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Customer support isn’t the same thing it was 50, 20, or even 5 years ago — and the definition is still evolving, which can create confusion for anyone looking to build a career in the field.
At Help Scout and many other customer-driven companies, customer support means timely, empathetic help that keeps the customer’s needs at the forefront of every interaction. This approach looks a lot different from what customer service used to mean:
|Traditional Customer Service||The New Customer Support|
|Viewed as a cost center||Viewed as the face of a company, a critical component of sales and word-of-mouth marketing|
|Disempowered agents who require managerial approval for tasks customers should be able to accomplish themselves||Self-service first; skilled and empowered agents can help with more complex questions and requests|
|Requires customers to call during specified business hours and often wait on hold for help||Round-the-clock help via multiple channels: documentation, email, phone, chat, social media, etc.|
|Call centers relegated to cubicles or outsourced to other locations/countries||Works side-by-side with product teams, has a seat at the table in company decision-making|
|Dead-end job||Myriad opportunities for growth and development|
|Operational metrics tied to cost-cutting: first response times, call resolution times, etc.||Holistic metrics tied to company-wide goals: NPS, customer satisfaction, etc.|
If 86% of customers say they quit doing business with a company due to a bad customer experience, then businesses need to approach every support interaction as an opportunity to acquire, retain or upsell as well. The new customer support is a combination of customer service, sales, tech support, and customer success.
In the self-service internet age, customers look to support to answer more complex questions — hence the shift away from hiring your average “people person,” toward hiring highly skilled, empathetic problem-solvers.
Since support is a quickly evolving profession, a necessary part of building a career in support is demonstrating its value and elevating the profession itself.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to advocate for customer support and how to build your career within it.
We talk to Mireille Pilloud, Community Support Manager at TED, about how to boost your profile and ensure support makes an impact at your organization by getting in front of decision-makers.
Practical tips for embracing data and measurement so you can demonstrate support’s value, petition for the resources you need, and advocate for your customers and your team. Learn how to get comfy measuring your work and linking those measurements to your organization’s larger goals.
How to prevent turnover in customer support by first giving team members a clear path to develop their professional skills, and then by facilitating meaningful progress.
The various incarnations a career in support might take and explore opportunities for people interested in both people leadership and other kinds of professional development.
When you embrace data and measurement, take the initiative to demonstrate your value, develop the skills that interest you, connect with others in the industry, and take pride in your work, you elevate not only your own career, but Customer Support as a profession. This guide is for anyone interested in doing just that.
We hope you find it helpful!
— Emily Triplett Lentz and the team at Help Scout
Mireille Pilloud knows what it takes to get support a “seat at the table.” In her role as Community Support Manager at TED, she’s learned how she and her team can best contribute to the growth and direction of the organization.
We chatted with Pilloud about her journey from the “kid table” to the “adult table” — a metaphor she uses to describe the potential impact of support work.
“You sit at the kid table if you don’t feel like your work has an impact, if no one takes what you do seriously, and if no one understands exactly what it is you do,” Pilloud says.
The adult table is about making sure your team’s work is an integral part of your organization’s ecosystem.
“How can you be a customer advocate if you’re only seen as an email monkey, someone to keep the customers at bay? The adult table is where your opinions matter and where decisions are made. Support needs to be at that table.”
In many organizations, support can find themselves seated at the “kid table” by default. And that’s not really anyone’s fault — there’s a boatload of historical precedent for treating support as a cost center and not enough understanding regarding the potential impact a data-informed, customer-driven support team can have toward the bottom line.
“There are still companies that ascribe to the old beliefs about the value of support teams,” Pilloud says. “It gets outsourced to other countries or it’s siloed off in the basement. But I think that conversation is changing.” We’re witnessing a paradigm shift in how companies use support: “It’s a bigger part of the customer experience and ecosystem; it’s part of the feedback loop between the builders, sellers, and customers.”
Pilloud didn’t change that conversation at TED overnight. “It was a lot of trial and error,” she admits, “and it took me a couple years to figure out.”
One thing that worked for her was befriending colleagues she saw as “the adults” — the decision makers at TED. She got in front of them so they knew who she was and what her team could offer, and she learned what kinds of things mattered to them.
“Making friends with the ‘adults’ at work isn’t about finding someone to go to happy hour with,” Pilloud clarifies. “It’s about finding an ally with whom you can share resources for mutual benefit.”
