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Article 19 min read

How to manage your talented customer service team

A guide to getting the most out of your support agents.

By Patrick Grieve

Last updated August 21, 2023

Managing a team of even the most talented customer service professionals can be difficult.

We can’t make the challenges disappear, but the lessons, tips and philosophies in this guide will help you manage agents who are engaged with their work and primed to provide your customers with great service.

Why managing your customer service team matters

The secret sauce to any great customer service and support organisation is the people who work in it.

Every organisation has good days and bad days, and the way the team coalesces during each defines the service that you deliver:

  • On the good days, everyone is quietly paddling along the water and delivering what the customer needs

  • On the hard days, the team is paddling like hell underwater… and still delivering what the customer needs

Either way, the customer shouldn’t know the difference.

You can have the best, most efficient and customer-friendly processes in the world, but they’ll fall apart if your team isn’t motivated or happy or doesn’t work together well.

Happy employees lead to happy customers. In many cases, customer service reps are the face of the brand. They are the people your customers will have the most contact with, so you need to hire superstars. But every hiring manager knows that’s easier said than done.

Motivate your service team with rewards and recognition

There are many ways to ensure the success and positive attitude of your employees. Using rewards and recognition is one way.

Every company has a different culture and requires a unique approach. Make sure that you customise your rewards and recognition programme to reflect the norms and values of the environment that you want to create.

Rewards can improve morale and job satisfaction, but there are some pitfalls to watch out for:

Avoid monetary rewards

Focusing on monetary rewards won’t always produce the results that you expect. It might look good at first, but it often ends up creating a competitive environment and bad vibes.

If you do decide to take that route, proceed with caution. Typically, the best approach is to introduce a bonus structure that maps to clearly defined goals. Many companies call this “variable comp” – or compensation based on performance results. These monetary rewards are targeted toward individuals meeting performance targets.

Monetary bonuses that incite competition have a different effect. For example, giving a £100 gift card to the person who solves the highest number of tickets is a monetary bonus. Using variable compensation drives individual performance instead of competition among the team.

Set achievable goals

Setting achievable daily and weekly goals should already be part of the normal management programme. Understanding and communicating those “normal” goals makes it easier to define what it means to go the extra mile.

Putting goals in place ensures that your team knows what you expect of them. This allows them to measure their own success, which is critical to employee satisfaction.

Be selective

When rewards become normalised, we stop striving for them. Save moments of recognition for when employees go the extra mile.

  • Set up guidelines for how often you want to recognise members of the team

  • Make sure that as a manager you are identifying remarkable achievements

  • Another way to reward your staff is to recognise when they have just finished a tough call or handled a difficult experience

At Zendesk, we give a “Needful Trophy” to our support reps who go the extra mile. It’s then up to them to pass the trophy on to the next person who goes above and beyond for a customer.

Using a trophy emoji as a Slack reaction serves a similar purpose. It’s a common way to show appreciation whenever someone at Zendesk helps a colleague from across the company by providing a very thorough or obscure answer.

Enable a supportive culture

As a manager, you’re not the only person who should be calling out good work. Encourage your staff to reward one another when they achieve milestones and do great things. At Zendesk, we all use Slack to give each other shoutouts.

Sometimes the praise is mentioned within a small group, and sometimes it gets broadcast to the whole company. We’ll use anything from a local team channel to the global Zendesk #humblebrag channel to show support for one another.

Design gamification systems that incentivise reps

Leaderboards and badges are great ways to provide instant and public recognition. Just make sure that they drive the right behaviours and outcomes.

For example, let’s say that you’d like to see more articles in your knowledge base. If you reward on quantity alone, you may drive staff to publish subpar articles. To establish that quality matters, you might measure view counts rather than number of posts.

The language that you use when talking about your gamification system is important, too. Keep the conversation focused on personal bests rather than on some being better than others. You want to inspire improvement, not competition.

Remember that your employees are individuals

While some people like a little fanfare, others prefer a quiet word of encouragement. So, remember: one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to rewards and recognition.

