I recently put together a bookshelf for my office, confidently wielding the allen wrench to screw in each piece while ignoring the instructions that were conveniently provided to ensure I assembled it correctly.

Halfway through, when the pieces stopped fitting together, I realized I’d made a few mistakes way back at the start and had to undo the entire thing and start over.

Dang. I should have followed the instructions.

Building a customer service department is much like building a bookshelf. There isn’t one set of instructions, but without some strategy, things can (and will) fall apart at the worst possible time. If you prefer to offer a solid, reliable and efficient level of customer service from your support team, it’s best to follow a plan (and preferably one that isn’t just a friendly cartoon man pointing at unidentifiable things).

Whether you’re starting a support department from scratch or you’ve been managing a team for a while and want to ensure it is structured to succeed, these seven building blocks make for a solid foundation.

1. Define ‘great customer service’ for your company

Nearly every company claims to provide great customer service, but not all customers have a great experience, so clearly there’s opportunity for improvement. It starts with the definition of “great.”

When building a support department, you need to define the quality of service you will provide and include your entire team in crafting that definition. Once you have defined for your company what “great service” is, you have a standard against which to measure your support team. So how do you define great customer service?

Deliver on your company values

One of software company Atlassian’s core values is “Don’t #@!% the customer.” As crass as that sounds, it is part of their definition of “great service,” which means the support team (and the whole company) is trained to never break that value. So, if your company values integrity or speed, for example, those values should inform your definition of great service, and you should set your team up to deliver on those values.

Keep in mind that customer service teams can only offer service as good as the rest of the company will allow. If your CEO is Michael O’Leary, you’ll have some pretty clear boundaries to your level of service.

Consistently exceed customer expectations

If you want to stand out from your competitors, consistently exceed your customers’ expectations. What are the typical response times in your industry and of your biggest competitors? How can you beat that? What level of service are your prospective customers used to, and how can you repeatedly improve on their expectations to delight them over time? When you think in this way, you establish your company’s unique definition of great service that others will then have to compete against.

Set expectations by asking the following questions:

  • How quickly will you respond to customers?
  • How will your team behave when dealing with customers (tone, language, attitude)?
  • How will you handle disagreements?
  • What (if anything) are you not able to support?
  • Who in the company is responsible for customer service?
  • What ethical principles will you hold to?

These are high level expectations, but they can be used to create style guides and standards. Campaign Monitor, for example, created a list to standardize what great reply to a customer should include. Southwest Airlines created a Customer Service Commitment that makes an extensive (and public) list of promises to their customers.

Your definition will give you a benchmark to measure whether your support team is delivering on your standard of customer service.

Examine legal requirements

In Australia, a government customer service guarantee for telephone users sets out response time requirements for phone connection and repair. Do service level regulations apply to your industry? If so, you can create your own definition of customer service that you will commit to following and, in some cases, use as an upsell opportunity for higher-priced or pay-to-play business models.

2. Decide which channels to support

When you’re committed to providing great customer service, it is tempting to say, “We’ll be available on every channel all the time!” But small teams can’t necessarily provide consistently great support across all possible channels 24/7. It’s far better to provide quality customer support on a few channels than to spread your team too thin and give inconsistent service.

So how do you choose which channels your support team will monitor?

Find out what your customers are using

Look at what your existing customers naturally gravitate toward, and do some research on your target audience as well to make sure you are available on the platforms they are already using. Do your customers contact you primarily by email, or is phone support the standard for your product or service type? Perhaps social media is an important channel for your audience; find out which platforms are most popular and start by supporting only the top one or two.