Continuing with the holiday kid table/adult table metaphor, Pilloud compares this alliance to having a “cool aunt” who thinks you’re fun and wants your company at the adult table — and can help you get there.
Pilloud recalls how, leading up to a 2014 site launch, a crew of “cool aunts” on the tech team helped create the documentation and reporting systems she needed, because her team could provide them with the customer feedback they needed. Together, they crushed the site launch.
“You have to figure out which problems you share and approach them with the idea that you both have something to gain by working together.”
“But first, you have to make sure those people know who you are and what you do,” Pilloud says. “The people launching initiatives are at the adult table making plans and decisions. They’re not intentionally leaving you out; they just don’t think to include you. If you want to be included among the adults, you have to get in front of them. They’re probably not going to think to loop you in otherwise.”
So how do you get in front of the “adults,” the cool aunts, the decision makers? It’s perhaps no surprise that a TED employee recommends presenting whenever you can. Not that it came easy to Pilloud at first. “Presenting is terrifying,” she admits. But it’s an incredibly efficient way to get in front of the people you need to get in front of. And you’re probably not going to die.
“I planted a little seed in everyone’s brain: that customer support is a team, customers are real people with problems, and my team helps solve those problems,” Pilloud says.
She also recommends writing regular updates. That, along with presenting whenever you have the opportunity, will keep your team “in the forefront of people’s minds.”
But don’t just write or present about any old thing — make sure you’ve collected good data and that it tells a story that will resonate. (More on how to do that in the next chapter!)
“This is the real meat of building credibility,” says Pilloud. “If you want people to listen to you, you have to prove you’re good at listening. You need to show that you care about and understand others’ work.” Ask yourself what others could use help with and whether your work overlaps with those needs. “Then you can go to another team and say, ‘I see you’re having a problem with this; here’s how we can help,’ which shows you’re listening and you have ideas for solutions,” says Pilloud.
“When you’re at the adult table, people know what you do and how important it is.”
“They take the things you say seriously because you’re a trusted source of information,” Pilloud says. “Your team’s work has a bigger impact. It’s not for your ego; it’s about doing your job more effectively.”
If your support team is suffering from second-class citizen syndrome, that’s an indicator that there’s room for better data-informed support.
For support teams to advocate for the resources they need, have a respected seat at the table, and contribute to the health of a business, they need to communicate in terms other teams understand. Much of the time, those terms equate to data and finances, yet many support folks shy away from that stuff. Why is that?
At the risk of over-generalizing, data-informed support doesn’t always come naturally to those who identify as communicators and empathizers.
If there’s one argument for transitioning to more data-informed support, it’s this: You’ll no longer have to harp on the same pain point over and over, only to feel ignored by the people who have the power to do something about it.
“I realized that speaking the language of the people I was trying to convince benefited me too.” Mat Patterson, Help Scout
In his last few years at Campaign Monitor, Help Scout’s Mat Patterson moved from being a non-data support person to justifying everything with data. “It was a hard transition, and I’ve spoken with other support people in the same position. A lot of us don’t have the background. But when companies reach a certain point in their growth, support teams get destroyed in budget meetings by teams who are leveraging data.”
The “us vs. them” dynamic can often be avoided by presenting those pain points in a different format. Embracing data and reporting is the way to go about that. Here’s how to get started.
A great place to begin is with your help desk reporting features. Every help desk worth its salt offers customer analytics reporting, and most can help you answer questions beyond the standard how-many-conversations-do-we-handle-in-a-day sort of thing. If you’re brand new to customer support metrics, check out this article about customer service performance measurement, as well as this one about measuring customer satisfaction.
“Some things are easy to measure and some things are hard to measure,” Mat says, and “sometimes the most useful information is not easy to access.” Avoid the temptation to measure only the obvious, and get comfortable with the customer reporting features your help desk offers.
“People are more likely to listen to and value what you’re saying when you back it up with data.” Mireille Pilloud, TED
This can take some time, and it may not be immediately apparent which reports to set up so that you can successfully advocate for your team’s and your customers’ needs. If this is you — and we can hardly emphasize this advice strongly enough — start by contacting your help desk’s support team.
Tell them the customer analytics you want to report on, or if you’re not sure, ask which reports they suggest will help you make decisions or advocate for the resources you need.
