Does your support operation have a scaling challenge? Are response times getting slow? Are customers complaining that their requests aren’t being answered adequately? Is your support reps’ hair on fire?
Technology startups that experience any kind of significant growth will get to a point where their customer support operations as they’ve known them will suddenly hit a wall. At that point the way things have worked will no longer be effective, and you will need to look at people, process and technology solutions that allow you to not only keep up but excel with your customers.
That is the point where you will have a scaling challenge on your hands, which of course you will need to solve efficiently and cost-effectively.
This is the first in a two-part series about scaling your customer support services. In this article, we’re going to discuss eight alert signals that indicate you might be at the point where you need to do that.
In the next article, we’ll discuss how to actually scale your support operations. A word of caution though: scaling support doesn’t necessarily mean throwing more people at the problem. It’s also about optimizing and leveraging technology and processes to do more with less.
So how do you know you have a scaling problem?
1. Your backlog
If you’ve been coasting along for the past two or three years with a backlog of between 20 to 50 issues, and then suddenly that explodes to a queue of 400, you might have a scaling problem.
And you’ll only know that if you’re actually tracking these volumes, which is not always the case. When you’re not tracking what issues are coming in and getting resolved, or how a product launch or product release may impact your volumes and your reps’ workload until it does, then you will hit a brick wall pretty quickly and unexpectedly.
A growing backlog of issues means you’re getting an increasing volume of requests which are not getting served, and that will not get better just by working harder. This all seems obvious, but in my experience it takes a while for many support teams to realize what is going on. Many times, this increasing backlog is a result of success and is actually a good problem to have, so you need to scale your operation. Maybe your people aren’t able to cope with the higher volume, which calls for a larger team or increasing automation, or your team can’t resolve certain types of issues, which may call for additional training or a clear escalation process to more experienced team members.
Whatever the cause, a growing backlog is the first alert signal.
Is the quality of your responses suffering or taking a back seat to the priority of just getting them out?
By quality I mean preciseness, completeness, thoroughness, tone of voice or reply, follow up.
If your team is spending all their time on the urgent issues, but lower priority issues such as product feature questions or product roadmap queries are getting ignored. If any or all of this is happening, then that is a signal that you might have a scaling challenge. People don’t want to write incomplete answers to requests or ignore them, many times that is only the result of an increased overload.
A rapidly increasing volume of support requests has you focusing on the “urgent” while giving short-shrift to the “important.”
And while you are handling the queries that are screaming the loudest, not answering the tier 2 or 3 questions can have a negative impact on your customer experience, your CSAT scores and eventually on customer retention and revenue.
If you measure NPS, your detractors might start to overtake your promoters, because they might start rating you low on the quality of service.
3. Deteriorating numbers
If your reporting is showing longer response times, higher volumes, or higher resolution times, then you might have a scaling problem. That is the importance of reporting and doing it with a cadence.
What are your reports telling you about the health of your support operation? If you don’t produce and review reports or a metrics dashboard on a regular basis or have no health indicators, that is an alert signal in itself. Unless your volumes are very low, you absolutely need to “scale” the robustness of your customer support technology. There are many cloud-based platform options out there -Zendesk, Talkdesk, Kustomer, Freshdesk, to name just a few- so make sure you evaluate and select one.
Assuming that you do have indicators and metrics, the negative signals mentioned above, reflected in your numbers, could lead to rushed or incomplete responses, mistakes and angry customers.
Response times going from 30 minutes one month to 2 hours the next month is something to watch and probably be concerned about, so make sure you at least report on basic measures, such as volumes, response times and open issues, and pay attention to the signals!
4. Internal Stress
If your support team is feeling stressed, you might have a scaling problem.
Your team’s stress may or may not affect your customers, but when they have more work than they can handle, as is many times the case with support teams, that can pretty reliably result in internal stress.
They’re stressed out about the fact that they can’t keep up the volumes. They’re stressed out about the fact that they’re escalating to level 2, and level 2 is not responding. They’re even stressed that they’re not meeting their own SLAs or goals or their collective SLAs.
Keep an eye on the stress levels of your team members. It may tell you a lot about what’s really going on and what issues you need to pay attention to, whether that’s adding resources, resolving bottlenecks, escalating issues to your engineering team or all of the above.
5. A chaotic process.
Got chaos in your operation? If things are chaotic, you might have a scaling problem.
Let’s define chaos for the purposes of this article: can’t quite track open issues well, your team is unable to get to the growing number of issues, the number of days or hours that pass between the request getting to you and your reply to the customer is growing, internal answers or direction are lacking or contradictory, it’s not clear who to escalate or they’re not even responding.
It’s hard to keep track of how many open issues you actually have or to identify the age of those issues, who’s doing what, did rep A respond to this request already or am I supposed to. Are your tools not allowing facilitating the work, such as managing escalations, merging tickets, reporting or a thousand other things support teams need to do every day?
Who exactly is handling this little queue over here of urgent issues ?
That’s chaos and a clear signal that you need to scale the size of the team, your processes and perhaps your toolset.
6. Costly Work- arounds.
If you’re taking the easy way out resolving issues and not really resolving them (the end result is that you’ve just swept them under the carpet to be resolved later, resulting in higher costs), you might have a scaling issue.
Let’s look at a specific example: you don’t try to really work on whatever technical issue the product has, instead you might just exchange the product for the customer. That’s a costly workaround.
And that’s not sustainable for a company long-term.
Or you might be working around issues yet not really fixing them.
Your reps may be telling customers: “You know what, just go to such and such a setting, turn it off and that will make the problem go away…” for now.
These work-arounds are costly because you’re not really solving the real problem. That may be because you don’t have the time or resources to do anything else, or simply can’t get a fix from engineering.
7. No management or reactive management.
If you get to a point where you just don’t have time to manage what’s going on, you might have a scaling problem.
If you’re the manager, you’re constantly reacting. You become just another agent because you have so many issues and it’s all-hands-on-deck.
You’re in reaction mode. There’s no time to document things, no time to actually come up with real fixes or request them, or make better tools available to your team. You’re not producing adequate reports about your operation, etc. You get the picture.
8. Inadequate tools
We have touched on this already, but if you’re managing your support issues in Outlook or Excel (God forbid), you might have a scaling problem.
And I know Outlook and Excel are extreme examples, but I’ve actually seen this!
Or maybe you’re using tools that aren’t built for support, such as tools really built for collaboration or bug trackers. Maybe you’re using something like Asana or your CRM, but these tools are inadequate because they can’t do the types of things you really need to do to manage a support operation well.
For example, you can’t really track the history of an issue. You can’t really tell what was the sequence of things that happened on a specific issue, who said what and who did what at what time. The metrics aren’t really there either to report on them. And if you can’t track these things not only can you not really resolve issues easily, but you can’t really scale.
As the saying goes, what you can’t measure you can’t improve.