3 best practices for successful all-hands support

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Despite the benefits of “everyone doing support”, many companies hit the brakes when they start considering the risk factors. Learn how to avoid the pitfalls of all-hands support with these three best practices.

Early on, startups have to make a lot of compromises. Teams work out of shared office spaces, founders rig together free software for their teams’ workflows, team members wear many different hats–all just to get the company off the ground.

Under these work conditions, there is one extraordinary benefit: alignment. With just a founder and a handful of developers, everyone is taking turns talking to customers as they code, debug and come up with new feature ideas. Each team member is invested in the same conversation about how to build the best possible product for the customer. 

As you scale past twenty people, that alignment can be compromised. Companies become more efficient when they specialize to develop departments and clarify roles–but they’re also creating distance between team members and customers.  As a result, employees can get stuck in the day-to-day demands of their respective roles and lose sight of who they’re building the product for. 

This is why companies like Teamwork.comZapier, and Stripe instituted an all-hands approach to support. This system puts every person in front of the customer so the customer’s needs and preferences are the guiding forces behind every decision.  

Misconceptions and Risks of All-Hands Support

All-hands support is a system in which every team member, regardless of their role, spends time talking to customers and responding to their support tickets. In the short-term, all-hands support helps individual team members get deeper product knowledge, gain empathy for the customer, and understand the critical part support plays in the company. In the long-term, however, an emphasis on support helps everyone refocus on what they’re building as a company and why.

Not all companies utilize an all-hands approach. Some companies never build a dedicated support team and create a system in which all support responsibilities are delegated among the team. Others hire a team of support agents, but still ask members of other teams to dedicate an hour or a day of the month to answering tickets. Typically, smaller-sized companies go for the former, and larger companies switch to the latter. The web is flooded with positive endorsements of all-hands support, but few companies choose to adopt the practice. They’re usually concerned about three risk factors that could affect customer experience:

  1. Lack of support skills. Sales reps recruited for their track record in closing enterprise sales and developers hired for their background in Java programming might lack the skills required for dealing with customers on a daily basis. 

  2. Inconsistency in support style. Everyone handles support a little differently, so it’s difficult to develop best practices and stick to a single, cohesive support strategy.

  3. Empathy fatigue in non-support team members. Not everyone can deal with frustrated customers day in and day out. Team members who aren’t interested in support can burn out faster than dedicated support agents. 

Many companies hit the brakes when they start considering these factors and how they could negatively impact their businesses. But the all-hands approach is worth some forethought and preparation before you make the commitment.

All-hands Support – Three Best Practices

Knowing a few of the best practices for all-hands support can make all the difference for businesses that want to maximize every advantage of this approach. Here’s a walkthrough on the best ways to prepare your team for successful all-hands support.

1. Build Your Team Carefully

Today’s most successful companies are customer-obsessed — they’re constantly getting feedback from customers to fuel product improvement and to create a top-notch brand experience. Part of that is building a high-quality support team that can serve as a liaison between the makers and the end-users of the product.  Managers are careful to hire support agents who have the right mix of people skills and technical skills for the job, so they won’t even consider putting a support hat on a programmer hired for her coding skills, or a copywriter hired for his writing skills. After all, not just anyone can do customer support well.  But the qualities that make support agents great at their jobs are the same that make for excellent team members in every role. If you adjust your hiring strategy, you’ll have a highly-skilled, flexible team that is equipped to be effective and responsive during their support shifts, too.

Adjust your hiring strategy

PayPal’s Max Levchin has a foolproof policy when it comes to hiring engineers: 100% of the team needs to approve of every hire. If even one person doubts that they’d make a great team member, then the candidate is off the table. Max isn’t just looking for math whizzes with technical chops–he wants people who can work together as a team. Instead of just hiring web developers who can only code, or sales reps who can only sell, it’s important to screen for a range of skills that will serve any employee, no matter what role he or she has with the company.

  • Patience. 90% of the top performers have the emotional intelligence to keep their cool in a high-pressure situation, according to a TalentSmart survey of over 1 million employees. They differentiate themselves as employees by being able to think clearly and work through a problem when everyone else has given up. 

  • Resourcefulness. According to an HBR survey of 332,860 leaders and employees, a resourcefulness and knack for solving problems is one of the most important leadership skills in any organization. Dave Logan, Professor at USC Marshall School of Business, has hired employees for this trait alone–even when crucial skills for the job are absent–because it serves as an indicator of a growth mentality.

