Brittany Ferguson launched and grew a customer support team at Fracture, an ecommerce photo decor company, before moving on to leadership roles in support in healthcare diagnostics and online fitness. In this Q&A, Brittany shares her experiences managing some of the unique aspects and challenges of ecommerce, as well as helpful insights into growing a career in support.
Learning and launching: Growing a career in ecommerce support
Q: What was your path to a career in customer support and to ecommerce specifically?
A: After working retail jobs in college, I started my professional career in journalism and marketing. When I was furloughed from my marketing role at a tech startup in 2012, a friend approached me about an opportunity to head up a customer support team for Fracture, an ecommerce photo decor company that was just at the startup stage.
The idea sparked my interest. Opening up fresh conversations and using my writing expertise, communication skills, and emotional intelligence every day was really appealing. I also loved the idea of using my problem-solving skills to help people. So, I went ahead and applied, interviewed, and was offered the job. That was my first role in support.
I loved the challenge of learning about support and then launching the team in that role, especially because we were creating such personal, meaningful products for people. These photos were often people's most prized possessions — their memories and moments of their lives, their children, their vacations. It was so moving to work to deliver such a meaningful product and a great experience overall.
Q. What were a few of the key lessons from that first ecommerce role?
A. When I was interviewing, the CEO said, “We want to become the Zappos of our market,” and my job was to build that support department and team from scratch. It was such a fresh, wide-open opportunity and a really fun challenge.
I learned a lot in that role about how to use my writing creatively to respond to different personalities and needs that arise and to deliver information in the right tone and style to suit each unique situation. That really kept me engaged and trying to figure things out as a team of one, initially.
I was learning all the time. I read through every single email that had been sent in prior to me working there to see what customers were asking, what challenges they faced, and how they were communicating. That helped me establish our policies and think through how we could improve on responses that may or may not have hit the mark.
I also learned the central role of support as the hub of information and feedback about products and processes in the business.
In ecomm support, you are the middle person in so many ways — for shipping logistics, product, and any process involved in the ordering and delivery.
In each case, you need to be able to respond with empathy and work with other team members, supply chain reps, or whoever can find a resolution that ensures the customer gets the product in their hands and is satisfied. Then, you need to be sure that if there were any systemic or process-related issues in each instance, that those get addressed at the company level to be certain it doesn’t happen again. Each time you have to ask: Is this a one-off situation or is this something that we need to fix in operations?
Q: Were there external resources that were helpful as you learned about support and built your team?
A. When I started in my role at Fracture, I read a lot of blog posts and newsletters, including the Help Scout blog, and I learned about Support Driven the following year, through a post on the blog. During that research, each time I saw an ecommerce company mentioned as a leader in support, I would follow that company and read their content as well as reviews from their customers. I’d compare practices and make notes. I was looking for any and all information about how to build a support function and team.
Setting service apart in ecommerce
Q: What have you learned about the unique challenges of working in ecommerce support — and how to manage them well?
A. Shipping and supply chain issues that are beyond your control come to mind first — both are constants in ecommerce. I found that the best approach to manage shipping-related uncertainty is to set realistic expectations as much as possible for customers based on all the information you have, and then approach each interaction or challenge that arises with empathy and compassion.
It’s important to keep in mind that, of course, people want their packages to arrive on time, and especially if it’s a meaningful gift, it is an emotional issue if you can’t deliver their product when they expect it. So we need to have all the facts we possibly can about any delays, changes, or carrier issues and then share those as transparently as possible with the customers. Sometimes that will require saying the same thing over and over. Patience throughout all of these interactions is key — and, when in doubt, aim to under promise and over deliver.
And remember, when there are issues with shipping — damage or delivery delay, for instance — that’s an opportunity to learn and gain customer loyalty by following up and making it right. At Fracture, we would push for refunds from the shipping companies or the postal service if they didn’t meet the delivery deadlines and then pass those refunds back to the customers. If a product arrived damaged, we would always follow up with the carrier to understand the specific how and why so we could avoid a repeat situation.
In one instance, I remember, a customer’s package was damaged three times in a row, and we had to dig into exactly what was happening during delivery. It turns out there was a specific piece of equipment in the post office where it was delivered that kept damaging the box, and we had to figure that out and get it to him a different way. Not a lot of companies are going to want to go through that kind of forensic examination of the supply chain, but, ultimately, it's that attention to detail and curiosity that’s going to set your service apart.
Tips for teams: Supporting ecommerce customers
Think of each interaction with a customer as an opportunity to learn about and improve your product or process.
Consider the broader impact of each interaction. After each support conversation, ask: Is this a one-off situation or is this something that we need to fix in operations?
To manage the impact of shipping and supply chain issues for customers, be transparent. Share information you have about potential delays or supply chain impact up front.
Practice empathy: When difficult conversations arise, put yourself in your customers’ shoes and respond with compassion and kindness.
Go the extra mile. Everyone offers support today; think about how you can be proactive and take the extra step to build customer loyalty.
Stay curious! Go down the rabbit hole, follow the breadcrumbs, and don’t be afraid to fail in finding solutions for customers.
Think outside the box and look for new solutions. If it doesn’t work, you’ve learned something at the very least.
Q. One unique aspect of support roles in ecommerce is the seasonal surge. What did you learn about managing that aspect of the work as a support leader? Any tips or strategies for other leaders or teams?
A. The sense of urgency and emotion around holiday shopping online can be through the roof, so it’s super important to be transparent about what is possible — for customers and for your team.