Your staff will recognise your appreciation as genuine if you take the time to offer praise that appeals to their personalities. For example:

  • An extroverted employee might appreciate public praise in the form of a special shoutout during a team meeting

  • A more private person may find an old fashioned “thank you” note more meaningful

Stay cool when understaffed and extra busy

There are going to be days when you don’t have enough customer service staff to meet demand. Sometimes it’s the typical sick days, holiday seasons and new product releases that are part of normal operations. Other times, it’s something more unusual (and 2020 has certainly brought plenty of that).

No matter how well you’ve planned, you might have to work with fewer agents than you would like. To cope, it’s best to devise a strategy for dealing with this situation beforehand.

The first thing to do is let your team know that you’re short-staffed. Keep them engaged by explaining why you are behind instead of just asking them to work more. This is a great time to make sure that you’re using your rewards and recognition strategies to help keep your team motivated through long hours.

Cancel all of your meetings, and ask your staff to do the same. In fact, postpone any non-essential activities. Right now, you need to focus on right now. If the busy workload is going to extend past a day, it’s best to schedule extra hours and set clear expectations regarding how much extra time people can work.

Take a look at the day’s work. Are there any tickets that your team don’t need to answer straight away? If so, save them for a day when you’re not understaffed.

Are there any simple tickets that someone from a different department can answer? If there are, see if you can get some help from the other department heads. If your company is customer-focused, most – if not all – of the employees should have some basic training in how to respond to support tickets.

Remain productive and connected when working remotely

Amid a global pandemic, many customer service teams have been forced to go entirely virtual. Managing a remote, distributed customer service team comes with its perks – as well as a few challenges.

Virtual teams can provide prompt support to international customers if they’re spread across multiple time zones and regions. Remote employees also tend to enjoy the freedom and flexibility of work-from-home life. Feeling good at work, they’re likely to deliver service that leaves customers happy, too.

On the other hand, it’s harder to lead a team when you’re not in the same physical location. The separation may start to rub off on support agents, too. They may feel lonely or distracted and even struggle with time management.

If you’re managing a virtual customer service team, it’s important to keep agents accountable – even if they’re at home:

  • Set expectations for working hours. Decide whether you need an on-call schedule, and figure out how to structure it to cover periods of high traffic.

  • Create a regular meeting cadence. You might have daily morning stand-ups or midday checkpoints.

  • Delegate responsibilities for maintaining any specific hardware and software tools that your team uses. Make backup plans for what happens in the event that the people in charge are offline.

Be flexible with communication. One tool isn’t better than another. Experiment, and figure out the right combination of email, phone and video conferencing that works best for your team.

If you’re using Slack, create designated channels for your team. Some can be for different work functions, but others can be for fun. You might have a #watercoolerconversations channel, where remote team members can shoot the breeze.

Overcommunication is critical for remote teams. Outside of an office environment, you have to work twice as hard to broadcast information and create camaraderie. Connect as often as you can through multiple channels. Share reminders, work updates and the occasional casual conversation starter. Above all else, model this frequent, proactive communication style so your support agents feel like it’s the norm.

Broaden your team’s horizons with virtual events

Building a customer support team that enjoys working together and brings enthusiasm to the job every day requires a creative touch. A good way to motivate and encourage your team is to get them involved in special activities.

Events have traditionally been a great way to do this:

  • They often include travel to fresh settings where your team can learn and network with other people in the industry

  • Many times, there are chances to present information, lead a group and hone specific skills

  • At their best, events offer both new learning experiences and the feeling of being involved in the customer service community at large. When all employees sense that they’re a valuable part of the whole and an integral component of the “big picture”, your organisation will thrive.

Unfortunately, many in-person events have been put on hold due to the coronavirus. But as a workaround, many organisers have created virtual customer experience (CX) conferences. These events can provide a lot of the same learning, networking and lead-generation opportunities that you get from physical meet-ups – usually at greater convenience and less expense.

See how top companies are creating great customer experiences

At Zendesk, we’ve begun hosting a conversational webcast series called “CX Moments”.

At the webcasts, people can hear how industry leaders at companies such as Slack and Etsy deal with CX challenges and triumphs.

