When you hear about a successful company, you often think about the charismatic CEO behind the interview, the innovative engineers behind the software, or perhaps the creative marketers behind every viral campaign. You don’t really think about customer support teams, and yet, they are becoming increasingly important.
I’ve recently joined Unbabel as Director of Customer Support, after working with all sorts of customers in major corporations like UPS, Fujitsu, Caterpillar, and TNT. One thing they all had in common, and a big contributor to their success, was a high-performing Customer Service team. They were brilliant, talented, and most important of all, motivated.
I realized very soon that when employees are motivated, and feel good about their job, they are able to serve customers in a much more effective way. Engaged employees improve customer satisfaction scores, customer retention, and yield better financial results. In fact, according to a report on The State of the American Workplace, employees who are engaged are more likely to improve customer relationships, with a resulting 20% increase in sales.
As a manager, you need to focus on keeping your customer support specialists motivated and maintaining the enthusiasm and positive momentum among the team, especially when everything seems to go wrong. Do that, and the rest will naturally follow.
So how can managers get behind the customer support team and create a culture of recognition, support, and belonging within the workplace?
Listen to your team
You would be surprised how far a simple “how are you doing?” can get you. Make time for your team and work on closing the communication gap through transparent communication and constructive feedback. Not only will that improve team morale, but you may even get potentially business-changing insights about your products and processes.
- Schedule regular check-ins
Either in one-on-one sessions, informal conversations, or even a coffee break, make sure you check in with your team on a regular basis. Leave your biases at the door and give them your undivided attention, focusing on listening to their opinions, perspectives and personal experience. Acknowledge different points of view, even if they don’t necessarily match with yours.
- Understand their motivations
Not everyone gets motivated by the same things. Some look for their good work to be recognized through performance evaluations and promotions, some want to build on good performance with advanced training, some prefer bonuses and pay raises, and some just want a job with flexible hours. They are all valid. Listening to your team helps you get to the root of the kind of work, projects, and acknowledgment that motivate them.
Ask questions about the work they’re currently doing, what they’re looking forward to, and how they are hoping to grow with the job. Maybe even particular moments that were especially meaningful to them. With this information, you can identify which projects are in that intersection of passion and company’s goals.
- Identify roadblocks
What are the obstacles preventing your team from doing a stellar job? When I first got here at Unbabel, listening to my team was crucial to identify the main pain points — lack of clear processes and communication between customer facing roles teams and tech teams, no knowledge base, unknown points of contact — and work immediately to solve them.
Addressing those concerns was definitely one of the most important things for my action plan to build a motivated, highly-organized, enterprise-ready Customer Support team, and without their inputs, that wouldn’t have been possible.
Not only that, but by addressing those issues, I started to understand the culture of the team and company better, our strong points and weaknesses, and what my contribution could be.
Promote internal growth
Every company should have career paths and personal development opportunities lined up for employees, but with startups experiencing hypergrowth, it becomes even more crucial. Because most people can’t grow at the speed at which the organization is growing, this can lead to a lot of frustration. In comparison, it may seem like you’re not making as much progress, or having as much impact.
- Create personal and career development programs
That’s why these processes become critical. Everyone wants to understand what their role within the company is, where they can go, and how they’ll get there. Check in with your team where they see themselves evolving in the next few years, what they would like to pursue, and how that can fit within the company.
- Consider different paths
One thing that more and more people acknowledge is that not everyone needs to grow via the manager route. There are other parallel career paths with fundamentally different skill sets, where employers can be empowered to grow as individual contributors instead, and conversations about our career development programs are starting to reflect that. A team needs both people that excel at their job and want to keep doing it, and people who want to move up to managing positions.
As Kim Scott, co-founder of Candor, Inc., wrote in First Round Review, if you’re creating a culture that is obsessed with promotions and managerial status, your individual contributors may feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, as if they’re less competent than their colleagues.
At one point, one of her employees felt that way, and stormed into her office saying, “You need your architects to change the world, but you also need people to turn the lights on. For that, you need great electricians,” he explained. “You don’t want to hire a C+ architect, you want to hire an A+ electrician.”
Keep in mind different career paths as you discuss this with your team, and foster an environment that provides equal opportunities for different paths. By promoting internal growth and presenting teams with new challenges, companies can promote a sense of belonging and realization that will have your team stick around longer.
Set clear goals and expectations, and celebrate success
Everyone wants to be empowered for success, and I believe that setting measurable goals and communicating them clearly to your team, is a great step in the right direction.
