Growing a Successful and Rewarding Career in Customer Support
Editor’s note: This video and following transcript are of a talk delivered at SupConf, a conference for customer support professionals, in Nov. 2016.

The nature of customer support work tends to lend itself to this short term, firefighting, just-cross-things-off-the list natural cadence. Take care of the next customer, they’re waiting for you. Focus -> close. Focus -> close. It can be rapid-fire and relentless, and we might feel guilty taking time away from helping people (or like we’re not being a team player) by designating time to think about ourselves and our needs and our careers and where we want to go.

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But that is a recipe for stagnation and burnout. Customer service reps are up there with teachers and first responders and social workers in terms of occupational burnout, due to all the the emotional labor we expend. Think about it: A huge predictor of burnout is putting others’ needs before your own. But the opposite of burnout is engagement, and the best predictor of engagement is making progress on meaningful work.

So if you’re not thinking about what the next few years look like in your support position — about what “progress” means to you — you’re asking to burn out. That’s why it’s critical to set aside time to think about what growth and progress look like for you.

Determine your customer service career path

Since customer support as we know it is both relatively new and rapidly evolving, you may still wonder what kinds of career paths are available to you.

The good news is that support career options abound. We’re not limited by a linear track. 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 based on what interests you.

The flip side of having all these options, of course, is the tyranny of choice. If you’re not really sure which direction you want to grow in, it can be hard to figure out your next step.

That’s why it’s good to set aside time on a regular basis — I’d recommend quarterly — to think about where you want to go and the steps you’ll need to take to get there. Put a recurring event on your calendar if that’s what it takes. And here’s a super special magic trick that works like a charm: Write down what you want. Put it out there in the universe, as Oprah would say.

This might seem a little woo-woo, but I promise it works. Think about where you want your career to go and write it down. That simple act helps transform wouldn’t-it-be-nice daydreaming into concrete goals you’re working toward, even subconsciously. And then tell your supervisor! Make your supervisor a partner in getting you where you want to go.


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Do you want to lead people or specialize?

If you’re doing frontline support and and you want to grow your career within or adjacent to this field, you have a couple general options: people leadership or domain leadership. That is, management or specialization as an individual contributor.

Pursuing a people leadership role

If people leadership — management — is what interests you, great. The good news is that we’re seeing customer-related positions open up at the C-Suite level — Allstate has a chief customer officer, FedEx has a chief customer officer, Boeing has one, Dunkin’ Brands has one — signifying a corresponding growth of opportunities downstream. As customer service evolves and more companies buy into its value, more and more of these spots for team leads and managers open up as well, so the industry trend is in our favor.

You can talk to people who have done frontline support and then moved into leadership about how they did it. Ask them for their story. We’re so lucky that we work in a field where everyone is innately helpful. You won’t find a more supportive community anywhere.

Andrew Spittle, for example, heads up the Happiness team at Automattic, which is broken down into 21 individual teams. Each team has a team lead responsible for guiding the direction of the team and providing individual coaching and feedback. So that’s at least 22 support leadership opportunities available just within one company. And yes, Automattic is a bigger company, but getting in with a larger or a growing company is a good way to fast-track your progress up the people leadership ladder, if that’s what interests you.

Pursuing a domain leadership role

On the domain leadership side of things — and again, by domain leadership, I mean individual contributors, specialists, gurus, any kind of leadership that doesn’t have to do with managing people — I’ve heard some people say that they feel like they have to move into management to have a support career, and I’ve heard people ask, “How do I grow my career in support if I don’t want to be a manager?” So here are some practical ways to grow your career in support as a domain leader, vs. the management track or people leadership:

Think in terms of your resume.

This advice comes from our Chief Growth Officer at Help Scout, Suneet Bhatt. He says that when he’s setting long-term goals for himself, he always tries to think in terms of things he hasn’t done before. Where are the gaps in your knowledge; where do you have more opportunity for growth? Focus on that, and set aside some time in the future to look at how that’s going and what to set your sights on next. Thinking in terms of your resume just means asking how you can add a new notch in your belt.

Develop and hone a skill in a particular area.

My background was in writing and editing when I took a support position at Basecamp. During my time there I continued to write — I worked on knowledge base documentation, and I wrote for the Signal v. Noise blog. I didn't have a specific goal; I was just continuing to work on a skill that interested me. But when a writing position opened at Help Scout, it felt like the job description was written for me. That’s how I got to what I’m doing now. Jim Mackenzie, also at Basecamp, studied API documentation and started handling conversations that required more technical research and problem-solving, and Basecamp essentially created a “tier two” support role for him. Carissa Phillips, while working in support at Campaign Monitor, deepened her email deliverability skills and moved into a new role that way. The common theme in all of these stories: career growth came from taking the initiative to develope a skill they were interested in that also benefited the company.

Consider training and mentoring.

Fast-growing companies often need to do a lot of support team hiring — Mailchimp, for example, has full-time training roles, people whose whole job it is to help new folks get up to speed, understand the culture, and start contributing quickly. That work doesn’t have to be done by a “manager.”

Build a profile.

This might be most relevant to people who feel like they might need to make a move to a different company in order to grow. 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. A professional Twitter presence and contributions to the Support Driven community will help, too. Maybe become a go-to subject matter expert for something super niche. A number of people in this community keep awesome personal blogs about support if you’re looking for inspiration as to building a personal brand.

Make the most of your time in support

I don’t want to suggest the ultimate goal is to move out of support. It’s not. You can absolutely build a rewarding and fulfilling career within support.

But it’s OK to be honest that support experience can lead to other opportunities. That’s part of what makes support so awesome and special — there are so many paths available to us, and our work exposes us to the entire company. And you get to take your empathy for the customer wherever you go, and that’s huge. That humility and customer focus differentiates you and makes you utterly invaluable.

It doesn’t diminish support when people move out of it into new positions — if anything, it elevates it, because then you have people who know what it’s like, who have been in the trenches, scattered throughout the organization on different teams. They can advocate for customers and the support team in sophisticated ways to people who don’t have that experience and are further removed from those concerns.

What it comes down to is this: Whether you grow your career within support or your path evolves outside support, the important thing is to make the most of your time in support. That way, whatever comes next, you won’t have stagnated; you’ll have grown.


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Emily Triplett Lentz

Emily Triplett Lentz

Emily is a writer, marketing strategist and alum of Help Scout. You can find her on Twitter.