Leading support team through crisis

Leading your support team through a crisis

Main illustration: Olivia Waller

“A team takes its tone from its leader,” says our Global Director of Customer Support Kaitlin Pettersen. When an unprecedented crisis like COVID-19 hits how do you provide your team with the guidance they need?

Your support team is likely experiencing an array of unprecedented stressors right now, like tackling high conversation volumes, resolving stressed-out customers’ issues, and abruptly transitioning to working remotely. It’s no surprise then that 74% of support leaders have seen a dip in team morale.

Being a leader during a pandemic doesn’t come with a “playbook.” Yet it’s more important than ever to support your team and provide them with the reassurance, resources, and encouragement they need.

We spoke to support leaders at Intercom, ShipBob, Wistia, and accuRx to find out how they’re helping their teams navigate difficult conversations, avoid burnout, and keep up their morale. Here are their tips:

Provide a safe space

In this uncertain time, your team needs a sense of psychological safety more than ever. That sense of safety must come from the top – directly from your leadership team. So, first and foremost, provide your support managers with the resources and emotional support they need to foster a safe environment for their direct reports.

That includes having strong one-to-ones with support managers and giving them the time and space they need to support their teams. Intercom’s Global Director of Customer Support Kaitlin Pettersen says:

“Now more than ever it’s really important to ensure that you have a great leadership team and that you are pouring your energy and resources into them because everything trickles down from them.”

Remember, a team takes its tone from its leader. So strive to show up as a calm, confident, and authentic presence for your team. Intercom’s Senior Customer Support Manager Ruth O’Brien says:

“It’s important to strike a good balance between being honest about how you’re feeling and not pretending to be perfect, but also being calm and leading by example. As a leader it’s your job to be strong for your team.”

Arm your team with the information they need

During a crisis like COVID-19, your business is likely making rapid decisions that will affect how your support team communicates with your customers, like how you’re:

  • Helping customers who are on the verge of churning
  • Or supporting customers who are facing financial difficulties

To set your team up for success, you’ll need to provide them with a regular stream of up-to-date information. Just be mindful that your team’s time and emotional bandwidth may be a little more constrained than usual right now. So rather than firing off sporadic bursts of information, Intercom’s Senior Customer Support Manager Bobby Stapleton recommends taking a more thoughtful approach:

“Communicate on a regular cadence. Keep people informed, but don’t overwhelm them. I do a morning stand-up for my team every morning and I publish a daily Slack post to ensure people are getting all of the information they need. That’s better than overwhelming people with four or five different pings throughout the day.”

Create and update support enablement resources

As a leader you’ll want to make sure that your team (and the wider company) has all of the information they need at their fingertips to answer your customers’ questions. One effective way to do this is create and update support enablement resources, like Guru cards and saved replies for common scenarios. Kaitlin says:

“Our enablement team updates our resources on a daily and weekly basis, so that our whole team of 100+ sales people and support people all have one centralized, regularly updated resource with everything that they need to support our customers.”

Ecommerce fulfillment platform Shipbob, also keep their entire company well informed of any customer experience updates with a live Q&A document. SVP of Customer Experience Margaret Kedziora says:

Margaret Kedziora, SVP of Customer Experience, ShipBob “We keep a running Q&A document that is public across the company, so anybody can ask questions and we can provide company-wide answers. At times like this it’s also critical that the team is transparent about what we can do, and also can not do, so that we do not make promises that we cannot keep.”

Be personal and authentic

Sometimes, in a challenging period the best way to connect with your team and provide the reassurance and morale boost they need is to have an honest, stripped-back conversation. Ditch the polished slides and perfectly crafted speech and show up as your authentic self. Kaitlin says:

“I recently held an impromptu all-hands meeting where we got our team of 80 people on a call for 20 minutes. There were no slides. I talked to them from this tiny room I’m working from, spoke straight into the camera sincerely and genuinely about what we’re doing, what the changes are, and most importantly why we’re doing it.”

Help your team deal with difficult conversations

Right now a lot of your customers will be understandably more on edge than normal. Your support team may be dealing with a large volume of difficult, sensitive conversations – customers who may be experiencing financial difficulty, those who are on the verge of churning, etc. These difficult conversations require not just mental, but also emotional work. If your support team doesn’t get the support they need they may feel emotionally fatigued.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. So, don’t be afraid to step in to help out. For example, you might want to take on extra tough conversations yourself, like Wistia’s Customer Support Manager Jordan Munson. He says:

Jordan Munsen, Customer Support Manager, Wistia “In terms of helping our team deal with tough customers I’m generally just trying to let them offload those conversations to me since they’re relatively infrequent. In ideal circumstances I’m helping them manage those conversations better into the future, but the current context makes it such that simply offloading it is the most helpful to champs and their general mental state.”

