their careers. There’s an excellent discussion of this in this Relate article Entry level syndrome and the participation trophy generation.

Staying cool when understaffed and extra busy

There are going to be days when you don’t have enough customer service staff to meet demand. Things like flu epidemics, holiday seasons, and tricky new product releases are going to happen, and no matter how well you plan, you might have to work with fewer agents than you would like. It’s unfortunate and a giant pain, but it’s also inevitable, so it’s best to devise a strategy for dealing with this situation beforehand.

The first thing you should do is prepare your team for the possibility that at some point they may have to make some sacrifices to keep up with demand. You don’t want this to come as surprise when it actually happens. When it does happen, explain to them why you’re running short and how they can help to manage the problem. It’s not their fault that the team is shorthanded; it’s a management problem and you need to own that. Focusing on the success of the team and the shared responsibility of helping customers is the key. Ultimately you’re all in this together for the good of your customers and your business.

This is also a great time to make sure you’re using your rewards and recognition strategies to help keep your team motivated through the longer hours. Cancel all of your meetings and ask your staff to do the same. In fact, any non-essential activities should be postponed. You need to focus on the right now. If the busy workload is going to last more than a day, it’s best to schedule extra hours and set clear expectations regarding how much extra time people can work. Also, make sure your team knows what your expectations are during that time.

It’s best to schedule extra hours and set clear expectations regarding how much extra time people can work.

Take a look at the day’s work. Are there any tickets that don’t need to be answered right away? If so, don’t. Save them for a day when you’re not understaffed. Are there any simple tickets that someone from a different department can answer? If there are, see if you can get some help from the other department heads. Marketing, sales, product management—oftentimes tickets are directed to them anyway. If your company is customer-focused, most—if not all—the employees should have some basic training in how to respond to support tickets.

Are you the kind of team that likes to go out for long lunches? Not today. In fact, lunch might have to be on you. If you can, bring in lunch (and other goodies) for your agents on the company dime. It lets your team know that you appreciate their hard work. The most important thing is to stay calm and focused. One way or another, the day will end. It’s up to you to determine what kind of day it will be.

Broadening your team’s horizons with events

Building a customer support team that enjoys working together and brings enthusiasm to the job every day requires a creative touch. An exciting way to motivate and encourage your team is to offer opportunities to get involved in other important company initiatives, including travel and outside-the-office activities.

Events are a great way to do this. They often include travel opportunities and always create settings where your team can learn and network. During events, your team can share expertise and knowledge with other people in the industry. Many times there are chances to present information, lead a group, and hone skills. Events not only provide occasions to switch up the routine and get out of the office, they offer new learning experiences and the feeling of being involved in the customer service community at large. When all employees sense that they’re a valuable part of the whole and an integral component of the “Big Picture,” your organization will thrive.

An exciting way to motivate and encourage your team is to offer opportunities to get involved in other important company initiatives.

Being able to talk to customers face-to-face can also highlight the importance of their jobs and how they’re helping customers. It’s also a good way to help agents build empathy. There’s nothing like being reminded that customers are real people. It’s also a good experience for the customers as they are usually grateful to meet and chat with members of the support team. It helps them to feel connected to your company and gives them an opportunity to learn more about using your products and services.

So how do create events that connect agents with customers? It’s all about training. Customers who are engaged with your products are usually happy to show up somewhere to learn more and connect with agents. Here are some ideas that work well. You’ll probably need to set these up with the help of your Marketing team.

Bring training to where your customers are by setting up a travelling training event. Invite your customers to attend and present them with some in-depth sessions on how to use your products. Use agents as trainers or, if you have a separate product training team, invite agents to the events to staff a support booth where customers can drop by and ask their questions.

Set up user groups in the cities where your customers are located and have your agents participate either as trainers or as on-site support staff. These power user events are a great way to not only help your customers learn more about your products but to also learn from them how they’re using your products and how they can be improved.

Open a support salon at your office and allow customers to drop by. Depending on where you’re located this may not be an option, but if you’re located in a busy city and are surrounded by customers, it’s an effective and low cost way to connect with customers.

Consider event programs like these to help motivate and support your customer service team. It’s a fantastic opportunity for your team, and it’s a great thing to do for your organization. You’ll see strong results in happy employees and satisfied customers.

Keeping things fresh with rotating roles

Solving customer problems day in and day out can become tiresome so it’s a good idea to introduce some variety into the routine. This can be done by building a support team structure that includes rotating roles and assignments.

