5 Ancient Roman Lessons for Conquering Support

The scale of the Roman Empire is hard to comprehend. At its peak, the empire stretched from the north of England to the south of Syria, from the Danube to the Nile, and contained almost one quarter of the world’s population. It. was. huge.

It’s safe to say the Romans knew a little about how to grow effectively.

Roman Empire map

Source: Know the Romans

This immense growth, much like the growth of businesses today, was led by the success of the frontline teams. For Rome, these were the foot soldiers of the Roman Legion. Today, it’s the agents of the support team. If your company is going through a period of fast growth, there are many things to learn from the Romans.

The Roman Legion was unique in its organizational maturity and discipline for the time. This let them be incredibly effective, even when going up against larger, better-funded armies. At the Battle of Watling Street, 10,000 Roman soldiers defeated the heavily funded but over-confident Briton force of 80,000 through strategic positioning and troop management.

Imagine being eight times more effective than your competition. Here are five things we can learn from the Romans about how to triumph over the ever-growing inbox .

Dedicated training time

No one can say the Romans weren’t prepared for battle. The average recruit went through a stringent training period of four months. During “basic” training, each soldier was “given the unenviable task of marching 29 km (18 miles) in five hours with regular steps, and then 35 km (21.7 miles) in five hours with faster steps – all the while carrying a backpack that weighed 45 lbs (20.5 kg),” according to the Roman Military website.

Beyond basic training, the Romans also went through ongoing formation practice and battle simulations. No matter what came their way, they were prepared and practiced. The general simply gave the order, and thousands of men would know exactly what to do.

Support training is often anything but stringent. It frequently happens on the fly, or as we lovingly call it: being pushed into the deep-end. Basic product training happens in onboarding, but support teams need to continue training to keep the team sharp and ready to respond to any scenario. For example, teams can set aside time for the following training exercises:

Top Support training techniques

  • Practice addressing some of the trickiest customer support scenarios each week, or workshop some common questions and answers in the team meeting.
  • Invite product experts in for deep dives into specific industry use cases or new feature releases.
  • Run through a crisis simulation with extended downtime. Determine who’s responsible for communication on each contact channel, as well as internally. How do incoming tickets get tagged?

Detailed sample answers for your trickiest support situations.

Get in formation

The Romans used incredibly advanced military tactics to win battles even when they were short on numbers. Ben Hollis, from RomanMilitary.net, compares their level of strategy to that of their enemies:

"Most military commanders of the day simply had their troops rush wildly at the enemy, relying on superior numbers, better soldiers, or luck to carry the day. The Romans realized that they could not always rely on these, so they turned to strategy. Each situation was handled differently, taking into account terrain, the type and strength of the opponent's troops, and the type and strength of the Roman troops."

We’re all familiar with the feeling of rushing wildly into the queue, but it’s not the most effective way to manage high volume situations. Instead, support teams need to rely on queue management strategies to get to inbox zero.

For support, getting in formation (hat tip to Beyoncé) means using our available resources wisely. Working first in/first out might be the simplest way to get through emails, but it’s usually not the fastest or the most effective. For example, a customer unable to access the product should be given more urgency than someone with a small feedback request. While every ticket is important, not every ticket is equally urgent.

Embrace automation to assign tickets to the right department right away. Send follow-ups automagically when you’re waiting on customers to reply. Triage the queue to tease out top priority tickets that need an answer more quickly. Use tiered product teams to filter more difficult tickets to more experienced agents. Need more ideas on support battle formations? Check out 7 smart ideas to manage the queue.

Keep reserves

While the Romans were undeniably tough in battle, their true strength was the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. They stayed flexible because they kept fresh reserves behind every formation. Supporting every main group (the cavalry, infantry and mounted troops) were seven units of light troops, followed by at least seven units of reserves. If the battle wasn’t swinging their way, the general could cycle the reserve units up to the front of the formation. The deciding factor in Roman battles was frequently the burst of strength from using fresh troops against an exhausted opposition.

Too frequently our support teams are working at full capacity, with no reserves for flexibility or adaptability. With one major outage or viral tweet blowing up the inbox, our teams are stretched so thin, customer experience suffers. Support teams need to get into the rhythm of hiring before it hurts.