At these live 30-minute Zoom sessions, you can listen and watch as customer service professionals talk with Sarah Reed, Zendesk’s Senior Director of Global Strategic Events. Each virtual meeting ends with a Q&A session.

Our CX Moments have addressed many relevant issues in 2020, from transitioning to remote workforces to educating customers and employees about race, allyship and solidarity. Through these seminars, we try to reinforce that we’re all in this together – through good times and bad.

Along with organising professional events, many managers are also using Zoom to host internal activities, such as virtual lunches, celebrations and happy hours. Find out what sort of get-together appeals most to your customer service team. Don’t be afraid to get creative – virtual talent contests and team-building games are offbeat but fun.

Keep things fresh with rotating roles

One of the first and most fundamental steps that your company can take on its journey to providing great customer service is to hire a top-notch customer service team. That means finding and retaining talented individuals – something that is much easier said than done.

One of the best ways to attract the best talent for the job is to create a working environment that is as interesting and enriching as possible. This can be done by building a support team structure that includes rotating roles and assignments.

It’s also important to come up with some kind of ranking system for those roles. That way, when things get extra busy, you can start to temporarily pull people from the less-critical roles until things get back to normal. Consider having your team work through a regular rotation of roles that includes the following:

  • Triage: Responsible for assigning incoming tickets to groups. Normally this is a supervisory position, but making it a peer-to-peer position rotates the responsibility. That way, everyone who takes on this role has an understanding of what it’s like to work on tickets, and everyone who is working in the trenches understands what it means to assign tickets to the rest of the team.
  • Phone coordinator: Manages the phone queue and is responsible for getting other advocates on the phones when things get busy. When there are no calls, the phone coordinator is working on tickets.
  • Ticket tank: Responsible for drilling deeper into tickets that will likely take longer than usual, which could include tickets with multiple or complex questions.
  • Chat: Handles live interactions with customers via chat.
  • Phones: Handles live interactions with customers via phone.

As customer service isn’t limited to the customer service department, there are additional roles that your reps can fill that will benefit the entire company. Here are three examples of functions that your support team can fill to help out their colleagues on other teams and gain insight into how different departments work:

  • Training: Helps customers get the most out of your product or service. There’s no better resource to train your customers than the people who spend all day supporting it.
  • Knowledge manager: Writes blog and forums posts, tips, knowledge-based articles and best practices. This is a good candidate for the first position that is temporarily dropped when things get busy.
  • Subject matter expert: Participates in product meetings and offers feedback. This is a great way to get insight from people who regularly use the product. As customer service reps are in constant contact with customers, this gives them the opportunity to truly be the voice of the customer.

Having reps take on other responsibilities is a good way to leverage their full skill set. It can also help get them more engaged in the company’s broader purpose.

Organise support for future success

For certain companies – particularly those with large customer service teams – it makes sense to consider organising your department into pods.

Each support manager can be in charge of several pods. Managers can then have weekly meetings with the team leaders of each pod that they’re responsible for. That way, managers stay up to date and aware of all activities and issues without getting bogged down in too many one-on-one meetings with every individual advocate.

In the meantime, team leaders can be responsible for their pods’ day-to-day activities, further freeing up support managers. When managers are freed up, more attention is paid to developing strategy and making improvements. But be careful: Managers should continue to interact with agents throughout the day, rather than locking themselves in an office.

Another important benefit of the pod structure is that it can work as a fertile ground for growing future managers. Team leaders get a chance to show their own managerial abilities.

When considering a team leader’s potential, ask yourself:

  1. What is their managerial style? Is it consistent with the overall philosophy of our organisation?

  2. Are they someone who others naturally turn to with questions and problems? If so, this might indicate a natural ability to lead and a strong understanding of your product or service.

It’s a good idea to always be on the lookout for individuals within your own team who might have the potential to grow in new positions. That way, when it comes time to grow, you already have some people in mind to fill new leadership positions.