It’s also important to clear the hurdles for your team so they’re empowered to answer complex questions themselves. At Intercom, we recently provided our support team with training to help them to deal with commercial conversations, like those centered around billing and subscriptions. In addition, Bobby has been working with his team to help them proactively plan for resolving these more complex conversations. Bobby says:

“If your team has to come to you every time for an approval for a response they’ll tire super quickly. So, take some time to anticipate what is going to be difficult about those conversations and collaborate with your team to proactively come up with possible solutions.”

Prioritize mental health above support KPIs

As Kaitlin says, “This is not a normal time and these are not normal conversations.” The data echoes this sentiment: since the outbreak, CSAT scores have declined by 28% and customer wait times have increased by 27 minutes. The outbreak has also resulted in 42% of support leaders believing they will not meet their goals this month.

“Your team and their health are far more important than any metric”

Ease up your expectations of your team’s performance during this time. You set goals and KPIs during a vastly different period when your conversation volume and your customers’ needs and temperament were different.

Your team and their health are far more important than any metric. So, encourage them to prioritize their mental health, take breaks, and put themselves first. Ruth says:

“Our team cares so much about helping our customers and hitting their KPIs. Sometimes you can see it getting on top of them to the point where it feels like it’s the only thing in the world that matters. But their mental health is more important. Encourage them to take a beat and put things in perspective.”

Recognize your team’s impact

The support role has never been more critical or more visible to an organization than during this crisis. Support teams are dealing with conversations that are both sensitive and commercial in nature – making and breaking customer loyalty, satisfaction, and retention.

Your team can easily get lost in a sea of conversations and lose sight of why they’re working so hard. It’s your job to remind them why and how their hard work matters. Take the time to publicly acknowledge and celebrate impactful wins – not just within your own team, but also within the wider organization. Bobby says:

“We emphasize and recognize the importance of our team’s work. We share stories of how we’re helping our customers – the real importance of that on a customer level and the business or revenue impact, like customer loyalty, customer experience, etc.”

Let automation do the repetitive work

Inbound conversation volume has more than doubled for nearly half of support teams since the outbreak. With all of that extra mental (and let’s face it – often emotional) work, your support team shouldn’t have to handle every element of every support conversation that pops in the inbox.

Instead, you can set up bots and automation to take care of the repetitive tasks, like answering simple customer questions. When healthcare startup accuRx experienced a huge surge in conversation volume due to COVID-19, they turned to Resolution Bot to help pick up some of the slack. User Operations Lead Vicky Firth says:

Vicky Firth, User Operations Lead, accuRx “We’ve been able to set up quite a few auto-responses using Resolution Bot while we investigate improving the product to make permanent changes, as well as implementing it for our ongoing standard queries.”

The support team at accuRx are also using Custom Bots to gather data about their customers so they can quickly understand who they are and what their issue is related to before chatting.

At Intercom, we’ve set up a dedicated team to manage our COVID-19 conversations. We use Custom Bots to better understand our customers’ needs and automatically route pressing conversations to that dedicated team inbox.

Carefully-considered automation frees your support team up with the bandwidth and emotional capacity they need to manage more complex conversations that require a personal, human touch.

Foster fun and connection

When your team is incredibly busy it can be easy to let “fun” slip down your list of priorities. But taking time to casually connect is essential for:

  • Keeping your team’s spirits high
  • Helping take the edge off long hours and difficult conversations
  • And fostering personal relationships in a remote setting

Consciously carve out the time and space to connect, laugh, and let off steam. Your team will thank you for it. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Create a team Spotify playlist together.
  • Schedule regular coffee catch-ups over Zoom.
  • Create a Slack channel to discuss the latest TV shows you’re watching or the latest hobbies you’re pursuing.

Leaders need support too

Being an effective leader is tough in the best of times, but it’s so much harder during a global pandemic. Don’t forget to prioritize your own mental health and give yourself a break. Instead of striving for “perfection”, simply try your best and learn as you go.

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