Kristen Aardsma, Head of Support at Basecamp, has felt the pain of operating at full capacity. Basecamp operates on an efficient budget, often waiting until “The Hurt” to hire their next team member. But as Kristen says, “That doesn’t work in support. If you’re waiting for The Hurt to tell you to hire, then your perspective is off and you’re expecting your team to carry the weight of another workload.” If you lose a team member unexpectedly, it can take up to 6 months to recruit and get a new agent up to speed. That burden is shifted to the existing team, and to the customers. Getting ahead of The Hurt and keeping reserves available for busy periods is key for quickly growing support teams.

But wait, you might say, the Romans were heavily funding their military for years, and I can’t even get budget for a stapler. I get it, but all is not lost. You may not have the option to hire early, but you do have the ability to refine your support operations to be more streamlined through discipline and strategy. Take the advice of Michael Redbord, VP of Services & Support at Hubspot, as your team moves from foundling stage through to a growth stage:

  • Add a touch of process, carefully. Consider metrics, automations, prepared responses.

  • Start thinking about customer self-service.

  • Don’t get distracted by shiny things before you’ve solidified your core support.

The Romans’ discipline and training regimen allowed them to fight more numerous foes with smaller troops, leaving the reserves fresh for when they really needed them.

Adopt foreign battle tactics

The Romans borrowed many of their early tactics from the Etruscans. Who were they? The Etruscans were the Romans’ pesky next door neighbors, whom they eventually conquered. (Probably why you may not have heard of them.) But even as they were planning to conquer the Etruscans, the Romans were secretly watching and adopting winning battle strategies. The Romans perfected all sorts of battle techniques based on the Etruscans, including using battle formations and large bronze shields for defense.

Customer support, like military strategy, drastically improves when team members are exposed to new ideas. Instead of reinventing the wheel from first principles, identify what successful teams are doing well … and then execute it even better. It’s a much faster way to improve.

There are millions of sources for customer support inspiration. You can borrow the best ideas from your own experiences as a customer, watch webinars on customer support, join customer support community groups, attend customer service events, or read blog posts — like you’re doing right now! Here are some good places to start:

Build dedicated support units

Not everyone in the Roman military fought on the front lines. The Roman military also included a set of support units called the *immunes* — a group of highly trained specialists ranging from doctors to engineers to architects. This support team helped the army run efficiently; they could build bridges and help heal the wounded.

A massive support team made up of only front-line agents will struggle to organize and sustain itself. Support teams also need their own support. For example, support operation managers can help push forward improvements and develop processes faster than managers focussed on people management alone. Growing support teams can also benefit from a dedicated HR specialist to help with recruitment and performance management. Finally, bringing engineering into support through all hands support can help development prioritize customer-centric fixes.

Mailchimp embeds Support Product Analysts in every engineering team to help facilitate communication between Product and Support. Being intentional about bringing customer insights into product development conversations leads to more informed decision-making.

Avoid the collapse of your empire

There were many reasons for the eventual collapse of the expansive Roman empire. They stretched themselves too thin, ran into communication problems, and outsourced many of their military functions to non-citizens from conquered lands.

The Romans, however competent in battle, were also known for their terrible brutality. The abuses of power, combined with the oppression of freedom, ultimately aided in bringing the empire down.

Support can learn from the decline of the Romans. Growth is great, but growing sustainably means that you’ll continue to provide an excellent customer experience even at 10x your current volume:

  • As teams become more distributed, strong communication skills become more important. Developing remote communication processes and internal documentation early can help reduce friction between offices.

  • Outsource support wisely. Find a partner company that has similar values to your own support philosophy. Support them with training, documentation and feedback. Don’t expect to set it and forget it.

  • Find ways to scale without adding more people. Invest in self-service so customers can help themselves. Automate tasks that computers do better than humans.

  • Encourage practicing self-care. Olark’s CEO went viral last year for his reply to a member of the team taking a mental health day. Create a culture where an employee’s well-being is more important than reaching inbox zero.

But most importantly, remember that brutality and power struggles will be the downfall of any civilization, including your support team. A happy team means happy customers.

Conquer like the Romans

I don’t mean to glorify war, but imagine operating a support team with the precision and discipline of a Roman Legion. A team where processes are seamlessly executed and improved upon, and where a team of immunes works alongside front-line employees to deliver a scalable customer experience.

Even the smallest team can accomplish mighty things with the right strategy.

Learn more about the Romans:

Sarah Chambers

Sarah Chambers

Sarah is a customer service consultant and the founder of Supported Content. When she’s not arguing about customer service, she’s usually outdoors rock climbing or snowboarding. Follow her on Twitter to keep up with her adventures.