It’s also very important to come up with some kind of prioritization system for those roles, so that when things get extra busy, you can start to temporarily pull people from the less critical roles until things get back to normal. Consider having your team work through a regular rotation of roles that includes:

Triage: responsible for assigning incoming tickets to groups. Normally this is a supervisory position, but making it a peer-to-peer position rotates the responsibility. That way, everyone who takes this role has an understanding of what it’s like to work on tickets, and everyone who is working in the trenches understands what it means to assign tickets to the rest of the team. Having a triage role can also help ensure that social media and other urgents tickets are responded to as quickly as possible.

Phone coordinator: manages the phone queue and is responsible for getting other advocates on the phones when things get busy. When there are no calls, the phone coordinator is working on tickets.

Ticket tank: responsible for drilling deeper into tickets that will likely take longer than usual, which could include tickets with multiple or complex questions.

Chat: handles live interactions with customers via chat.

Phones: handles live interactions with customers via phone.

Community support: manages the comments and any tickets that are generated in your self-service portal (your Help Center). Responding to a customer’s question in the Help Center as a comment helps every future reader of the article and enriches the knowledge base and helps with ticket prevention.

Social media: manages the tickets that are coming in through your social media channels. These are tickets that you usually want to respond to as quickly as possible and the process you have for managing these interactions and this ticket queue may be different from other channels and you may want someone devoted to this.

Since customer service isn’t limited to the customer service department, there are roles your reps can fill that will benefit the entire company. Here are three examples of functions your support team can fill to help out their colleagues on other teams and gain insight into how different departments work.

Training: helps customers get the most out of your product or service. There’s no better resource to train your customers than the people who spend all day supporting it and we discussed some possibilities for providing customer training in the section above. But this can also include training other agents (onboarding new agents for example) and training other people in your company to use your products.

Knowledge manager: writes internal knowledge base articles of customer interaction and support workflow best practices. This person provides training in written form, which can then be used by agents and other people in your company. Internal KB articles are also oftentimes published for customer use as well either as part of the public KB (the Help Center) or as posts in the company blog.

Subject matter expert: participates in product development meetings and offers feedback based on their knowledge of how a particular feature, for example, is being used by customers and what kinds of support issues are being generated as a result. This is a great way to get insight from people who regularly use the product. Since agents are in constant contact with customers, this gives them the opportunity to truly be the voice of the customer. Subject matter experts can also write feature-specific troubleshooting guides for the knowledge base and can provide in-depth training to other team members.

Organizing support for future success

For certain companies, particularly those with large support organizations, it makes sense to consider organizing your department into teams of agents that are led by a team leader. Each support manager can then be in charge of several teams.

Support managers with multiple teams can set up weekly meetings with their team leaders This way managers are up to date and aware of all activities and issues without having to be bogged down in one-on-one meetings with every individual agent. In the meantime, team leaders can be responsible for the day-to-day activities of their teams, further freeing up the support managers.

When managers are freed up, more attention is paid to developing strategy and making improvements. You don’t want to isolate your managers from the teams and individual agents however so they should continue to interact with your agents throughout the day as much as possible.

When managers are freed up, more attention is paid to developing strategy and making improvements.

Another important benefit of the team structure is it can work as a fertile ground for growing future managers. Team leaders are given a chance to show their managerial abilities. When considering a team leader’s potential, things to ask yourself include:

What is their managerial style? Is it consistent with the overall philosophy of our organization?
Are they people others naturally turn to with questions and problems? If so, this might indicate a natural ability to lead and a strong understanding of your product or service.

It’s a good idea to always be on the lookout for individuals within your own team who might have the potential to grow into a leadership role. That way, when it comes time to grow, you already have some people in mind. But also keep in mind that potential is just that—it doesn’t mean that they’ll succeed in a management role. Team leads need guidance from you, clear expectations and feedback, and the proper management training.

Distributed teams

If your organization is distributed across a number of locations, it can be a challenge to manage multiple teams. It makes sense to design processes that work for all the teams, regardless of where they are located, but it can be difficult to make sure that all the parts are communicating well and are executing those processes effectively.

An approach to managing this is to create virtual peer teams who meet regularly to stay connected and share how processes are working for them. For example, if you have a tiered support organization, you could have all the Tier 1 members meet to stay connected about their Tier 1 issues and processes. If that approach isn’t manageable because of the number of agents, you could do something similar by selecting one agent from each office or region and creating a “council” that accomplishes the same thing. It’s a good idea to have manager lead each of those councils.

