Landing a role as a customer service team manager is a dream for many individual contributors building their careers in support.
When it finally happens, there is a lot of change to adjust to. Metrics need monitoring, upper management wants reports, and your new staff all need to meet with you one-on-one — all in the first week. It’s an exhilarating time.
As you move through the whirlwind, it’s natural to lean on some of the habits you developed as an individual contributor (IC). After all, becoming an exceptional IC is what got you your promotion in the first place, right?
Yes, but success is measured differently now that you’re a manager. In fact, some of the very qualities that made you an outstanding IC could undermine your effectiveness as a leader.
5 habits to rethink when you become a manager
1. Offering solutions to every problem, every time
When you’re a support IC, your day is spent helping customers resolve difficult issues with your company’s product or service. The best support pros — those who often eventually become support managers — are energized by finding creative workarounds to obstacles. They enjoy being innovative, and they’re excited to offer detailed explanations and instructions that will prevent customer errors or misunderstandings in the future. They excel at making problems go away.
To a certain extent, support managers have to excel at making problems go away, too. If a direct report is facing a true blocker that they could not reasonably be expected to mediate without help, it’s important to have the skills and knowledge necessary to unblock it. This sets your team up for long-term success.
But true blockers in the workplace are few and far between. Usually, support ICs come to one-on-ones with their managers asking for advice about relatively minor problems. And because new support managers are fresh off of their IC roles, where they thrived on offering whiz-bang solutions to every customer problem, they default to taking the same approach with their direct reports. When presented with a problem, they solve it. When asked for advice, they give it.
What most new support managers misunderstand, though, is that success is no longer measured by clearing the queue, literally or figuratively. Directly resolving one problem after another doesn’t make you a successful people leader. What makes you a successful people leader is creating the conditions under which your direct reports are empowered to solve problems themselves.
This might feel frustrating and unnatural at first, because you’ll be asking a lot of questions instead of answering them. You’ll be connecting your direct reports with resources instead of writing out instructions yourself. You’ll be constantly fighting the urge to explain what you would do.
But this hard work on your part (and it will be hard!) will pay off in the long run. By intentionally declining to become the nexus from which all team problems are solved, you’ll create a culture of independent thinking and doing. Your direct reports will feel empowered to take initiative as they see fit, confident because you’ve helped them develop problem-solving skills of their own.
Building a team of effective, empowered, autonomous individuals is the ultimate goal of every manager. Don’t undermine your chances of achieving this by failing to reexamine your habits.
2. Starting from a place of ‘yes’
Support professionals are usually trained to start from a place of “yes” when working with customers. Even if the exact need can’t be met, the support pro is often expected to offer compromises, workarounds or creative ideas to make the customer feel heard and accommodated.
As a support IC, you probably got very good at this. But as a support manager, this is another old habit you’ll have combat sometimes. As a people leader, you’ll need to advocate for your team to both the customer and the company at large, and sometimes that means setting boundaries that feel uncomfortable at first.
“In a helper role, every move I made was designed to solve problems and make people happy,” says Justin Grenier, director of technical support at Articulate.
“In a leadership role, pleasing everyone is harder. I've needed to negotiate conflicts, oppose requests, let customers go, and even help staff find a better fit somewhere outside our organization. If your goal as a manager is to make everyone happy, you may wind up unfulfilled. I've had to learn the skill of disappointing people!”
If you overdo it, starting from a place of “yes” is dangerous when you’re a support lead. But this is a particularly hard mindset to combat when you’re new to your role. For the time being, ease in by trying a “yes, but” approach.
For example, let’s say your product team is releasing a new, complex feature, and they ask if it’s possible for your direct reports to handle an expected 10 percent increase in ticket volume. Your impulse is probably to say “sure!” But that’s likely to strain your team, which could have a negative impact on morale. Instead, try “yes, but we’ll need to adjust our service-level agreement to accommodate the higher workload.” This accommodates the request from your internal partner, but also protects your team’s time and sanity.