- Involve your team in the discussion
Every quarter, we discuss our OKRs, which essentially are the objectives we wish to achieve in the next few months. Of course, these objectives need to be aligned with the company’s, but we always try to do them bottom up. Let’s face it, when it comes to making decisions that impact your customers, it’s typically not top management that knows what the customer is going through.
Customer support is often your only direct link to your customers. They’re the ones speaking to customers every single day, gathering feedback and insights that could drive product development. Get them involved.
- Create a culture of recognition and support
Customer support is one of those jobs where you’re typically invisible, unless, of course, disaster strikes. When something goes wrong, suddenly, you’re on everyone’s radar. And so, it’s very important to make sure the team is visible to the company at all times.
When your team goes above and beyond, reward them. I always make sure the team is recognized in every Unbabel channel: in our Slack channel #tower-pride, All Hands gatherings, management meetings, and weekly reports. There are a lot of different ways to celebrate achievements, and you should explore the ones that are more closely related to your team and company culture.
Recently, during an All Hands meeting, Diana Afonso, our Customer Happiness Team Leader, was explaining our goals and achievements for that quarter, when we got immediate feedback from our technical team — they didn’t get any issues the previous week because our team had resolved them all. By promoting continuous communication between our team and the rest of the company, giving them visibility on our goals and publicly recognizing good work, we made sure customer support was always on everyone’s mind.
Provide your team with the right tools and processes
There’s a point in every startup at which you realize you can’t scale without implementing processes. As I learned very quickly after listening to my team’s concerns, my main priority was to help them do their job better by establishing clear processes and guidelines, a robust knowledge base and a structured work flow.
- Streamline processes, from A to Z
If this doesn’t exist, if agents don’t know where to escalate a problem to, it’s a big problem. So in order to optimize operations, escalation points need to be readily available and very well defined, especially when it involves other teams.
This becomes especially relevant as the organization is optimizing operations and evolving towards 24/7 support. No more gentle tapping on the shoulder, asking for an issue to be solved. Every change, every request must be documented, visible, across the entire organization.
Cultivate a fun work environment
As Diana wrote in a recent blog article, customer service is not an easy job. Solving your customers’ issues on a daily basis means constantly dealing with frustrated customers, complaints, angry emails, sometimes for hours and hours on end.
So while strong team morale and a good working environment are important to every team, I would argue that is never more true than with your customer support team. I strongly believe that the key to achieving customer happiness is to focus on employee happiness — a happy team will delight your customers, even when they are frustrated to begin with.
- There’s always room for humor
Sometimes even the smallest of things can help to create a positive work environment. In the Customer Happiness Team, we have our weekly meetings in the garden (when the weather cooperates, of course), and have regular team lunches to talk about stuff happening outside of work. We believe humor is a great way to unwind, and create personalized memes for the entire team all the time. And everyone gets a fun nickname when they join the team.
- Share the tough moments, too
Sometimes we laugh together, and, sometimes, we cry together. On my previous job at UPS, we would often share our daily or weekly awkward customer support moments with the team. At one point, we even had a bride screaming on the phone because she ordered a wedding ring on Friday, and the ceremony was the next day. The ring, obviously, never got to her on time, and it was a difficult situation to deal with, but sharing these moments with the team helps building a sense of family, and belonging. We’ve all been there.
Confidence and trust are pillars of every single human relation, customer service is no exception. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always up for getting my hands dirty and spending some time on the front lines with my team, but there is a difference between spending some time learning the reality of the day to day operations, and micromanaging.
Micromanaging is not just harmful to your team, but to you as well. If you’re always double-checking every interaction, asking to be cc’d on every email, and overseeing all the nitty-gritty of their job, you can’t do yours properly. As Karen Dillon, author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics, says, “If your mind is filled with the micro-level details of a number of jobs, there’s no room for big picture thoughts.”
- Prioritize the most important aspects of your job, and delegate the others
Sure, there will be a few failures as your team steps up with more responsibilities, but it will pay off in the long run. Give them space to both shine and make mistakes, it’s all part of the process. Respect the learning curve, and most importantly, stand behind them. I always make sure my team understands that, as a manager, I have their back, and I’m willing to take risks with and for them.
People are every company’s greatest asset. By providing them with clear processes and tools, career paths and personal development, visibility within the company and a good understanding of the impact they have at Unbabel, they will feel more connected to the job and the company, and will keep giving the excellent support our customers have recognized us for.
It’s a long and winding road to customer centricity. And while there are a lot of things that are beyond your control, your team’s happiness shouldn’t be one of them. Empower them, and keep them motivated through every peak season, every growing pain, and every challenge that comes your way. You’ll be rewarded with happier, more loyal customers who love doing business with you.