Ready to scale your support? Here’s why you need a customer support operations team

The challenges facing customer support leaders are more complex than ever.

They need to be able to balance efficiency with a great customer experience, meet rising customer expectations, and keep team morale high, all while ensuring that they don’t blow through their budget or burn out their team.

It can seem like an impossible balancing act – but customer support operations can help. By guiding the operational, strategic, and technical support processes in place, a customer support operations function can help to reduce the strain on your support managers, empower your support reps to work more efficiently, and deliver insights that help you to provide an excellent customer experience in the most effective way for your business. The results? Increased customer happiness (companies that leverage automation are 4x more likely to see CSAT improvements) and potential savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sound good? Here are three ways to know if it’s time to invest in customer support operations (if you’re looking to scale, it probably is), and a few simple things your organization can do to get started.

What is customer support operations?

First and foremost: what exactly is customer support operations?

Much like its other business operations counterparts, customer support operations (or CS ops) aims to evaluate your existing customer support processes, metrics, and data to get insights and identify opportunities for optimization. These optimizations can then be used to empower your support managers and reps to work more efficiently, and give greater visibility to execs and key stakeholders.

“These are the kinds of things that help our support org to function more smoothly and impactfully so we can support our customers at scale, without needing to increase budget or headcount”

At Intercom, my team and I do this by using a combination of frameworks and tools to drill down into our customer support data, which we then use in a number of strategic ways. For example, at Intercom, my team and I create dashboards that give leaders and managers greater visibility into individual and team performance against our KPIs and goals; we analyze the data to provide segmentation recommendations that will improve our customer support strategy; and we maintain the overall customer support roadmap, ensuring that important CS initiatives are moving forward, that they’re including the right people, and that they’re being communicated effectively internally.

These are the kinds of things that help our support org to function more smoothly and impactfully so we can support our customers at scale, without needing to increase budget or headcount.

But, to put it bluntly, they’re also the kinds of things most support managers don’t have the time or resources to really dig into on a day-to-day basis. That kind of robust analysis takes time. And when there are a ton of other jobs to do that require your immediate attention – like responding to customer issues, maintaining a high level of technical expertise, training and onboarding new hires, dealing with difficult customers, and helping reports with their career development – it can be especially hard for support managers to get off the “reactive support” treadmill and focus on long-term optimization.

This is where customer support operations comes in. By splitting out the responsibilities, you can empower your support managers to focus on what they do best – helping their teams, and helping your customers – while still ensuring that you’re continuously improving your business’s processes and workflows.

3 signs it’s time to start building a CS ops team

So how can you tell if it’s time to start separating out customer support operations into its own function? Here are three solid indicators.

1. Your support managers are feeling burnt out

The pandemic has made customer support more challenging than ever. One study shows that the average company saw the number of “difficult” customer interactions more than double, rising from 10% to over 20% in a span of just two weeks.

74% of support leaders have seen a drop in team morale since the beginning of the pandemic, and 49% report that it’s impacting their team’s performance.

Not only that, but according to our research, the vast majority (74%) of support leaders have seen a drop in team morale since the beginning of the pandemic, and almost half (49%) report that it’s impacting their team’s performance.

In this kind of situation, it can be difficult for support managers to find the necessary time to make long-term, strategic improvements on top of everything else, particularly when the status quo is still “good enough”.

By separating out CS ops, you can take a significant amount of that time-consuming operational work outlined above off of your support managers’ plates, allowing them to focus on people management rather than operations management.

Not only that, but the added efficiency gains your CS ops team can provide – for example, by streamlining processes or identifying more opportunities to leverage proactive support – means reclaimed time for your people managers to focus on their reps’ personal development and team morale.

2. You’re not getting the right results – or insights

There are a lot of metrics you can use to measure your customer support team’s performance. But whether you’re tracking CSAT (customer satisfaction), FRT (first response time), or any other combination of letters, if those numbers aren’t where they should be, it might be time for operational intervention.

Not only can customer support operations help you to measure and improve those results, but they can also help you to demonstrate the value driven by your support team to stakeholders and leadership.