3. Responding quickly
Reducing your time-to-solve was probably a key goal when you were a support IC, and for good reason. In many cases, fast response times lead to greater customer satisfaction. As a support manager, it’s natural to have the same inclination. When you get an email from your manager, an internal partner, or one of your direct reports, you probably feel compelled to get back to them as quickly as you can. The worst thing you can do is cause a slowdown in productivity by failing to get back to someone, right?
Maybe, but when you’re a manager — and especially if you’re a middle manager, which describes many new support team leads — responding quickly isn’t always going to lead to a desirable outcome. Managers usually need time to follow up with others before coming to a final answer or decision. If you consistently fail to consider all sides before making commitments, you’ll erode your team’s confidence in your ability to represent their best interests and your own supervisor’s confidence in your ability to lead.
Instead of firing off immediate responses to inquiries and requests, commit to getting back to stakeholders within 24 hours. This is usually enough time to mull something over, connect with other team members, and generally let your best judgement take hold. You might not be as speedy a responder as you used to, but in the end, you’ll be a better manager for taking the slow and steady approach.
4. Expecting perfection
There’s nothing more satisfying to a support IC than coming up with the perfect response to a complex ticket. Striking just the right balance between empathy, information and guidance is immeasurably gratifying. It’s understandable that when you transition to support management, you’d expect a similar emphasis on perfection from your direct reports.
But once again, this is a perilous habit of mind to carry over from your time as a support IC. For one thing, perfectionism isn’t a good quality to promote on a team-wide basis. You should of course expect quality, but perfection takes time and a level of mental energy that’s not sustainable for most people over the long haul. This will eventually begin to interfere with efficiency, which is something no support team can afford to forgo.
Also, one of your primary responsibilities as a manager is to help your team members grow and develop professionally. This means providing them with stretch opportunities to strengthen their skills and widen their scopes. If you’re constantly expecting perfection from your directs, they’re not going to be excited about taking risks and trying new things. You’ll be unintentionally creating a culture where everyone does what they’ve always done because there’s no safe space to fail — or even make a few mistakes.
This will limit your team members’ professional growth opportunities, which is obviously not the outcome you want. So instead of expecting perfection from your team, expect (and praise, and reward) progress. For example, when a team member takes a leap and tries to solve a tough ticket on her own, recognize the courage this takes and praise her forward progress, even if she’s missed the mark. Then give constructive feedback so that she’ll solve that same type of ticket even better the next time.
5. Thinking locally
Some support managers look back fondly to their days as ICs because the focus of their work was hyperlocal. You had to worry about your own performance, your own metrics, your own personal projects. When you become a manager, all that changes. Suddenly, you have to think not only about how you’re doing, but how the whole team is doing.
Denise Twum, support operations manager at SmugMug, knows very well how it feels to make this transition. When she was an IC, her day-to-day revolved around resolving as many cases as she could, with high-quality answers that would keep her CSAT scores up.
“As a manager, I couldn’t focus on that. I needed to look at the whole team’s performance, and figure out where we could make improvements that would not only improve one person’s stats, but improve the whole team’s efficiency.”
But moving from a local to a global mindset goes further than just your own team. You also have to consider how your team is performing and contributing within the wider company, too. As a manager, you need to ensure that your team’s work is contributing to the company’s overall goals, Twum says. “Getting into this kind of mindset was pretty challenging and took some trial and error to get to a comfortable place.”
Thinking locally can undermine your team’s success, so it’s important to do as Twum suggests and try out some strategies to start shifting away from IC-type thinking and toward manager-type thinking. One approach that’s often effective is the “but why?” strategy. Whenever you’re considering making a change to a process or practice, or even when you find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about something, ask yourself “but why?”
If the answer isn’t something to the effect of “because it will help my team fulfill our mission” or “because it will help us contribute to a company goal,” you’re probably thinking too locally. Leave that to your ICs, and use your time and energy for more global thinking. That’s why you’re in charge, after all.
Progress, not perfection
Making the jump from support IC to support manager is an incredible opportunity, and it means taking on a lot of new responsibilities and challenges. This includes shifting your thinking in a number of profound ways. You’re unlikely to get it all right the first time, and that’s OK. What’s important is that you’re committed to your customers and your team, and continuously building your skills as a manager. Enjoy the ride!