When your support queues are long and the task at hand seems endless, it can be dispiriting for the team and unhelpful for your customers. Taking active steps to isolate and manage the backlog can get you back on track.
Isolate the problem area from newly arriving customer conversations so you can maintain daily service quality while you make progress on the backlog.
When to use it
Use this tactic when you have an unexpected and insurmountable number of active conversations to respond to — a number that you cannot manage within your usual process. Not just "the queue is busy today!" levels, but a volume at which you would never catch up if you don't do something differently.
A suddenly overwhelming backlog of conversations can form for many reasons. Perhaps it’s due to a large product failure or a problem with your email system. Whatever the cause, that chunk of aging conversations creates significant delays in response times for both the existing backlog as well as every new request coming in.
If you are in that situation, it is time to enact a different process.
When not to use it
Don't use this tactic if your backlog is not caused by a specific incident or particular timing but has slowly built up due to understaffing or otherwise unsustainably high volumes over time. Handling that type of backlog requires a comprehensive review of your support setup and a much broader plan of action and is beyond the scope of this article.
How to execute it
Consider this backlog handling process an emergency response plan. Once you have identified that a backlog is forming, the earlier you can act on your plan, the easier it will be to execute. The overarching idea with this process is that it is better for a smaller set of people to have an unacceptably long wait than for every customer to have a very poor support experience.
Here's the process.
1. Isolate the existing backlog
Split your queue into two parts: the backlog, and everything else. Your goal is to carve out the set of conversations which are already going to have a poor support experience and separate them from anything you could still feasibly handle in time. You might use workflows based on wait time, custom fields, or tags to identify and then group the backlog emails together. Once you have a way to differentiate the backlog, try to get those conversations out of the main queue and into somewhere they can be viewed separately. That will ease the psychological burden of the load as well as make it easier to track over time.
2. Assign people to manage the normal support load
With the backlog out of the way, you should be left with a manageable number of existing conversations and new or incoming support requests to deal with. Assign people to work on that queue only, leaving anything in the backlog for other people. The goal here is to return to normal response times for all customer conversations outside of the backlog.
3. Form a backlog squad
Assign as many people as you can spare to work only on reducing the backlog. If it is feasible, you can call in other staff members for a "queue crushing" session.
4. Work through the backlog
With the problem contained, it's time to attack it from multiple angles. Have an experienced support pro or two review the backlog to look for:
Urgent requests or VIPs that should be handled first.
Any simple questions or tasks that can be resolved to quickly reduce the backlog.
Common themes or groupings within the backlog that might be able to receive similar answers.
Opportunities to create new help documents or pre written responses for support staff to use.
Then the grind work of actually answering questions begins. Seeing the backlog total drop over time and knowing that new requests are seeing timely help will encourage your team that progress is being made and a return to normal is possible.
Just keep swimming
One truth about working in customer service is that how you feel about the support queue does make a difference. Even if the job itself is just answering one customer at a time, seeing an abnormally large queue can take a toll.
As a support leader, be aware of the mental cost as well as the customer experience cost of an abnormally large queue. Find ways to encourage your team, to visualize progress, and to recognize effort.