Optimizing Your Support Function


Maranda Dziekonski is currently the Vice President of Chief Customer Officer at Swiftly, and has previously led customer success and support teams at Lending Club, HelloSign, Castlight Health, and Pared. In this guide, she outlines how to set up and tier a customer support function, including how to divert support queries to self-serve channels, and how to work with product and tech teams on bug management.

Table of Contents

What’s the role of customer support?

Customer support deals with reactive work – such as the tickets that come in with, “how do I do this in your product, or help me reset my password?” Depending upon the product, it could be called “technical support.” 

Customer success and support teams have very different mindsets – generally, customer support waits for the customer to reach out so they can help them solve their problems versus customer success. With success, they’re proactively managing those relationships to make sure that they’re continuously achieving their goals on the product. Usually, the customer support team isn’t trained to manage a portfolio in a proactive way.

Why does good support matter? 

Support is part of the overall customer experience – every customer will need help occasionally. This can include self-help, so invest in your help center, training videos, and walkthroughs within your product. For cases when those aren’t enough, they’re going to need someone to turn to. 

You can lose customer trust, loyalty, and confidence without it – customers won’t think you have the ability to serve them or help them reach their outcomes anymore. 

How should support fit in the broader org?

Support often reports up through customer success – especially in smaller organizations, the same leader manages both teams. At larger companies, support probably should still report up to customer success, but you need to have functional leaders over each area. Having a strong alignment across customer success and customer support is key. 

Generally keep a 1:8 or 1:12 manager: rep ratio, bring in a support-specific manager when you have 4-5 reps – make sure the manager knows that they’re probably going to be a player-coach; they’ll be answering tickets and calls alongside the team. The more technical your product, the lower your ratio should be.

What are the different sub-functions within support?

Design specializations based on ticket types that require special knowledge, or take a lot of time – keep track of all of the different types that are coming in, and then understand where you’re investing most of your time. For example, when I built a team of 50 reps, we had a few specializations: 

  1. Regular support – taking in tickets and answering questions.
  2. Escalation – these are more experienced folks who just love dealing with conflict and they know how to de-escalate things.
  3. A specialized role (e.g. payments) – if you have a specific item that’s taking up a lot of your team’s time. 

How many support reps do you need? 

The number of reps required depends upon the SLAs you want to provide:

  • For phone – start with the SLA (in terms of wait time) you want to meet, then calculate how long the average call is and how many calls you receive per day to determine how many reps you’ll need.
  • For email or chat – you can parallel process more because one person can normally handle two or three chats at the same time. Work backward from your SLA in the same way.

Whatever the SLA is, make sure to communicate it to your customer – use an auto-response to communicate approximately how long it’ll take you to get back to them.

The most important thing is to start tracking where you are and where you need to be – track what type of tickets you get, what type of calls you get, and how long it’s taking to serve each. 

How should you define and handle tickets? 

First, get it out of a support@company.com inbox – use a system like odesk.com or zendesk.com. Get this started as soon as possible. 

Create ticket contact reasons – with two levels, macro and micro-level

  • Define macro-level (to track themes) – e.g. “help with the system.” Macro-level contact reasons document the broad reasons why somebody potentially could contact you for help with the system. 

→ Macro-level contact reasons help you start seeing trends around where your support team is spending their time

  • Define micro-level (to track specific issues) – within each macro-level theme, there are many different things that a customer could contact you about. Take Slack for example: on the macro-level, I might contact Slack about team management, but the micro-level my issue is removing or adding people to a team. 

Micro-level contact reasons help you identify where there’s a part of your product that isn’t intuitive to users

Use insights from your themes to improve product and efficiency – look for themes to communicate feedback over to the product team, or to set up an answer bot if that’ll help your team.  CS is all about efficiency, so leverage the technology that’s available to you.

How might you tier support tickets? 

Option 1: tier tickets based on customer service level – so customers can pay for a better level, or it’s negotiated in their contract. 

Option 2: tier based on escalation paths – under this framework, a ticket comes into your Tier 1 support group, but the Tier 1 support group is only trained to handle 10 common things, and if it gets outside of those 10 things, it can be escalated to the next level, which would be your Tier 2 support. Each tier can handle more complicated items. 

Use tiers as a career path – since the higher tiers have a higher level of technical responsibility, moving to higher tiers can be a great career path. You also don’t need as many people to handle issues at higher tiers because very few questions won’t be answered at a lower tier. 

How should you handle escalations to the product or dev team?

Set agreed upon SLAs with the product org – for the CS team to communicate importance to the product team, and so the CS knows whether something will be worked on immediately, in the future, or never. You might have priority levels like:

  • Use P0 for a system outage – P0 should mean all hands on deck, drop what you’re doing, we’ve got to fix this right now. 
  • Use P1 – P2 for bugs that need to be fixed urgently – turnaround time varies by the company; you might have different SLAs for different customers and error types. P1 and P2 could range from a couple of hours to a couple of days depending on the company. 
  • P3’s go into the backlog – use P3 for feature requests or a bug in the product that has a workaround (the user isn’t debilitated from reaching their desired outcome with the product).

