No matter your industry, when tasks or projects build up, your stress level increases and your ability to carry out responsibilities suffers.

What happens when this rising tide of anxiety transfers to your entire team? Sometimes, situations like these call for big changes to the way we do our work.

Every support team, for example, will eventually hit a point where the volume of support tickets or emails grows large enough that a new process is needed. How to tackle those customer requests, and which to tackle first, can vary significantly.

Most of my support experiences have employed radically different strategies to decide the order in which tickets are addressed. A lot of factors come into play, such as subject matter, technicality, free users vs. paying users, the SLAs (service level agreements) your team or company has, skill sets of your individual teammates, and so much more.

While all of these processes differ, they are equally beneficial for support-queue organization. Here are seven ideas to help you better manage your company’s support queue.

1. First-Come, First-Served vs. Picking and Choosing

For smaller teams, it’s generally best to help on a first-come, first-served basis. That means tackling the oldest tickets first.

On the other hand, picking and choosing is a great way to give customers with tougher problems the attention they deserve and those with simpler problems a faster reply.

While picking and choosing those “easy” tickets is an enjoyable and simple practice, those same tickets are also the ones you could stop from coming in altogether by creating knowledge base articles for common issues. If the documentation already exists, you can experiment with surfacing it in other areas of your project.

2. Using Roles

When it comes to timing and SLAs, if you’re trying to get your response time down, you can try a few different options. The first is to split your team up and ask half to tackle the newest tickets while the other half tackles the oldest.

Another option is one that we practiced when I worked on the support team at LevelUp, a mobile loyalty and payments company. Our team found it most beneficial to define a few rotating positions on support, one of them called the “Ninja.” This was a role assigned to one or two people during the day at different time periods—usually the times with the highest volume. Their job was to begin with the newest tickets and to tackle them as quickly as possible. If they had to stop for too long and think about how to solve the problem, they were instructed to move on and give someone else a quick answer.

This allowed for the team to offer a percentage of users a super quick response to absolutely “wow" them, and helped lower queue volume for the rest of the team working on older tickets. There is a mental aspect involved with queue volume, and I’ve found that in most situations, overall team morale and motivation picks up when working from a quickly shrinking queue.

3. Priority Support

As volume continues to grow, you might start putting some of the focus onto your paying users. At Zapier, we try to give tickets from users on our Business, Business Plus, and Infrastructure plans a look before working from the oldest tickets. This is based on the philosophy that if they are paying more, you should give them more attention.

This isn’t to say you should incentivize upgrades to higher plans for priority support, as free users generally need the most help. That being said, companies like MailChimp are taking the opposite approach. MailChimp only provides email support to those on a paying plan. That is because they do a fantastic job of creating and surfacing their documentation to users. Putting that requirement in place helps them focus on users who are paying to get more out of the product.

4. Working from an Unassigned Queue

Now what about assigning tickets? Most teams handle this in a similar fashion, automatically assigning the ticket to the person who first responded. This allows them to follow up with a reply in their personal queue or view, and they are primarily responsible for the entire interaction, along with finding a solution to the problem.

We handle this a bit differently at Zapier. Our entire support team works from an unassigned queue. Our developers have spent a lot of time building tools for the team to solve the most issues in a timely manner. The most significant is a Chrome extension that allows us to easily access user information right from inside Help Scout. We have quick access to general user information, along with quick links to our admin panel, a user’s Task History, API logs, Stripe, and any other part of that user’s account. We also have links to individual Zaps (what we call the link between two apps on Zapier) and even more links pertaining to different aspects of those Zaps, so we can drill down to the information we need without spending precious time searching for it.

Zapier sidebar in Help Scout

The support crew at Zapier also does a fantastic job leaving notes on next steps for the next person who lands on the ticket. Most of the time, though, there is plenty of detail included in the previous reply to the user.

Anyone can land on a thread, know what’s going on within seconds, and then help the customer with next steps. This also helps give faster responses, as tickets don’t get stuck in anyone’s personal queue. If the customer replies, everyone can see it and anyone can reply.

5. To Triage or Not to Triage

Some teams purposely hire support members who are strong in one area. These teams also often triage tickets to their teammates. Sometimes the manager will assign tickets to those with relevant strengths and other times, triage will be a rotating role on the support team. Each week, one person could be responsible for keeping an eye on the queue and volume per teammate and assign tickets accordingly. This ensures a personalized experience and the highest quality responses for your customers.

If triaging doesn’t work for your team, tagging tickets by subject matter and having teammates pick and choose subjects relevant to their skill sets is an alternative. Or, if you use a help desk like Help Scout, you can set up a workflow to assign relevant conversations to teammates based on tagging particular types of issues.

Another approach is to have your ticketing system auto-assign tickets to teammates so they are evenly distributed. This ensures that everyone has something to work on, even if it isn’t based on a particular skill set.

6. Setting Up Tiers

Setting up tiers

Triaging and assigning doesn’t always have to be based on subject matter; it could also be based on the technicality of the issue. Some support teams work in different tiers. At Zapier, we have our main support team, a developer working with our support team (who is acting as Tier 2 support), as well as a Tier 3 technical person. Tier 2 and Tier 3 are weekly rotating positions.

If support can’t solve the issue and it seems very technical in nature, it will get assigned to the developer working in Tier 2 support for that week. Tier 2’s job is to add these issues into GitHub, and Tier 3 is responsible for working through and solving those issues, helping Tier 2 if needed.

7. Combining Processes to Build the Most Efficient System

By examining and testing these different approaches, you can take a bit from each and create an efficient process to manage the queue. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but there are benefits of each that you can implement to improve the way your team manages their support queue.

At the very least, try working from an unassigned queue, from oldest to newest tickets. This ensures your entire team is getting equal exposure to the issues stemming from your project and also ensures customers are being helped in the order they emailed in. Next, start experimenting with filters and tagging to pick up on the issues that make up the majority of your support tickets. Help Scout allows you to view volume by tag:

Help Scout - Volume by Tag

Once you figure out what’s generating the highest volume of requests, you can work with your team to add, improve, or resurface help documentation to answer your customers’ questions and reduce your support load.

Now that you’ve cut your queue down to the most important tickets, you can further optimize. Define what makes a high priority ticket and begin to filter, tag, and then prioritize those. Once you know which tickets to tackle first, begin to assign roles and start triaging. Every team and product is different, so leave room for experimentation.

No matter which process or combination of processes you try, each will have upsides and downsides depending on your product and how your team operates. While there is no “right” way to tackle your support queue, testing several approaches will help your team find the right fit, resulting in maximum efficiency and delighted customers.

Jess Byrne

About the author: Jess Byrne is the head of people operations at Zapier and has worked in the customer support field for five years. Jess enjoys productivity hacks and board games.