Support work is uniquely challenging. It demands unwavering empathy, superior communication skills, and a host of other markers of emotional intelligence that carry the unfortunate “soft skills” label. So it follows that support management is uniquely challenging as well.
While new managers (or those wanting to level up their leadership game) will find no shortage of resources on general management skills, advice particular to running a support team is harder to come by. How do you keep your team happy when, let’s face it, support work can be so draining? How do you best support the supporters so they can continue caring for your customers without burning out?
Here are some important lessons support leaders have learned after years at the helm.
1. Dedicate the bulk of your energy to looking out for the support team
It may sound counterintuitive to some, but experienced support leaders understand that their team comes first—even before the company’s customers.
When your direct reports are your first priority, excellent customer service falls into place.
Key performance indicators are all well and good, “but your people should always be a primary focus,” says Teri Bayrock, who manages customer support channel operations at Hootsuite. “If they're not happy, or not engaged, everything else in the support ecosystem will take a hit. My energy is committed to making our advocates’ lives better, easier, and less stressful wherever possible.”
Roger Penguino, customer experience lead for support partners at Airbnb, says that especially in startups, “it’s easy to get caught up in the growth, the busyness of it all, but that stuff will pass. What remains are the people, so spend time getting to know the human behind the work, care about them, be present. Everything else will take care of itself.”
2. Avoid the temptation to jump in the queue too often
The urgent is always trying to crowd out the important. When your team is facing a queue full of questions that have been sitting for hours (or worse, days), your instinct will be to roll up your sleeves and pitch in until the work is done. Try not to.
It’s swell to help when help is needed, of course, and it’s important to retain sight of what customers are asking for and what your team is dealing with day to day. But when you allow yourself to get sucked into frontline support work more than 20 percent of the time, you won’t have the space to focus on longer-term goals and the health of your team.
“It gets away from you a little bit by a little bit,” says Jeff Vincent of Wistia in a Support Ops podcast. “It builds and builds and builds until you realize you haven’t spent any time on the other things you need to be doing, or that suddenly you’re prioritizing doing the work over helping others do the work. That’s not scalable; it’s just not going to work. The team is going to fall apart.”
As soon as you start to feel like you’re in the weeds, stop and ask yourself whether you need to change how things work, or bring in another person or two. “When the pain is too much,” says Help Scout support lead Justin Seymour, “changing the process or making a hire is usually the right thing to do.”
3. Empower everyone with internal support documentation
At Help Scout, we use Docs to keep everyone on the same page with support processes, for everything from our refund policy to the tools needed to do the job. It’s especially helpful for onboarding new employees and for whole-company support. When I started at Help Scout I was blown away by how, for nearly every question I had, an answer was already documented somewhere I could easily find it.
When you document your support processes, the team doesn’t have to field the same internal questions over and over; it’s all there. And when everyone at the company is empowered to help customers, they can pitch in when things get hectic (freeing you up to switch your focus from the inbox to drafting the perfect job post for your next support hire).
4. As best you can, engage the rest of the company in support
To the extent your company culture allows, get other employees as invested in customer support as possible. A leadership-endorsed whole company support program is the ideal, but you can also make an impact by sharing regular company-wide updates, assigning conversations to engineers, and running the most common and pressing concerns up the chain.
As a support lead, you’re the funnel for the issues the support team is hearing about first, and you’re positioned to ensure your business is making decisions that set your team up for maximum effectiveness. “You have to push on the people who are determining things like where the business is going to go and how you set priority and budget,” Vincent says. “Adding the additional stakeholder of that larger business responsibility is a really key part to me.”
5. Seek support from the most supportive community there is
“It’s never too late to be an apprentice. Learning shouldn't stop just because you're leading a team.”
—Justin Seymour, support lead at Help Scout
When you inherit a team after switching employers, you’ll need to accelerate your learning to succeed in your new role; being hired from outside to lead a team is far more difficult than being promoted from within an organization. Especially in these cases, listen and observe more than you speak.
At least at first, “sit in the trenches,” Penguino advises. “Put skin the game. It builds camaraderie and trust, and there’s no better way to learn about your job than from those who came before you.”
As you build that camaraderie and trust, you’re setting yourself up to advocate for your team.
“The more you know about their day-to-day workflow, favorites, and pain points, the better you'll be able to support them and make the changes that will benefit them best,” says Bayrock. “They know the support landscape better than anyone and leveraging that knowledge is incredibly crucial to driving things in the right direction.”
“Get in touch with other people in similar roles who have been where you are now,” adds Seymour. “Ask them for advice, talk about process, talk about challenges, just talk. You shouldn't know everything there is to know about your current role. Don't be afraid to lean on your peers when you need help.”
Books and online courses certainly don’t hurt, but when you’re facing challenges unique to your field, nothing beats reaching out to the people who have felt your pain. Attend local meetups and conferences; connect via Twitter and LinkedIn. Support Driven hosts an excellent online Slack chat for support professionals where you can find and ask questions of other support leads.
The best part? Support people are helpful by nature, so you’re never alone in this.