If you manage a support team, you are going to want to empower your employees. That means giving your team free rein to make decisions about how to respond to customers and even make concessions within the confines of your support structure. The idea can be a little scary, which is understandable. But empowering your employees, if done correctly, will get them engaged and motivated and will free you and other support managers to focus on more difficult tasks. Have the agents treat the business as if it’s their own, and do the right thing for the customer.

Be patient

No matter what you do, mistakes are going to happen. So, empower your team, but also make sure that they are communicating with you while they are making decisions. This will allow you to monitor and, when necessary, correct team members’ decisions.

When you observe a mistake, quickly coach the person on what they’ve done wrong, but don’t take power away as a punitive action for not making the right call. Treating these situations like learning opportunities will further empower employees and help ensure that the same mistake won’t be made again.

Two common scenarios

  1. Escalated tickets

    A customer may get angry because his ticket was escalated to another department, and he hasn’t received an update for a week.
    An unempowered support rep will have to get permission to track down the current owner of the ticket, forcing managers to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of the issue.
    Reps that are empowered, however, can go directly to the current owner of the ticket, be it a product manager, an engineer or a sales rep. When this happens, the support rep acts as the voice of the customer to make sure that they are being provided with the best possible service.
  2. Requests for a credit

    Sometimes a customer doesn’t receive the service or product that they are expecting, and they ask for a credit.
    Empower your agents to approve credits. You may want to set limits on the amount, but we find that it is typically better to let reps be the decision-makers. Just like any other decision that your advocates make, if you don’t agree with it, you can quickly coach them on how to handle it next time.
    You can also measure credit decisions to spot trends for agents who don’t provide enough latitude with customers, as well as agents who perhaps provide too much.

Achieve transparency within your customer service team

Transparency within your support team, from executive management to the front lines, is paramount to your success as a customer support organisation. As mentioned before, happy agents lead to happy customers – though it’s not always about rewards and recognition.

Clear, open communication helps to set expectations and gets things done. The larger your organisation, the more important – and challenging – achieving transparency becomes. Here are a few ideas for improving communication across your organisation.

Leadership needs to be present

Make sure that the leadership team for your support organisation shows up for regularly scheduled meetings, and that there is an established agenda in place that everyone knows about.

Agree on the agenda

Send out a list of proposed topics, including the amount of time that you’ve budgeted for each topic, in advance of meetings. Adjust the agenda based on feedback or priority, and send a finalised version beforehand so that everyone is prepared to efficiently use the scheduled time.

It sounds like a lot of work but, over time, an agenda becomes a living document that helps your team stay on track and make steady progress.

Don’t be a hermit

It’s not enough to silently manage from afar, making decisions and letting them trickle down, while feedback – good or bad – slowly bubbles back up.

If your leadership team is making decisions that affect everyone, carve out some time to get feedback from people at all levels of the organisation before making the decision. Make sure to leverage weekly one-on-one meetings to ensure that information is flowing.

In leadership meetings, be clear with your managers about the information that needs to be shared, feedback that should be received and expected turnaround time. Information needs to move quickly up and down the organisation so that decisions are not delayed.

As a general rule, it’s important to spend time with your front line, shadowing them and getting input about their work. This kind of visibility helps leaders make educated suggestions for change.

Explain the reasoning behind a decision

Getting input before making a decision doesn’t determine the outcome – it influences it. So, afterwards, it’s equally important to explain why a decision was made – both when you’ve taken your team’s feedback and when you haven’t. Explaining your decision-making process helps get everyone on the same page.

Request 360-degree feedback

If you’re responsible for managing and critiquing others, then you’ve also got to be open to hearing feedback about yourself. Ask coworkers for 360-degree feedback – input from your team, colleagues and superiors – while also completing your own self-evaluation.

See what your coworkers identify as your strengths and weaknesses, and note how their assessment compares with your own. Find out what you can do better, and then act on it. The last thing that you want is for your agents to feel like they’ve taken time to share their ideas only to see that you haven’t made any improvements.

Engage your agents

Customer service can be difficult. While we can’t make it easy, it’s our hope that some of the lessons, tips and philosophies above will help you manage agents who are engaged with their work and primed to provide your customers with great service.

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