Here are a few ways I learned to do that:
Communicate with your customers. If holiday orders are slowing response time, if shipping is delayed, or if anything else is affecting the customer experience, let your customers know. Add a pop-up on your site, add a footer to email conversations, and take any other steps necessary to share the info.
Set clear expectations with your team. Make sure that your team knows upfront what to expect during surge periods, in terms of volume and any special guarantees or policies that you enact during the holiday. Help them prepare for and manage those intense periods through training and ongoing check-ins.
Implement systems to evaluate urgency. Help your team manage the surge by creating processes that allow them to prioritize the most important tasks.
Create clear boundaries around workloads, and continually check in on team members’ well-being to avoid burnout.
Set some time aside for the team to spend time out of the queue to give them a break and fresh mind.
Communicate with other departments within the company as necessary to be sure support is in the loop about any shifting priorities or planning across all teams that might affect customers.
Create efficiencies as you go. As a support leader during those surge periods, I recognized that I was the one who needed to make decisions about how we could optimize our workflow to help take care of our customers and the team. I was always asking myself and my team: How can we be more proactive to avoid friction? Can we create more saved replies? Is there a knowledge base document that we could link to here?
Take care of yourself. Your team is paying attention to how you manage your own health and well-being during these intense periods. They will start emulating the patterns you set. Be aware that you’re setting expectations through your actions as well as through your words.
There are always going to be hiccups, but if you can set expectations with the team, communicate proactively with them and with customers, and do your best to look after your own and your team’s well-being, you’ll manage the surge and build resilience.
Beyond Ecommerce: Lessons from building a fulfilling support career
Q. What are common characteristics or skills you see among support pros who excel in their roles?
A. In my own experience, and more broadly, I see these qualities and skills in folks who win in support:
Empathy: The ability to identify with your customers’ concerns and respond with compassion is a core characteristic of most of the successful support professionals I know.
Tenacity: It’s the extra effort — the tenacious drive to support a customer — that is going to set your work and your company apart. Good customer service is a basic requirement, but excellent service is often differentiated by taking the question one step further, offering proactive support beyond what the initial question might have been. The people who do that are elevating the customer experience.
Adaptability: In support roles, you’re consistently asked to respond to changing needs and unique questions. The ability to adapt to the challenges of each day and each conversation — and to adapt your response tone and style to suit the customer — are all important aspects of support.
Not being afraid to push the limits: Don’t hesitate to try a solution — even if it’s a new or different approach — to serve the customer and set your support apart. And, if it doesn’t work, try to see that attempt as a learning experience. It’s helpful, of course, if you have a boss or manager who takes the same view and is there to support you in that process.
Curiosity: If you are curious to learn and to follow the trail of a question or problem — to go down the rabbit hole and continually learn — then you’re always going to enhance your knowledge, which serves the customer and the company.
Q: Any advice for other support leaders or those seeking a leadership role in support?
As a strategic leader, constantly review your process and policy plans. Be open to and proactive about making changes and being flexible to improve the customer experience. As I mentioned earlier, adaptability is key to working in support.
As a leader of people, I think being present for your team and paying close attention to when people need a break — from the queue or from other projects — to help avoid burnout is really important.
The other tip I’d offer support leaders is to make an effort to maintain one-on-ones with your team members. I think often (and I've been guilty of this, too) it can be tempting to push off one-on-one meetings if either the manager or the team member feels like they don’t have anything to discuss or if they feel they’re too busy. But if your team members feel like they’re too busy, it's actually the most important time to meet with you, as their manager. Create the space for them to tell you how they’re feeling, and discuss options for reducing the workload or reprioritizing, if possible.
As a leader, if you aren’t seeing your team members face to face regularly for those one-on-one meetings, you may be missing important signs of personal or work-related issues. It’s the responsibility of managers and leaders to provide a safe environment for team members to share. If you start noticing that any member of your team is regularly opting out of those meetings, that’s a sign that there is likely something that needs to be addressed.
Tips for leaders: Growing and managing an ecommerce support team
Topline advice and know-how from Brittany’s ten-plus years in support.
Learn from others! Follow ecommerce companies that consistently receive favorable support reviews; read blog posts from support leaders you admire; attend support events and join communities.
Set expectations for your team around seasonal surges from the start so they know what to expect.
Consistently check in with your team and help re-prioritize the workload if necessary to help avoid burnout.
Take care of yourself: Set boundaries around your own work schedule and capacity so that your team has a healthy model.
Communicate regularly with company leadership about capacity and priorities during seasonal surges and throughout the year. Work together to create attainable and sustainable goals.
Be flexible: Consistently review your process and policy plans and make changes as needed.
Maintain one-on-ones with your team members — especially during surge periods — and be fully present during those conversations.
Q: Reflecting on your own career, what do you appreciate most about working in support? What keeps you inspired and motivated?
A. When I took my first support role, I definitely considered it a temporary situation. I thought, I'll just do this for a little while with this startup and help launch the team. But when I felt what it was like to build something with people who want you to succeed, trust you to create something from scratch, and do whatever it takes to help you do it, I really loved the experience.
That first role really instilled a love for support work that I still have today. I haven’t yet hit a point where I feel like I’ve met all the challenges or hit the end of the road in terms of my interest in the work. Every position that I've had since my first role has offered a new sense of discovery, and I don't see anything else at this point that takes my heart in the same way.
I really enjoy the satisfaction of seeing problems through to the other side, seeing the fruits of my labor, and finding a solution for the customer. I think that love of the feedback loop has continued to drive my career.
I also really appreciate that every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to improve your process and product. Each piece of feedback is a chance to assess your game plan and figure out a better solution — in the support you provide, but more broadly in the business, too. There’s always something productive to glean from a support conversation.