Empowering your support team

Empowering your employees means giving them free reign to make decisions about how to respond to customers, and even make concessions, within the confines of your support structure. The idea can be a little scary, which is understandable. But empowering your employees, if done correctly, will get them engaged and motivated, and will free you and other support managers to focus on more difficult tasks. Have the agents treat the business as if it’s their own and do the right thing for the customer.

Defining autonomy

So how do you achieve that “if done correctly” part of empowering your employees? As a leader, it’s your role to set the expectations and define the guidelines for operating independently. Guidelines give agents enough room to make some independent decisions but that also represent your brand values and business goals. Thoughtfully designed autonomy.

Two common scenarios

Your guidelines will be specific to your situation of course, but here are two examples that may be helpful.

A customer is angry because his ticket was escalated to another department and he hasn’t received an update for a week. An unempowered agent will have to get permission to track down the current owner of the ticket, forcing managers to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of the ticket.

Have the agents treat the business as if it’s their own and do the right thing for the customer.

Agents that are empowered can go directly to the current owner of the ticket, be it a product manager, engineer, or sales rep. When this happens, the agent acts as the voice of the customer to make sure they are being provided with the best possible service.

Another common scenario happens when a customer does not receive the service or product they are expecting and they ask for a credit. Empower your agents to approve credits. You may want to set limits on the amount, but we find it is better to let them be the decision makers. Just like any other decision your advocates make, if you don’t agree with it, you can quickly coach them on how to handle it next time. You can also measure credit decisions to spot trends for agents who don’t provide enough latitude with customers as well as agents who provide too much.

Customers and agents have much better experiences when they don’t have to wait for approval.

Customers and agents have much better experiences when they don’t have to wait for approval.

Be patient

No matter what you do, mistakes are going to happen. So the most important thing is to empower your team, but also make sure that they are communicating with you while they are making decisions. This will allow you to monitor, and when necessary, correct any decisions that were made. In these cases, quickly coach but don’t take power away as a punitive action for not making the right call. Treating these situations like learning opportunities will further empower them and help ensure the same mistake won’t be made.

Achieving transparency

Transparency is achieved through clear and open communication and helps to set expectations, gets things done, and build trust within your organization. The larger your organization, the more important—and challenging— achieving transparency becomes. Regularly communicating information and top-down decisions and soliciting feedback is required. You have to be accountable and in this regard you report to your employees, not the other way around. Here are a few ideas for improving communication across your organization.

Don’t be a hermit, be present

It’s not enough to sit in a room, making decisions and letting them trickle down, while feedback—good or bad—slowly bubbles back up. If your leadership team is making decisions that affect everyone, carve out some time to get feedback from all levels of the organization before making the decision. Be sure to leverage weekly one-on-one meetings to ensure information is flowing. In leadership meetings, be clear with your managers about information that needs to be shared, feedback that should be received, and the expected turnaround time. Information needs to move quickly up and down the organization so that decisions are not delayed. As a general rule, it’s important to spend time with your front line, shadowing them and getting input about their work. This visibility helps leaders make educated suggestions for change.

Being present at team meetings is important as well. If you’re driving the meeting, provide an agenda and make sure that outcomes and decisions are documented.

Explain the reasoning behind a decision

Getting input before making a decision doesn’t determine the outcome, it influences it. So, it’s equally important to explain, afterward, why a decision was made, both when you’ve taken your team’s feedback or when you haven’t. Explaining your reasons helps get everyone on the same page.

Allow anonymous feedback

It’s really important to provide an option or avenue for receiving feedback anonymously. For example, you could use a Google form to allow agents to share their thoughts or ask questions. If you do, commit to responding to this feedback within a reasonable amount of time. If you find you’re not getting enough feedback, send out a survey. The important thing is to give your staff a voice without making them feel like they’re at risk.

Request 360-feedback

If you’re open to anonymous feedback about your organization in general, then you’ve also got to be open to feedback about yourself. Request 360-feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Find out what you can do better and then act on it. The last thing you want is for your agents to feel like they’ve taken time to share their ideas only to see nothing change or improve.

Request 360-feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Find out what you can do better and then act on it.

Structure your team for success

Create growth and set up your support team for success using these tools and frameworks.