Creating a culture of trust in customer support

Main illustration: Liz Meyer

Recently, a customer asked me a deceptively tricky question at the end of a support conversation.

It wasn’t anything about a complex API call or a particularly niche part of our product; instead, the customer asked if I had any advice on dealing with stress in a customer support environment.

The answer came to me easily: “Allow your customer support team to step away from their desks for five minutes when they need to.”

Customer support is an inherently stressful role.

That might seem like a pretty simple answer to a complex problem, and I’m sure the customer was expecting a much more detailed analysis of how we handle the pressures of customer support.

But that simple answer – allowing people to step away from their desks when they judge it necessary – is about more than giving people a breather when they need it; instead, it represents an entire approach towards how we operate as a Customer Support team.

Stressful role

Customer support is an inherently stressful role – conversation volumes are high and can seem never-ending, while customers are usually getting in touch when something has gone wrong, and there is rarely a sense of let-up. As a result, it can often feel like pushing against the relentless tide, which can be cumulatively very stressful if not managed carefully.

That atmosphere of trust reaps all sorts of dividends.

That pressure can build up and begin to weigh on customer support team members. But a teammate who is under stress is unlikely to be in the frame of mind to engage fully with customers’ problems, never mind post a killer GIF that really nails the tone of a conversation and sends the customer away smiling.

And that’s why being able to step away from our desks when needed is not only key, but represents something far more significant – it is emblematic of an entire approach to building a customer support team that puts an emphasis on trust, autonomy and mutual respect.

By creating an environment in which customer support representatives feel a sense of independence, you show a high degree of trust in your team, and that atmosphere of trust reaps all sorts of dividends – you’ll develop a more content crew who are better equipped to deal with the challenges they face, and more dedicated to rising to those challenges.

Big Brother is watching

I’m amazed by how many companies just get this wrong. I’ve heard too many anecdotes of customer support environments in which agents feel chained to their desks, unable to do something as simple as take a toilet break without being tut-tutted for taking too long. The received wisdom in other companies seems to be that you can’t afford to give customer support teams any level of autonomy – by giving your teammates an inch, goes the thinking, they will take a mile and exploit your goodwill.

When you begin to treat your teammates like the adults they are, mutual respect flourishes.

When I joined the Intercom Customer Support Team, I was amazed at the sense of trust and autonomy. Our time management is our own, and what we do with it isn’t micromanaged. The contract between manager and teammate is crystal clear; provided we continue to meet our key performance indicators, a cup of coffee or a stretch of the legs isn’t taboo. Indeed, this doesn’t just extend to what’s happening in the office.

A request to work from home due to illness, say, is never met with suspicion. That space to step away from the desk doesn’t just allow for a cup of tea or a five-minute sit-down. Teammates are encouraged to retreat to a special “meditation zone” if they feel the need to gather their thoughts and mentally declutter – the very concept reinforces the benefits of mindfulness.

Far from the notion that customer support teams need to be closely monitored, this sense of trust is rewarded by a heightened sense of responsibility and camaraderie.

When you begin to treat your teammates like the adults they are, mutual respect flourishes. When people are empowered to look after their own time and workflows, they respond by ensuring that they perform above and beyond the norm. A recent storm that battered Ireland provided a perfect example – as the whole country shut down for a day, our team banded together to make sure everyone was able to work remotely and ensure our customers still got the same standard of support which they’d come to expect.

Radical Candor

For this approach to work, the sense of trust has to be carefully cultivated. One of the key values that we embrace within the Customer Support team at Intercom is radical candor – when you see something that needs attention, call it out.

A sense of respect must be matched by a sense of responsibility.

It’s a process that relies on a culture of trust and respect, and also reinforces it – we’re upfront with one another, and we’re open enough that, if anyone feels like the trust is being abused, we have no hesitation in making it known. A sense of respect must be matched by a sense of responsibility, and that can only be enforced through a culture of accountability. With a policy of radical candor, the obligation is on all of us to ensure this accountability is enforced.

Cultural rewards

The combined effect of these approaches – a sense of autonomy, mutual respect, radical candor – is a culture of trust and well-being. When people feel respected by an organisation, they feel invested in the health of that organisation in a profound way.

Crucially, this culture has had demonstrable results – happier teammates lead to happier conversations, which lead to happier customers. Our CSAT scores and customer feedback are hard evidence of the benefits of this approach.

When I told that customer about our desk breaks, I realised how proud I was discussing the culture here – and, while they were surprised by my anecdote, they were immediately able to recognise how this approach would lead to a satisfied and productive Customer Support team. It’s a story that I look forward to sharing again in the future.

Interested in joining our team? The Customer Support team is hiring!