As part of the Influx sponsorship of the #leadership channel in the Support Driven Slack, we wanted to find and share simple techniques to build better support teams.

We’ve learned so much from the #leadership channel over the last two years, and we thought we could contribute by pulling out some of our favorite tips, add some more context from our own contacts, then organize into a common theme.

This week we are focused on: Empowering your support operation to make better decisions.

In a blog post published earlier this year, Influx COO and co-founder Mikey De Wildt shared 5 tips he learned from building 200+ support teams.

High on that list was empowering decision making. In his own words, you want to encourage ‘empowerment over procedure.’

He’s seen a high correlation between lenient support policies and above benchmark agent efficiency. Elaborated, he’s seen efficiency increase when you empower your support team to make more decisions.

How do you do this effectively? How do you encourage other managers in your team to train and create empowerment?

To answer that question, I looked through interviews and blog posts with current and former support team leaders at Google, Basecamp, Apple and Hootsuite.

 

Step one: Hiring

As you might expect, building a highly empowered team starts with finding the right people in the first place.

As Basecamp (and longtime member of the Support Driven community!) Kristin Aardsma tells us, “It starts in the hiring process. We really want people who are already preternaturally inclined to problem solve and to help each other. That is what customer support is from the very beginning at its basic level.”

Technically, customer support can be readily defined: answer emails, respond to chats, pick up a phone. Great customer support people though have skills and traits that go beyond the training manual, and they’re the ones that achieve excellence. They’re simply inclined to be more proactive.

Attentiveness, patience, and positivity rank at the top of the essential skills for any team.

Keep an eye out for people who are already programmed that way. They embody the building blocks for scalable empowerment.

 

Step two: Training

There’s much to be said for great instinct, but just as much for effective training. New members to your team need the tools to do their job, as well as the freedom to make mistakes and test things out. They require effective guidance in order to be confident in making key decisions, and that confidence translates directly to effective work with customers.

As Influx’s Mikey De Wildt learned in the process of assembling over 200 unique support teams,

“You don’t want your agents to blindly follow processes, you want them to make good decisions based on the information presented to them.”

“If your policies are too rigid, they’ll only follow the policy.”

“Instead, set up clear training and regular feedback loops to make sure agents are making the right decisions. You need both a system that enables agents and shows them how to work effectively.”

A simple way to train on empowering agents is to have them suggest two solutions to any point of escalation, right from the start. The new hire gets the chance to be thoughtful, engaged, and solution-driven — and managers save time in the process.

 

Step three: Get the team talking to each other

We know that social technology and great tools, used well, can change the game and set any team up for success. But a few quick Google chats aren’t enough. Kristin Aardsma elaborates:

“My aim is to have 1-1’s with everyone every two weeks. But it’s not just me chatting with James, or me chatting with Jayne or me chatting with Joan. I think that Joan should also be chatting with Jayne, and Jayne should be chatting with James, and James should be chatting with Joan. Those conversations are going to be really fruitful, and they’re going to find out more about each other, about the team itself, about support itself, and how others manage their workload. How people deal with really stressful cases.”

“Stuff like that comes up in those internal one-to-one conversations more than you’d expect, and if you don’t encourage the team to communicate among themselves, you are actually losing a lot of information that may never come to the surface.”

Great communication builds rapport, trust, confidence, and morale amongst your team — it facilitates innovation and learning, and makes everyone better.

Don’t skimp on taking time to talk — hold meetings, offer insight, and stay connected with team members. In customer support, every member of a team gains valuable experience every day. Be sure it gets shared, so that everyone can take advantage — it’s only a win for everyone.

 

Step four: Give regular, specific feedback

Kim Scott, a long-time director at Google, faculty member at Apple University, and advisor to companies like Twitter, Shyp, Rolltape, and Qualtrics, cites guidance as the single most important thing any leader can provide for their team.

Giving, receiving, and encouraging real guidance is a nicer way of discussing valuable feedback — or criticism. Kim dubs this practice “radical candor” — sincerely, directly, and specifically providing feedback. The ingredients to such a strategy are twofold; radical candor results from a willingness to both care about the situation personally and challenge a situation directly.

She’s designed an acronym to help remember the key parts of providing feedback in the most effective way: HHIPP.

  • Be humble.
  • Be helpful.
  • Be immediate.
  • It’s in person – in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise.
  • Don’t personalize.

In spite of the fact that direct feedback empowers every member of a team, Kim also notes that the entire process is often overlooked. “It sounds so simple to say that bosses need to tell employees when they’re screwing up. But it very rarely happens.”

 

Step 5: Keep everyone highly engaged

To ensure that a team is thriving, it’s often simplest to just ask. Employ a feedback loop to ensure that every member feels engaged, confident, and satisfied with their work. Kirsty Traill of Hootsuite discusses her team’s feedback system, HootPulse, as an essential part of building a great product.

“It’s impossible to deliver an exceptional customer experience without a highly engaged employee base.”

“To that effect, we measure our employee engagement twice a year. We ask employees a series of questions to get an understanding on what gets in the way of being able to deliver outstanding customer experiences.”

“From there, we work on action plans to ensure that we make improvements that will essentially enable our employees to deliver those incredible customer experiences…”

“This allows us enough time to – exactly as the name suggests – take a pulse or a reading on where employees are at and understand what is getting in the way of them creating a great employee experience.”

“We then have enough time to action some of those larger and more strategic initiatives.”

While a model like HootPulse may not work for every team, it’s the idea that counts. Schedule check-ins, send surveys, or hold work sessions to keep everyone on the same page and make each player feel heard.

 

Have something to add? Share your own struggles and successes with empowering your team in the #leadership channel. Don’t forget to sign up for Support Driven’s weekly newsletter and find more support team interviews on the Influx blog.

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