Make the call

Different products and services fit more naturally with different support channels. Technical support is often best done over email, but it can be frustrating on the phone. Live chat is fantastic for retail products like clothing or banking where back and forth discussion with a knowledgeable agent is often required. Keep this in mind when you’re deciding which channels you support.

online customer service channels

The pros and cons of online customer service channels:

  • Email—The most widely used channel by far. Pro: It is conversational, asynchronous, and an excellent record of past discussion. Con: Email can be frustrating if there is a lot of back and forth required.
  • Phone—Pro: Allows for direct conversation in real time and remains very popular with older generations (PDF, see pg. 11). Con: Phone support can be very time consuming (and costly), especially for smaller teams.
  • Live chat—A good mix between email and phone support — in some cases the “best of” both email and phone. Pro: Makes back-and-forth less cumbersome by allowing support teams to hash out issues in real-time without the necessity for long phone conversations. Con: Customer expectations for response time are higher than email, so it can still require more people.
  • Social media—Pro: Facilitates conversation around your product or service. Con: It’s a very public space, and people typically expect an immediate response on social media, so consider that when you decide which platforms (and how many) to support.
  • Forums—Pro: These allow your community help each other, which can save you time and resources. Con: They require diligent monitoring to temper trolls and ensure customer questions get answered.
  • Knowledge base & self service tools—Pro: An excellent way to scale your customer service efficiently, by enabling your customers to help themselves. They take some initial investment, but they’re well worth it in the long run for the time they save your support team.

Whichever channels you choose, it’s best to start with fewer channels and add more later than to offer too many and have to close some down.

Utilize existing skill sets

Do you have great writers or outgoing social influencers on the support team? Looking at your existing team’s strengths can help you decide what form of support to focus on in the early days and what gaps you need to fill in the long run.

3. Hire the right people

Providing high quality, reliable customer support means that finding and hiring a great customer team is that crucial important. Key questions you should ask when hiring support team members:

1. What is the ideal support personality? Start with emotionally intelligent, empathetic, resourceful communicators, and then add factors specific to your company culture.

2. What skills should your support professional have? Do they need specific technical skills, licenses or software knowledge? Ensure your job description, screening process and interview questions list any necessary skill requirements and clearly differentiate them from the “nice-to-haves.”

3. How will you integrate them into your team? Once you’ve hired team members, plan out their first few weeks to teach them about your company culture and your approach to service, as well as the products and services they will support.

4. How do you keep them? Smart, engaged team members will want to be continually growing and learning in their roles. Consider giving them a career path to follow and regular feedback so they know they’re on track.

For much more in depth information from hiring support managers at Help Scout, Trello, Loyal, and more, see our full customer service hiring guide.

4. Measure the right data

support data

Many customer service activities are easy to measure. Your help desk will produce detailed customer service reports, but they can’t tell you which numbers really matter to your team and what you need to do about them.

In my experience, there are three big questions that will help you decide which metrics matter most to your situation:

1. Why are you reporting? Start with understanding the questions you’re trying to answer. For example, answer the questions “Do we have enough support staff?” or “Where do most of our support requests come from?” and work back to the right metrics.

2. To whom are you reporting? The level of detail and timing of your measurements should suit the different people to which you’re reporting. Your team leads need different reporting than your COO.

3. What do you want the outcome to be? Report on the numbers that correlate with the change you want to see. If you want to make a case for more support staff, focus your reporting on trends in case volume per agent and the correlation between speed of reply and customer satisfaction.

The metrics you choose to report should be meaningful and authentic in that they tell a true story about your customer service. They should also be measures that your team can impact, or they risk being useless at best and demoralizing at worst.

Once you’ve selected your initial metrics, take baseline measurements and set some internal targets for your team to work toward.

5. Pick your tools

Battling with slow or unhelpful tools is a costly waste of your support team’s time and energy that would be much more usefully spent helping customers. However, customer service tools are often low on the priority list for companies who have limited budgets. Keep in mind that having the tools you need can make a big impact on your team and your customers.

Think about customer service and support tools in three major groups:

  • Help desk software
  • Internal tools and systems
  • Your personal tools

Selecting help desk software

Your help desk tool is your primary platform for customer conversations. Choose this one the most carefully, because it is the tool you will use the most, second only to your product.

If you’re not answering support questions yourself, it can be easy to underestimate the value of a tool that creates a smooth workflow for your team. Be sure to involve the people who will be using the help desk and get their input.

