Support Team Swarming Vs. Tiering
Illustration by Meredith Miotke

When most people think of customer support, they think of traditional tiered support: The conversation comes into your support team and gets escalated as necessary based on depth and technicality. However, with support team swarming, the structure is changed slightly: Individual team members engage in what’s traditionally been known as “cherry-picking” to focus on resolving issues as quickly and with as much competency as possible.

Reading that, you may wonder how, in such a model, customers with technically challenging questions ever get answers. The answer is implementing processes, mutual understanding across the team, and cross-functional education. 

Read on to learn more about what support swarming is, whether it could be a fit at your company, and how you can implement it.

Swarming vs. tiered support

When support teams first get created, they typically use what we refer to in this blog post as “support swarming.” Support swarming is when a group of support team members work on a single queue together at its most basic level. 

There are no separate groupings, no tiers to send tickets through, and no complex triaging methodologies. While one strategy may sound more straightforward than the other, there are benefits to both, depending on the type of company and product you offer.

What is swarming support?

Depending on the size of your company and your ticket volume, the definition of swarming support may differ. With a small team or lower volume of conversations, it may just mean the whole support team “swarms” on the inbox and each person takes the tickets that fall into their wheelhouse. 

Swarming could mean calling in a specific, pre-defined group of people to swarm on a particular issue or conversation if you have a larger team or more conversations. For instance, if you have an outage or a profoundly technical bug, you may have a swarm of just support team members or a swarm of both team members and specialists from other groups, such as engineering or product.

The critical components of swarming are:

  • Tons of collaboration between agents. Team members talk about what they are working on, ask questions, and help one another.

  • A flat hierarchy. Everyone is on a single team — no one is tiered.

  • No escalations. If a team member picks a ticket to which they don’t know the answer, they can work with other team members in the swarm to learn and get a solution.

  • Answering according to skill. Team members or individual swarms watch for conversations to come through the inbox that fall under their expertise and then leave what doesn’t to other swarms or team members.

Benefits of swarming

There are a lot of great benefits to using this model to provide support for your customers.

Support team swarming leads to more cross-functional learning and professional development. After all, instead of passing on a conversation if you can’t answer 100% of it, team members are expected to work through it with other swarm members. With each new issue they work through, team members develop additional knowledge to use in future conversations and help their teammates. Swarming boosts collaboration, camaraderie, and relationships across internal and external teams.

Swarming also generally leads to smaller queues and faster resolution times. It can be a much smoother way to manage volume when you allow team members to pick the tickets that make the most sense for their skill level.

Drawbacks of swarming

Support swarming is excellent for smaller companies or groups that can move with agility. However, it can be pretty challenging for big companies and large teams to get off the ground unless you create smaller groups to act within.

This strategy also places a significant burden on teams that have historically used tiered support. Swarming support takes a lot of rearranging of processes and expectations on handling the queue and can take extra time and energy to implement for teams that haven’t been doing it historically. Without this necessary preparation, the strategy can be relatively unstructured and disorganized.

If you just advise your team to pick tickets that work best for their experience level and hope for the best, you may end up with many unanswered tickets. It’s essential to continue pushing your expert team members to take the conversations that fit their level. Organize a strategy around swarming, and document it to maintain best practices. Otherwise, you may end up running into trouble and harming the exact metrics you were trying to boost.

What is tiered support?

Tiered support is the traditional strategy that most companies take when it comes to support. Usually, it is structured around three tiers. The first tier is “regular” support, or the entry-level team responsible for handling repetitive basic questions. If the conversation is beyond the expertise of your tier one team, in a tiered strategy it will get moved to your tier two team.

Tier two is a more advanced technical team that can handle inquiries beyond tier one. Tier three folks are your deep subject matter experts: engineers and sometimes external team members outside the support team.

With a tiered strategy, you should have the most volume in tier one and the lowest volume in tier three. The tickets in tier one should be significantly quicker and easier to resolve than the very few that get through to your subject matter experts. Tiered support is a strictly hierarchical strategy.

Benefits to tiered support

Because of how traditional it is, tiered support can be fairly easy to hire for and easier to implement than swarming. Most agents on the job market are already familiar with the tiers and know where their skills land them in the hierarchy. Generalists are much easier to hire than those with hyper-defined skills.