For example, the above report shows a 58% drop in email conversations between the week before and the week of Thanksgiving, which can help drive scheduling decisions. Maybe everyone on the support team only works a half day, or remote team members in countries outside the U.S. cover the Thanksgiving holiday in exchange for a day off some other time.
You already have a ton of customer data you don’t need to pay anything extra for, even if you’re not collecting or paying attention to it yet. Once you start using these tools that are already at your disposal, you’ll wish you’d started a long time ago.
If your company has a business analyst-type person, great! You’re ahead of the game. Try bringing your problem statement to them, because those folks get their kicks solving problems.
Say, for example, your gut is telling you that your support team is stretched, and you need to hire. Bring that story to your data person, and ask them to help you figure out how to test that hypothesis with customer data. Watch their eyes light up with glee!
If you can, sit with them as they try to figure it out, and brainstorm together. You might discover that you don’t need a new hire and that the solution lies elsewhere, or you might stumble upon some greater problem you can solve for right away.
“Sharing a mutual victory outranks being 100% true to your own perspective. Sometimes this means going back to the drawing board to find information that will speak to different parties. This is OK.” Simon Ouderkirk, WordPress.com
Stop speaking in terms of “lots of customers say they want this” or “we need a better internal tool because our team hates the one it’s using.” The hard truth is that appeals to ethos aren’t as compelling to people making budget and spending decisions.
Instead, harness the power of data so you can say things like:
“Twelve customers are churning every quarter because this feature is broken, which accounts for $4,130 in lost revenue per year”
“Every person on our team would have an extra half-hour per week to contribute to knowledge base documentation if we invest in these three improvements to our internal billing tool.”
As a support professional, you’re used to communicating in a way that gets your message across. But when communicating with other teams within your organization, you may need to forego the methods that work best with customers in favor of the methods that work best with the people you’re trying to convince.
Mat recalls a tough email back-and-forth with a colleague who was just not hearing him out. Finally, he realized that by creating a PowerPoint deck using the same information, he had a better shot at making his point.
“It’s the same information but now I’m breaking it into slides. I’m putting a few bullet points on each one and now it’s a presentation; it’s not an email.”
“Without a keen understanding of the data, it will be difficult to make sense of the customer experience. It will also be difficult to convince other stakeholders that you’re right if you can’t back it up.” TJ Stein, MeUndies
He didn’t have to make a presentation; he just organized the same thoughts in a slide deck, and lo and behold, suddenly everything he was saying made sense.
That doesn’t mean you have to create a slide deck for every ask. But it’s important to pay attention to how people react to the way you communicate and adjust accordingly. That adjustment signals that you’re paying attention and making an effort to help them understand what you’re saying.
Sales and customer success teams know all this, which is why their initiatives are so often greenlighted — their goals are closely tied to revenue, and they know how to illustrate those ties. It’s not that they’re the CEO’s favorite, or because their needs outrank support’s needs, or even because they have better data. It’s because they know how to make a compelling case with the data they have.
And at least as of this writing, there’s still no law preventing support from using the same methods.
Despite the shift that’s occurring in how companies value support as a critical component of the success of their operations, some support practitioners view their own work as an entry level position, a foot in the door, a dead end. And that’s a travesty, because customer support takes a special skill set most people don’t have.
“A lot of people think customer service is easy and anybody can do it, but it’s absolutely not the case,” says Taylor Morgan, Manager of Customer Service at SurveyGizmo.
A couple of years ago, Morgan was agonizing over high turnover on her support team and wondering what she could do to slow support staff from leaving the team for other jobs or positions in the company after only 18 months.
Employee retention isn’t a problem specific to customer support, but it’s a problem familiar to many support leads.
How do you not only hire and train great people and help facilitate such a bright and rewarding career that they want to stick around for the long haul?
You can employ a number of tactics to improve employee retention in customer support — hire carefully, for starters. Train new hires thoroughly and give them the tools they need; hold regular check-ins; offer decent benefits and fair pay. All of those make a difference. But.
The number one thing you can do to reduce customer support team turnover: Facilitate progress.
People are happiest when they feel they’re making progress on meaningful work, and happy workers tend to stay put. Leaders who create deliberate career paths and growth goals for the people on their teams will enjoy higher retention rates than those who don’t.