Key questions to answer when selecting a help desk:

1. What functionality do you need? How many people need to use it? What sort of conversations will it be handling? What platforms does it need to support? What do you want to report on?

2. What are your “nice to have” features? Try to differentiate between the “it would be nice if” features and the “everything will break if it does not do this” features. It’s far better to pick a tool that does the essentials really well than one with more features that your team struggles to use.

3. What apps do you need to integrate with? Do you have a requirement to connect with your CRM or your social media tools? Do you need API access for critical functions?

Even a small improvement in usability, performance and functionality can make a huge difference when you multiply them by all the hours your customer service team will be using them.

Internal tools and systems

Have you ever walked around to the back entrance of a fancy store? Suddenly the sleek design and beautiful lighting is replaced with overflowing skip bins and exhausted employees sneaking a quick cigarette.

Software tools built in-house are often the back alleys of a company, given little attention or effort and built by people hurrying to get back to the “fun” work.

Customer service teams are often heavily dependent on internal systems like custom database searches, configuration pages, and logging systems to access customer information, fix issues, and report back to the company. If you truly value their contribution, spend some time and effort to make those tools efficient and, if not attractive, then at least not actively painful to use.

Individual tools

Allowing your customer team some flexibility in which tools they use to get their job done will help them be more effective. Help Scout, Basecamp, and other forward-thinking companies provide budgets for individuals to purchase small pieces of software and hardware that suit their requirements. Leave your team with flexibility everywhere you can, because you will gain back much more than it costs you.

6. Create your knowledge base

knowledge base

Developing a knowledge base is time consuming, no doubt. But your investment will be rewarded tenfold when your customers can find answers on their own, lessening the strain on your support team. They also allow for faster onboarding and greater consistency of support.

A knowledge base will also save time when responding to common customer questions. Not only is the customer service team able to quickly answer the question, it also helps the customer learn that there is a knowledge base available to them at any time.

Most help desk software offers knowledge base reporting, a valuable tool for successfully scaling your support. It will show you where your customers are getting stuck, what documents need updating or adding, and how to prioritize product improvements.

Internally, taking the time to write down how certain issues are handled and how to use different tools will let new team members grow their skills without needing to disrupt the existing team.

You don’t need to do this all at once. You can build your knowledge base as you go, either as demand arises or by working from a support content calendar. We shared some great examples of knowledge base pages on our blog if you’re looking for some inspiration.

7. Integrate support into your product and company

No matter how nice the person at the counter is, a snuggie that just isn’t snug won’t attract loyal customers. No matter how great your frontline staff is, their experience is inevitably shaped by what the rest of the company does, too.

The goal of a customer-focused company should be to build in systems across teams that support great service so that delighting customers is more of an automatic outcome of doing business, rather than an occasional, heroic feat. Support managers can take these steps to build systems into their teams:

1. Push decision making to the front lines Don't make your support team ask for permission to issue a refund or bend a rule. Give them tools and information to make better decisions, and back them up on it.

2. Automate customer-friendly processes This ensures a more consistent customer experience and requires fewer decisions, which saves time for everyone involved.

3. Create feedback loops Actionable input from customers needs to make it past support to be useful. Make sure you are providing a framework for your support team to share customer feedback with your product team and others.

4. Support your team Your customer support team is fielding the good, the bad and the ugly day in and day out, so treat them with the respect they deserve. They are also the voice of your customer, so involve them in product and strategy meetings. Celebrate their successes, and hold them accountable for their work.

For in-depth advice on creating a company culture of service, check out the resources listed under “Books to help create a customer service culture.”

Do the work

Customer service is not like a project that has a beginning, middle and end. It is ongoing work that must adapt over time as the market changes, your customers change, your team changes, and as you learn.

You may decide to add new channels of support, select new tools or set new targets, but always remember to define good customer service for yourself and build out from there.

Your execution will need to adapt to the changing environment, but your principles of customer service will hold true.

Mathew Patterson

About the author: After running a support team for years, Mat Patterson joined the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.