10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Customer Support Manager

Gather ‘round the support campfire, youngsters. It’s time to tell some stories about things we wish we knew before we became customer support managers. Listen to these yarns and they just might save you some time (and sanity).

Empowerment is Key

“Empower and trust your employees to make the right decisions — don’t micromanage them. Let them surprise and delight your customer base. Let them do that refund, or have them ship out another order if it was wrong,” says Abby Armada, Customer Support Lead at Clubhouse Software. And it doesn’t just apply to web-based support. “As a barista on the front lines, I never felt micro-managed,” she says of a stint early in her career as a Starbucks manager. “The decisions I made, like remaking a drink if a customer was unhappy, would not be second-guessed by my manager. Being trusted to do the right thing without being second-guessed gives someone a sense of ownership.” Giving your employees that basic level of trust and agency will translate to feeling more invested in the job, and won’t hurt your users either.

You Represent Your Brand to the World

Talking to support may be some customers only personal interaction with a company, so it’s important to make those interactions count. “When I got into support, I was very focused on helping people,” says Marc LaFountain, who has held support leadership roles at Glovo, Uber, and Tumblr. “Over time, I came to realize that I was also an extension of the brand and that support is a form of marketing as well as helping people. It’s good to keep that in mind when setting policies and procedures and writing response templates.” Take the extra time to examine whether those policies can be upheld consistently, and whether you’d be okay with your support responses if they ended up on a billboard (or, you know, Twitter: the internet’s billboard).

Keep Consistent 1-on-1s With Your Staff

As a manager, it can be easy to get swamped with the day-to-day rhythm of putting out fires, rushing between meetings, and so on, but you’ll regret it if you don’t make 1-on-1s with your staff a priority. Set those meetings up as recurring events in your calendar, and don’t be the kind of boss who always cancels at the last minute. Easy enough, but how do you make the 1-on-1s useful? Start by letting your employees lead. This is their time to spend with you however they’d like, and sometimes that means going over a tough ticket with you word-by-word, and sometimes it means complaining about their kid’s lack of ability to eat anything other than ketchup.

From serious career development conversations to which nearby nail salon is de rigueur, chatting consistently will help boost engagement with your staff. “Have your employee come in with questions and problems, or even a brief agenda,” says Armada. “Take good notes to refer back to, the following week. Use something like Google Docs to keep track of them, or consider using a 1-on-1 tool like Get Lighthouse.”

Document, Document, Document

Every minute your team spends trying to remember how to do a repeat task is an unnecessary waste. Don’t expect them to memorize best practices and procedures. Instead document these things and then point back to your documentation. Make the job an open-book test. Everybody who knows how to perform a basic search (and your employees do!) loves an open-book test.

Though I’m hard-pressed to think of situations where too much documentation is a bad thing (maybe analog phone books?), I can think of a lot of times when having a lot of documentation comes in handy: emergencies (having well-documented procedures helps avoid panic and sloppiness), performance reviews, and trying to remember action items from a verbal conversation that happened last Tuesday. And in the event of having to give hard feedback or needing to escalate a personnel issue to HR, having detailed notes with dates of when the behavior occurred is essential.

Remote Work, Works

Remote work is on the rise, and not just because flannel pajamas are so darn comfortable. “I’m a big believer in telework and lifestyle flexibility,” says LaFountain. “I think you can get better people, motivate them more, and retain them longer if they can work at home, in a cafe, on the road, etc. You still need to schedule facetime (or FaceTime) and use collaborative tools to stay well aligned. But it’s worth the effort.”

Do some research on best practices and tools for promoting a remote-first culture, and consider hiring those far-flung job applicants. Oftentimes, the processes needed around decisions, policy changes, and communication to keep remote employees on top of things benefit the entire business with some much-needed structure.

Data Means Nothing Unless it’s Visual and has Context

When ticket volume over a given issue is gradually blowing up, it can be hard to represent the significance in a quick Slack conversation. But charts and graphs can help! Make it visual. Actually, show that line moving up and to the right. Also, consider giving context when spouting off stats. You can say “Support solved 2500 tickets this week,” but without the context that they solved 100 tickets last week, the stat is pretty meaningless.

When in doubt, let the users speak for themselves. Saying “users don’t like this change” is less effective than screenshots of user posts and emails saying exactly that in their own words. Have fun with it and make a goshdarn Mod-Podged collage if you need to. It’s not that the product team thinks you’re making this stuff up, it’s that the gravity of what you’re saying sometimes won’t hit them until it’s staring them in the face.

Don’t be Afraid to Outsource, But Outsource Wisely

It’s your responsibility as the reigning mad support scientist to sew together the motley Frankenstein of tools and resources that will get support done right at your company. As LaFountain sees it, “Support will often get little to no engineering help, so find the best third-party tools that you can. Tweak them for maximum power, efficiency, and insight.”

And if your customer service representative faces a growing demand that outpaces staffing, you will also likely need to consider outsourcing some of the work to outside contractors or business process outsourcers (BPOs) at some point. “Using BPOs to provide support agents saves monetary cost. But it often comes with other costs in terms of CSAT, NPS, agent churn, and ease of coordination. Make sure you weigh all the costs,” says LaFountain.

You will have Limited Control Over the Product you Support

Even at a company where support has a full seat at the table with regards to product decisions, the ultimate power to make or break a launch lives with product managers. There will be times when you’re told no, and there will be times when you hear “I hear you, but we don’t have the bandwidth to include that feature / fix that bug / etc.” Do your best to stay focused when you hit these roadblocks: put the users first, keep data at the forefront, and keep your tasks prioritized. The truth will out, as they say.

You can see a failed launch or a user breaking point coming a mile away, and you can try telling anyone who will listen, but the buck doesn’t stop with you. You can be doing everything right, and still fail to gain traction. Learn to live with this and be okay with the tension.

Sometimes, It’s Not About You

You’re going to have days when you feel like you’re a magnet for negativity from leadership, colleagues, direct reports, and most of all, users. But, it’s not always about you.

I have an unscientific theory that a lot of “fixers” end up working in support. And why not? It seems natural for people who like to fix problems to seek out support work. But, we fixers have a bad habit of jumping right into fixing without stopping to take stock and ask ourselves whether it needs fixing, whether it could benefit from some time, or whether we could ask good questions to empower others to come up with solutions.

We can also take a break from fixing to acknowledge that people have bad days, stressful weeks, and rock-bottom months, and that often there is something else going on behind these manifestations. We can remember the serenity prayer, as weirdly relevant here as it is on your grandmother’s refrigerator.

Stay Curious, Stay Humble

As with any job, you don’t know what you don’t know. Be careful not to get too cocky, or lean too heavily on your preconceptions. Be open to being proven wrong, and continue to look at your data for clues as to how best to serve your users. Recognize that what you choose to measure (agent quality, CSAT, NPS, etc.) becomes what your organization focuses its energies on, and the act of measuring a stat is just as important as the measurements you obtain.

Keep in mind that behind every pithy one-liner is a tempering counter-statement: yes, empowerment is key, but also don’t be so blindly trusting in their success that you don’t reach out regularly to your employees to see what they need help with and what obstacles you can remove for them. Yes, you should document everything, but don’t document down to the most basic of things or you’ll risk creating a reactive staff that’s lost its ability to use good judgment and feels paralyzed if there’s isn’t a 43-step doc for something.

As much as articles like this are good advice, you still need to use your critical thinking skills (with your team’s goals in mind) before you run off and implement every bullet point from every listicle you read. Keep common sense at the top of your mind, and your support org will stay well-minded.