  • Empathy. Executive coach Ray Williams deems this the most vital and rare quality of aspiring leaders. Team members who lack this quality have “narcissistic” and “self-serving” qualities and contribute to a toxic team environment. 

2. Maintain Quality While Scaling All-Hands Support

When an official support agent starts their work day, they know what inbox to check for tickets. As soon as they open up a support ticket, they immediately understand the magnitude of the issue being reported. They know whether they should point the customer to documentation, escalate the issue, or let the customer down easily, because there isn’t an available fix.  Over time, support agents perfect their strategy and learn how to keep customer satisfaction levels consistently high. When every person in a 100-person company spends just one day per month in support, however, they don’t have the context or the experience that enables them to deliver perfectly-crafted responses. They’re going in blind and improving at a relatively slow pace. As a result, there’s no consistency in quality, style, or tone of support, and it becomes difficult to improve the overall strategy over time. As one contributor on Hacker News remarked, “All-hands support self-destructs when you try to scale it.”  The trick to scaling all-hands support is to eliminate the knowledge silo that are locked in the heads of your support team. 

Create Support Resources for the Whole Team

Rather than have each team member try to learn the ropes from a few support agents, create resources that they can reference whenever they have their day in customer support.  You can set your team up for success with these tools:

  • A searchable ticket archive. Rather than running support through individual email accounts, using a helpdesk tool like Teamwork Desk provides your team with a unified inbox that everyone can access. When it comes to each team member’s day in support, the search feature will prove to be extremely valuable as it lets team members read all previous support tickets so they can learn from the experience of full-time support agents. A copywriter with no experience advising customers on how to use the company’s API can read previous tickets and have an understanding of how to aptly answer a customer query regarding a 429 status code.

  • A style guide. Support members have to interact in a style that’s consistent with your brand, while being friendly and empathetic to the customers’ needs. Have your agents create a style guide that includes plenty of email templates for frequent customer issues and examples of how to handle common feature requests. 

  • Internal help docs. Have your support team put together an internal FAQ of the most frequently asked questions–and their solutions. They can include workflow explanations that help team members quickly triage and respond to customer queries.   

With support resources readily accessible, your team has a single source of accurate, accessible information on how to interact with customers and mitigate their issues.

3. Prevent Empathy Fatigue

People who choose a career in support enjoy interfacing with people day in and day out to solve their problems and improve their overall experience. But even the best and most-motivated support agents are prone to experience empathy fatigue. 

Empathy fatigue is the mental and psychological exhaustion that occurs when you’re constantly mitigating high-pressure, stressful situations. It’s a term that has been widespread among therapists and social workers, but has recently been applied to support agents, who deal with dozens of customers each day. 

The effect of empathy fatigue can be amplified for the people who were hired for their expertise in another area, rather than customer support. Those who choose a career in development, design, or even marketing often feel more comfortable working on their own projects than dealing with people all day long. Forcing them to do too much support can cause them to burn out and lose interest in their primary job. To avoid empathy fatigue, limit the hours that each team member spends answering support tickets.

Stick to 5% support

Buffer has a 5% rule, where each employee works in support for only one day a month–which equals about 5% of their time spent at work. During each day on support, they’re paired with a team buddy from the full-time support team who guides them through the process and helps them through any hiccups they might run into. To keep support time consistent and fair for all of your employees, set up a rotation schedule in which:

  • They’re assigned one day a month for their support shift. 

  • They’re paired with a different support agent each time, who serves as their “buddy.”

  • They’re encouraged to contribute the information they learned to the internal help docs after their shift so everyone benefits from their experience.

This system strikes a great balance between letting highly-skilled support agents own the process while still giving every team member first-hand experience with customers. 

Keep Your Team Anchored in Your Customers’ Experience

SaaS companies’ emphasis on great customer experience often keeps them from opening up their support department to team members in other roles. They’ve poured time into building a highly-skilled support team, so they only entrust the responsibility to a few, carefully-selected support agents. 

But when you limit your team’s exposure to customers, you’re making it difficult for them to understand and stay focused on customers’ needs. Customer-centric support strategies–where the customer is front-of-mind for every team member–are the best way to build better products and prevent issues in the first place. By instituting all-hands support, you’re enabling team members to get to know customers and proactively solve problems before the tickets roll in.

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