If you’re not sure where to start, poll the team. Chances are they’ll have plenty to say about what career advancement looks like to them. Morgan brought the SurveyGizmo support team together, for instance, after they’d been experiencing some attendance hiccups: “I said ‘OK, let’s brainstorm together; what’s going to make you guys want to come to work?’ They had a lot of input.”
Following those discussions, Morgan developed an official rubric for career advancement in customer support at SurveyGizmo.
Download SurveyGizmo’s career development plan to use as a jumping-off point to create your own!Download
New hires start at the Hero (Support Rep) level and can advance to the Superhero (Advanced Support Technician) or even Senior Superhero (Senior Support Technician and Mentor) roles. Salary, responsibilities and benefits increase at each step in the rubric.
It worked like a charm. Since launching the program, the average tenure of an Advanced Support Technician has risen from 18 months to 38 months. It’s been at least two years since a support team member left for another company; any turnover is generally internal.
“You feel more responsibility when you feel like you’re doing something awesome and it’s getting recognized, and you’re not just the person on the phone getting yelled at,” Morgan says.
“If you feel like what you’re doing is recognized as important, you’re more likely to be eager to keep doing it.”
The concrete roadmap for advancement spurred a number of unforeseen ancillary benefits as well, such as a framework for easier one-on-ones and a built-in team of coaches for new hires or leaders who can handle customer escalations. “This helps them feel like they are in a career, rather than just an entry-level job,” Morgan says. “They have new line items to add to a resume, to show progress and achievement.”
If career ladders are antithetical to your organization, you don’t have to set it up that way — you can also facilitate horizontal growth. After losing too many support team members to other departments and organizations, Nicole Winstone, Customer Support Manager at Hootsuite, created a “leadership” track (managing and mentoring people) and a “guru” track (exploring and expanding a depth of knowledge) for her team. By defining what success looks like for each role, the tenure of a Hootsuite support team member increased from just nine months to 16 months in the last year.
Help Scout also encourages horizontal development. Since not everyone wants to be a manager, our salary formula aims to advance teammates within their disciplines — this way people are compensated according to their growth, whether they’re a player or a coach. Support team member Abigail Phillips handles all new employee training, for example, and Mo McKibbin frequently pitches in on copywriting content like our Release Notes.
By now, it’s well-documented that hiring costs more than retaining an existing team member. “All the costs involved with training and all that,” Morgan says, “if you can keep one person happy and build on their skills? One guy left after four years, and it was like a hole was dug in the team in terms of knowledge. No one knows all the stuff that was in his head. And if we can just prevent that and keep people happy, that saves us so much in the long run.”
Employee retention on support teams is not a solved problem. But like Morgan and Winstone, there are support leaders out there who are experimenting with ways to legitimize career paths in the field. It’s high time for practitioners of support to value their own work and to encourage talented people to remain and grow in support.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re hopefully convinced that support can be a rewarding career — but since the field is both relatively new and rapidly evolving, you may still wonder what kinds of career paths are available to you, and you may have some of the following questions:
The good news is that support career options abound; working in support can lead to so many different career paths, it would be practically impossible to cover them all. It’s not as linear a track as others — if you go to nursing school, you’ll probably wind up being a nurse. When you work in support, you get to write your own ticket.
If you’re interested in further reading about what support careers can look like and ways to go about developing them, we recommend this post by Valentina Thörner, this post by Mercer Smith-Looper, and this post by Brian Kerr.
More and more, we’re seeing customer-related positions open up at the C-Suite level, signifying a corresponding growth of opportunities downstream. As support teams grow alongside their companies, spots for team leads, specialists and managers open up as well.
Andrew Spittle heads up the Happiness team at Automattic, for example, which is broken down into 21 individual teams ranging in size from 5-20 Happiness Engineers. Each has a Team Lead responsible for guiding the direction of the team and providing individual coaching and feedback.
“When someone indicates interest in a Team Lead role, we challenge them to lead projects and organize Happiness Engineers around hard problems to build their experience,” says Team Lead Jeremey DuVall. “From there, we provide coaching and feedback to help them improve and ideally build out a base of future leaders within the organization.”
