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Consider Peter Garrett, lead singer of the Australian rock band Midnight Oil.

He leveraged his fame (and, er, unique dancing skills) in the music industry as a platform for his environmental and indigenous activism — and he made significant waves.

Perter Garrett dancing

Yet when Garrett became a politician and tried to make an impact on the same issues, he barely made a ripple. Instead, he was a smart, passionate, talented person who struggled to scale his message in a new environment. And this is, unfortunately, a story that we’re seeing play out over and over again for customer service teams at small companies.

Life in a bubble

In a small team, being customer focused is simple. You can turn around and talk to the company founder or fire a nerf dart at the lead developer and have a direct conversation about fixing a bug or changing a procedure.

You need the right people to provide great customer service at scale. Hire your A-team >>

You make the change, you see the customer happiness improvement, and it’s tempting to think you’ve got it all figured out. You may even start writing one of those smug blog posts about how “big companies are sooo dumb with all their meetings and managers.

But what if we fast forward a few years? Will you still be leading your team? Will your customer service be of the same high quality? Think about the larger companies you deal with day to day — how confident are you now? We’d all like to think our companies are heading upwards towards increasingly great service. After all, nobody wants to provide bad customer service.

But in practice, some big companies end up falling right off “Comcast Cliff,” with customer service so legendarily bad it seems almost deliberate. Perhaps that’s not likely for you or me, but there is a second path that is much more common.

Trough of Mediocrity

The ‘Trough of Mediocrity’

You know this path. It’s the software company that was super responsive, smart and agile until it was acquired by a larger company and slowly faded into mediocrity.

Or the little restaurant that’s so fresh and new and exciting that it becomes super popular and expands, only to lose everything that made it special.

Statistically, most companies provide a level of service that’s just about reaching the low, low bar of “satisfactory.”

Customer service mediocrity is where most companies end up, and that should be a warning.

Growth is hard; every decision involves more people with more to lose, you’re often operating very quickly with limited information and making decisions just to stop things crashing down. It’s not surprising that small compromises along the way can end up crippling the ability to provide great service.

Do not despair! There is a third path, the path of exceptional service. Think of Apple, Ritz Carlton, Costco, companies who maintain a customer satisfaction level far above the rest of their industry.

How do they do it? What can we do to shape the path our companies are on?

Following the path of exceptional customer service

Scaling up customer service as a small company isn’t only — or even mostly — a technical problem. Providing the customer service itself is something we can usually figure out.

13 customer service stories that will put a smile on your face

The greater challenge is for customer service teams to maintain their influence and instill a company-wide culture of service in a larger organization.

What can customer service leaders do to help move their companies onto the path of sustainable, exceptional service?

3 elements of scaling customer service

No matter how good you and your team are at providing great help and service to your customers, you cannot do it alone. If the rest of your company is not on board, you’re doomed to being “superhero fixers” at best, swooping in to clean up problems created by a business that has lost its customer focus.

Success at scale comes from combining the customer facing teams (Operators) with outside influencers (Agitators) and internal allies (Collaborators).

Operators, Agitators and Collaborators Venn diagram

*As you may be aware, government regulations require 8.2% of all company blog posts to contain at least one venn diagram. I’ve got you covered.

1. Operators: customer-facing staff

To succeed in a larger company, customer service operators, team leaders and managers need to build their organizational skills just as much as their service skills.

Like Peter Garrett in politics, small company leaders can find themselves isolated and ineffectual when surrounded by people with larger company experience.

Tactical suggestions for Operators

  • Learn to speak their language. You might be used to telling customer stories, and operating by gut instinct or personal connection to other people. In a larger company, you might need to convince people through slide decks or presentations. Understand how things get done in your company, and learn to work effectively within those boundaries.

  • Develop business rigour. When you’re competing for budget with teams skilled in data analysis and forecasting, an ability to craft a compelling, data driven business case becomes critical. Take a class, find a mentor or even consider bringing an experienced manager in above you to help you learn.

  • Spread your tendrils. Look for opportunities to move customer service staff into other parts of the business where they can bring that customer focus and service attitude into other teams. It hurts to lose great support staff, but it is better to have them advocating for your team than gone completely.

Read “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” for some great advice on getting unstuck as a successful leader.

2. Agitators: advocates for service

What comes to mind when you think about retail customer service jobs? Is it probably low wages, minimal benefits and limited progress? Zeynep Ton’s book “The Good Jobs Strategy” is an investigation into how some giant retailers offer good wages, benefits and schedules and still turn a significant profit.

Ton’s type of data-driven research is vital to teaching business leaders that great customer service isn’t just the responsibility of the customer teams, but comes from the core operational structure of the business.

Agitators are all the authors, teachers, speakers and researchers who can arm you with the information you need to scale service and create influence inside your company.

Benefit from industry Agitators

  • Read their work. “The Good Jobs Strategy” is one of the 27 customer service books we recommend to help grow your skills and scale your team.

  • Follow their references. Use industry leader lists from sites like GetApp to not only learn from experts themselves, but be exposed to the research and examples they share.

  • Ask for their help. Authors and publishers on customer service topics are always looking to understand their market, and so are keen to hear from their audience. Reach out with challenges you’re facing and you’ll often get great advice.

3. Collaborators: allies on the inside

Product managers, data analysts, financial experts — these are people who can help you solve problems with data, back you up in budget meetings or provide you with resources.

Identify those people in your company who are willing and able to help, and actively build relationships with them. In a small company this happens almost accidentally through social contact and proximity. As the company grows, you will need to be much more intentional about seeking help from collaborators.

Connecting with Collaborators

  • Be a collaborator yourself. “Start by looking for ways you can help other teams get their work done. Find the people who could benefit from better customer knowledge, and ask them what information you can provide.

  • Learn the skills of influence. Start with Robert Cialdini’s resources on influence and Simon Sinek’s books on leadership and communication.

  • Find the people who can help. Do you need help building a business case? Find a helpful data analyst. Want to make a more impactful internal presentation? Talk to your marketing team.

Driving beats drifting

A company can drift off the Comcast Cliff. It can easily drift into the Trough of Mediocrity. It will never drift into exceptional service. As a community who believes in great service, we need to step up and actively work on building scalable customer-focused companies.

Here at Help Scout we’re agitating for a new kind of customer service. In the content we create and the products we build, we elevate customer service teams and make them more effective.

If there are challenges you are facing or areas you feel unprepared for, let us know. We can’t wait to see the amazing impact some of you will have in the years to come.

Personally, I know that when the day comes that customers can expect great service everywhere, and customer service is a highly valued part of every company, I’ll be dancing like Peter Garrett.

P.S. Midnight Oil is touring again in 2017; don’t miss out.

At Help Scout we love to produce more helpful content for you, so leave a comment or tweet me if there are topics you want to hear more about.

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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.