“Last year, our ROAR was around 5.5%, which translated into a savings of $550,000”

For example, at Intercom we use a metric I designed internally called the rate of automated resolution (ROAR) to track how efficient our automation is. Every percentage point increase in ROAR means that we don’t need to hire an additional head.

Last year, our ROAR was around 5.5%, which translated into a savings of $550,000. Being able to give concrete insights about the value that our support org is delivering means that we’re able to make better decisions about where to spend our support budget going forward.

3. You’re not scaling as quickly as you’d like

If you’re not using your resources efficiently, you’re going to get stalled. So if you’re having growing pains – or anticipating a period of high growth – you need to put a plan in place that can scale with you, so you can manage high volumes of queries in a way that still allows you to build personalized, conversational relationships with your customers.

How to get started with customer support operations

Luckily, investing in customer support operations doesn’t require a ton of extra tools or headcount – you can start by getting smarter about using the resources you already have in your arsenal. Here are three things you can do now to start building your CS ops framework.

Map out your existing workflows

The first thing you need to do is understand exactly how things are going right now, so you can spot the areas for improvement.

One powerful way to do this is through journey mapping. CX expert Annette Franz, author of Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business), argues that journey mapping is both a powerful tool and a process in itself.

For the most effective journey mapping, you need to experience the journey from your customers’ perspective so you can properly identify their pain points – but you also need to get team input on where the friction lies for them, too. Where are customers experiencing frustrations? What are the blockers stopping them from achieving what they’re trying to achieve? Where does the most time get sunk for your team?

“Pick something that you know is a pain point for the customer. Map that, and then move on to something else. Map that, make your changes, show your improvements, communicate with customers, close the loop”

Having this deeper understanding of your existing processes and workflows will help you to understand where you can optimize to make things more efficient for your customers and teams.

Not sure where to start? “Pick something that you know is a pain point for the customer,” Annette recommends. “Map that, and then move on to something else. Map that, make your changes, show your improvements, communicate with customers, close the loop. Baby steps, for sure.”

Find the right people for the job

Starting to build out a support operations function doesn’t necessarily mean adding headcount straight away. Depending on your existing resources, you may find that you already have the right person in your talent pool – so long as they’re willing to grow their skills in the right direction.

“The right person has to be willing to get deep into the weeds with numbers, and be able to creatively use the tools and tech at their disposal to solve problems and answer questions”

A support team member with experience on the ground can be a big benefit – because they’ll have innate experience with those pain points and customer journeys already – but they also have to be willing to get deep into the weeds with numbers, and be able to creatively use the tools and tech at their disposal to solve problems and answer questions.

That said, your new support ops hire doesn’t have to come from a support background, either. There’s no specific playbook; the key thing is to look for skills, not titles. Things like presentation skills, an ability to parse data to glean insights, a proclivity for project management, experience with risk tolerance and mitigation – all of these things will come in handy.

When you’re starting out, also think about who your support ops team can partner with cross-functionally in order to get the best results, and start building those connections from the outset. Customer success? Analytics? Product? Marketing? Just like sales data can help non-sales teams, so too can support data be used in strategic ways that help create a more customer-centric experience across your whole organization.

Use the right tools

Rather than needing to invest in new tools, think about how you can strategically leverage the tech stack you’re already using. This goes for both the analytics and operations side. How many great reporting insights can you unlock from your existing support tool, for example? What previously unused features can you dig into to make your support workflows more efficient?

“Once you have a few quick wins under your belt, you can use that proven track record to advocate for more budget or resources in the future”

As with anything, tools should complement your strategy, not replace it. So rather than investing in a shiny new piece of software, think mindfully about what your goals and KPIs are, and how you can set your team up for success with quick wins. Once you have a few of those under your belt, you can use that proven track record to advocate for more budget or resources in the future.

Operating at your full potential

Building out your customer support operations team will help you to ensure your support managers and agents are empowered to have the greatest impact on your business – and give you the tools to measure, interrogate, and improve that impact, too.

Looking for more insights on how to create a customer support function that moves the needle? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Customer Support.

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