Customer support is evolving as a profession. Part of building a career in customer support, therefore, is elevating the profession itself.
Many organizations still view their customer service department as a cost center, and it's hard not to internalize that negative perception. Even when we get a great new customer support job, we don’t race to tell our families about it — we know what kinds of experiences they’ve had with Comcast.
We know what people are picturing when we say we work in support, and it’s not pretty.
But that’s a counterproductive attitude, says Automattic’s Head Happiness Engineer Andrew Spittle, and we’re not going to change the public perception if we’re selling ourselves short. “There’s a lot that support teams can do to influence and impact a company, but we too often get hung up on the idea that the only way to have influence is to move out of support,” Spittle says. “We have to be confident that the work we do adds value and, if others aren’t that confident, seek out the information that proves it to them.”
That doesn’t mean support professionals should have their figurative dukes up all the time, justifying the importance of their work, but it does beg the question: If support needs defending, is it really all that valuable?
“If all you do is defensive justification of your work then it isn’t a ringing endorsement that you know what kind of impact you have,” Spittle says. “Don’t defend it; advocate for it.”
How to advocate for customer support
For those of us interested in changing the conversation around support and building successful careers within it, here are five ways we can do just that.
1. Take the initiative to demonstrate your value
Taking the initiative to demonstrate your value means embracing data and measurement, holding your team accountable to their goals, and communicating about your progress.
“Fronting as a self-proclaimed ‘people person’ and having a passion for problem solving aren’t enough to fuel the fire needed for long-term growth in a support role,” says Help Scout’s Head of Support, Justin Seymour. Support teams need to get comfy measuring their own work and linking those measurements to their organization’s larger goals. “If we can do that we can start adding value across the company,” says Spittle, and “actively combat the notion that support’s just a cost center.”
2. Take on projects that help you develop the skills that interest you
No one should spend 40 hours per week in the queue anyway — that’s a recipe for burnout. If you like to write, pitch in with knowledge base documentation or the company blog. If you’ve always wanted to learn to code, maybe start by writing some simple scripts that can help automate some support processes.
The best workplaces encourage team members to dedicate time to these useful side projects, which will often open up previously unforeseen opportunities.
3. Find your people
They’re out there. Community resources like Support Driven and SupportOps are elevating the profession and its practitioners, and they make it easy to get involved. Follow support leaders on Twitter, chat with peers in Slack, attend conferences and local meetups; you’ll find the support community is about as supportive as they come. (Who knew?!)
Same goes for within your organization. Mireille Pilloud, Community Support Manager at TED, recommends finding your “cool aunt” at work — “an ally with whom you can share resources for mutual benefit.” Seeking out and befriending these cross-team decision makers will help you gain a seat at the adult table, since “they can help legitimize what you do to other teams so that they can also benefit from the work you do.”
4. Take pride in your work
When people ask what you do for work, take a little extra time to explain what your work entails. Not only will your friends and family gain a clearer sense of what you do, but little by little, you’ll be helping shift the public perception of what it means to work in customer support.
“It’s futile to hope that you can make a healthy career out of something you don’t feel pride about,” Spittle says. “If you’re shy about even telling family and friends that you work in support then I’m not sure how that translates to a healthy and confident career.”
5. Work for a company that gets it
As more companies recognize the business case for offering true customer-first support, they’ll be competing more and more to hire the most skilled support professionals. This gives said professionals the ability to vote with their employability, so to speak.
The best support pros aren’t going to stay with organizations who undervalue their contribution.
“There are companies who view support as entry-level only, and there are companies who put customers first. If you’re in it for the long haul, work for a company who views the support team as one of their most important assets,” says Justin. “Support teams at great companies are well paid, and they’ve got a respected seat at the table during customer feedback and roadmap discussions. If you’re not 100% in love with the company and the product you’re supporting, pack your bags and find an organization you can get behind.” (And go ahead and share this post in your exit interview.)
You win, your community wins, your company wins. It’s time to stop defending support and start elevating the profession, and see how high we can take it from here.