To coordinate seamlessly between teams:

  • Create an integration to get tickets into the product’s flow – e.g. integrate Zendesk and Jira, so you can turn tickets into bugs in the queue.
  • Have weekly or bi-weekly meetings with the product and customer team leads – to discuss common and urgent ticket types and to talk about why high priority issues are important.

What metrics are most important to track? 

Customer satisfaction metrics:

  • Customer satisfaction (CSAT) – CSAT asks, “Are you happy with the service you receive today?” It’s very much about how that representative solved or answered your question. And it’s a simple yes or no answer. Depending on the industry you’re in, some people say is 80% acceptable, but I like to see my teams at 90-95%. We consistently manage to achieve that.
  • Net promoter score (NPS) – this is a company score. Customer support plays into it like a  piece of the pie but every department in the company has a piece of the NPS pie. The product has to be solid for it to be promoted and there has to be minimal to no barriers for customers to be able to use it. 

Ticket response time and efficiency metrics:

  • First response time – time to first reply measures how long it takes a team to respond to a support ticket that’s submitted. It varies based on how expensive the product is, and the time of responsiveness that’s expected.
    • High touch – less than one business day, ideally less than four hours.
    • Tech touch – there should always be an immediate auto-response but a human touch could take 2-3 days.
  • Overall resolution time – not just receiving a ticket and acknowledging it, but how long did it take for you to solve it.  This is really key for folks who are submitting the more technical cumbersome tickets that have to get funneled through the different tiers
  • First contact resolution rate – the percent of the time that you’re able to resolve a ticket on the first touch. It’s a key metric for efficiency.
  • Ticket deflection – the percent of tickets that you’re able to deflect away from human support to a self-serve option. Focus on this metric to decrease the number of tickets that are coming in for certain categories, like password resets. 

Ticket volume metrics:

  • Overall ticket request volume – you need to monitor your overall ticket request volume. You need to get into a system so you can start to see the trends. 
  • Tickets per user – per active monthly user, how many tickets are submitted?
  • Tickets per customer support rep – how many reps were on staff to answer these tickets (were there enough, and were they handling tickets efficiently)?

For phone support:

  • Call metrics e.g. handle time (use with caution) – many call centers measure metrics like average handling time, but be careful not to sacrifice quality of customer experience by incentivizing short calls.

How should you invest in self-serve resources (and how can you encourage customers to use them)?

Understand the “why”– you need to understand why the people are contacting you. At a minimum, you can get away with just doing a ticketing system and then build on from there as you learn about what your customers are and what they’re contacting you for.

Get the whole team writing help center articles – start writing help center articles. We would do this by dividing them up among our customer support team and everybody would have a goal to write 2 – 5 articles a month. Leverage the questions that you’re being asked already to get that done. 

Get things out there, with some high-level checks – it’s important to get things out there, so don’t make the process too heavy. Make sure content is grammatically correct, that it’s helpful, and that it uses a mix of visuals and words to address multiple learning styles. 

Try video – there are a lot of great tools out there like Loom where you can share your screen and do a quick two-minute walk-through on something, and then you can publish that recording.

Train customers by linking to the help center – have your teams include links to the help center every time they respond to a ticket. This encourages users to go there, and it also helps them save time by sharing a link instead of writing a big response. 

Make your help center public – a public help center is just easier to find and use, and for most companies, it doesn’t contain confidential information.

How can you scale support quickly when you’re growing fast?

You need to do hiring and tooling at once – while you need to hire and fill some of the support seats, you also need to have a team that’s focused on efficiencies, self-help, and ticket deflection. Watch your ticket trends; the data will tell you where to invest in automation.

When you hire support reps, what should you look for?

Anyone who’s worked in service or with the public (especially at companies with a service reputation) – people from service businesses like Starbucks and In-n-Out are often great because they have been a part of larger organizations that have fantastic customer service training. 

It’s about personality it’s less about where you came from and more about your personality. 

How should you train new support reps?

Week 1 – foundations the first week is about building a foundation, similar to building a house. We’re putting down a foundation of understanding about our values and company. 

Week 2+ – department-specific with shadowing – in department-specific training you’re learning high-level things such as your resources and how to navigate the company’s resources. Then have them start shadowing, especially in your call center. You usually have them double headset to where the newbie is sitting and shadowing. Teach them how to answer the phone and talk to customers. 

Once you get large enough, set up classes – once you get large enough you should set up training classes. So you’ll have a training class every other week where you have classroom training. 

Give them guidance on call flow have them understand what the makeup of a call should be. Set up expectations and a script.

Generally, new reps start at Tier 1 – generally, new reps start at Tier 1 support, unless you’re coming in with years and years of experience from somewhere else.

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Set up ticket tooling and categorization – immediately, the most important thing is your tooling. Make sure you have your ticket system and that you’re categorizing those tickets.

Agree on a budget and SLAs – categorize where you collect data. It tells you where you’re at with the budget and what your SLA has to be to fall in that budget. And make sure you center that around the customer service you wish to provide. 

What are the common pitfalls?

Not capturing data – the biggest mistake is not centering everything you do around data. If you’re responding to tickets and you’re not capturing any information, you don’t know where to invest. You have to start as soon as possible, even if it’s only five tickets a day.

Maranda Dziekonski
Maranda Dziekonski

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