Tiered support also works well for rapidly growing teams or teams with a great deal of varied experience. If your company is growing rapidly and scaling, tiered support will enable you to hire quickly for great candidates. It’s also excellent for less severe and repetitive questions, but it can be differentiated as needed if you have pre-defined needs for your tiers two and three.

Drawbacks to tiered support

While tiered support is excellent for less severe issues, getting attention on high-priority incidents can be challenging. As soon as a conversation gets escalated, the backlogs and resolution times for your tier two or three teams get even longer. Similarly, if your team starts to excel at self-service, you can end up reducing much of the workload for your lower-level teams and bloating the timelines for your more advanced, expert teams.

It can also reduce feelings of accountability and can sometimes cause team members to feel like they are just a cog in the machine. When a team member’s work just focuses on the same skills day in and day out, they can feel less professional development and less enthusiasm or pride around the work they do. When enacting tiered support, it’s essential to continue to find additional opportunities for growth outside of the queue.

Lastly, tiered support is usually unnecessary for small teams. Consider, for instance, if you only have five team members. It may add extra complexity to build out a process to escalate through those five team members and ultimately end up slowing down your team even more.

How to choose the right model for your team

Both swarming and tiered support offer various benefits and drawbacks for your team. It could be difficult to decide which one will work best for you, depending on your circumstances and the structure of your team. Here are a few things to consider to point you in the right direction:

  • The size of your team. The smaller the group, the more likely it is that support swarming will be a better fit. With larger teams, swarming will still work, but you’ll need to break the larger team into smaller groups.

  • The type of inquiries coming through. If you have more repetitive, less one-off tickets, they will generally lend themselves better to tiered support. A swarming team may waste expertise on queues with lots of low-hanging fruit.

  • The strength of your self-service. Swarming may be a more worthwhile strategy for your team’s time if you have excellent self-service support. After all, if you’ve already deflected the most low-hanging fruit, swarming will more readily use your team’s expertise.

  • Your product velocity. When your product is being built and changing rapidly, more broken things will pop up in your queue than they would with a stable product. The more advanced conversations coming through, the more likely a swarming support strategy will help your team.

Consider each of these factors and their respective weights to your team. They should make your decision much more straightforward!

Implementing swarming support in Help Scout

Many tools make swarming support a little easier, and Help Scout is one of them. Here are some of the features that some help desk software offers to make the transition to swarming a little bit easier.


Connecting your help desk to other software can be a total game changer. For instance, some larger companies use tools like PagerDuty to summon their swarm if they’ve had to break a more extensive team into smaller groups for swarming.

Beyond that, having direct integration to any tools that can help minimize context switching, such as a CRM, can help swarming teams, too. That way, team members can view additional context around the conversation and customer that they might not already have.

Pooled conversations

One of the most important aspects of support swarming is viewing all of the conversations in a single place. Help Scout (and some other help desk software) allows you to get a bird’s-eye view of all of the discussions in a single place. Beyond that, it will enable you to see which tickets are currently being viewed or worked on by other team members within the context of the overall inbox. This information facilitates support swarming by ensuring that no ticket is being double-worked and your team members can maximize their time.

Activity notifications

Along with the overall inbox view, if a support team member clicks through to a conversation another team member is working on, Help Scout lets them know. 

Anyone looking at a conversation can see any responses a person is currently writing, who is writing them, and any other activity presently taking place. This visibility is helpful because it quickly alerts the viewer that someone is already working on the conversation, and they can move on. It also allows the individual to let the conversation respondent know any additional details to add to the response. Support swarming is collaborative, after all!

The choice is yours

Both support swarming and tiered support have strengths and drawbacks that impact your team and customers. Take the time to identify what type of experience you want to offer and to understand the confines of how you offer it. For instance, swarming support will be more complex if you are a larger team or if the conversations in your queue don’t lend themselves to the strategy.

Remember: Even if you decide on one over the other, if it doesn’t work as well as you’d like, you can always change strategies and move in a more supportive path for your team’s long-term goals. Success is about experimentation and finding what works best for your business and your team.

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