If leadership positions appeal to you, tell your leaders! Make them partners in your career growth. That’s how Taylor Morgan became the support manager at SurveyGizmo:
“I started at SurveyGizmo as a Customer Support Hero, then moved into a Team Lead role, then took over management for the Support Team, and now I’m working towards a Directorship. Everybody around me was moving to other roles, moving into development, or QA, or sales, and I didn’t want to do any of those things. So when my boss asked me what I wanted to do, I said, ‘well, I think I kind of like your job.’ She had other opportunities coming her way, and needed some help at the time, so it worked out for both of us.” Taylor Morgan, SurveyGizmo
Not every company will be as proactive about employees’ personal development or as committed to hiring from within. And no matter how supportive your organization, it’ll still take a heavy amount of personal initiative to acquire the skills and knowledge you’ll need to move into leadership roles.
While there is no shortage of general management resources out there, anyone specifically interested in a customer-related management track should read Jeanne Bliss’ Chief Customer Officer 2.0.
“A lot of people feel like they have to move into management to have a support career,” says Help Scout’s Mat Patterson, “and in many companies that is probably true.” But if you find the right situation, you can take advantage of alternate options geared toward individual contributors rather than managers, such as the “guru” track Nicole Winstone instituted at Hootsuite.
Career tips for customer support players
Develop a skill in a particular area. Carissa Phillips, while working in support at Campaign Monitor, deepened her email deliverability skills and moved into a new role that way.
Consider training and mentoring. Quickly growing companies often need to do a lot of support team hiring — Mailchimp, for example, has full-time training roles. It’s important work helping new folks get up to speed, understand the culture, and start contributing quickly, and it doesn’t have to be done by a “manager.”
Add new channels to your skills. Become more valuable by being amazing at chat or being willing to make phone calls or run webinars. Or developer skills — Basecamp’s Jim Mackenzie moved from the support team to more of a “tier two” support role, handling many of the conversations that require more technical research and problem-solving.
Build a profile. You know a ton of stuff. Share it with others on a blog or in a newsletter so you can generate new options for yourself.
Hustle. Help Scout’s Customer Champion job description includes this bullet point: “You’re a hustler with a good ol’ fashioned work ethic, day in and day out. You take initiative and ownership to see things through to completion. If it needs doing, you do it.” “I always come back to ‘hustle’ as a skill,” says Help Scout’s support lead Justin Seymour — “somebody who can just get things done and endure a long tenure in a support position, all while maintaining a high output of quality work. Consistency and drive don’t go unnoticed, and if the endgame is support leadership, or even another position with the same company, hustle is a desirable skill.”
Just because support has evolved into a legitimate career field doesn’t mean anyone has to stay there forever — it’s OK to be honest that support experience can lead to other opportunities. The important thing is to make the most of your time in support. That way, whatever comes next, you’ll have grown rather than stagnated.
In The Alliance, Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh advocate for a new employer-employee relationship framework, based on how both parties can add value to one another. “By building a mutually beneficial alliance rather than simply exchanging money for time,” they write, “employer and employee can invest in the relationship and take the risks necessary to pursue bigger payoffs.”
Support needs this transparent give-and-take as much as any other team. To be sure, everyone is responsible for their own career, and team members need to take career development upon themselves. Yet companies who facilitate that growth will benefit in turn from a more motivated and engaged workforce.
The key is to agree on a growth course that benefits both the worker and the company.
“By building a mutually beneficial alliance rather than simply exchanging money for time,” write Hoffman, Casnocha and Yeh, “employer and employee can invest in the relationship and take the risks necessary to pursue bigger payoffs.”
“If you’re not thinking about what three to five years looks like in a support position before you commit to the job, you’ll burn out.” Justin Seymour, Help Scout
With no expectations, and no goals, nothing happens. “It’s fine if aspirations are elsewhere, whether that be a personal business or another line of work,” Justin says. “As long as we have those expectations set, we can help get them to where they want to be.”
In advocating for your own career in support, by extension, you’re advocating for everyone. You win, your community wins, your company wins.
Many thanks to Mireille Pilloud, Taylor Morgan, Simon Ouderkirk, TJ Stein, Nicole Winstone, Sonya Green, Ann Goliak, Carolyn Kopprasch, Jeff Vincent, Rachel Berry, Jeremey DuVall, and Chase Clemons, as well as the incredible Help Scout support team and Support Driven community for their ideas and contributions to this resource.