How to build a Support team (almost) from scratch
Since april 2014 my professional pathway has been like this giant steep hill climbing road. Why? Because after eight years without touching a single line of code I’ve made a major back flip on my career and started to work on a software company.
I was closing my own startup (on food technology), and had to quickly find a job since I was on the dark side of the entrepreneurship moon, aka being broke. One of the options was to go back to my previous education field, computer science. It all started with a regular recruitment process (first a written test and then a programming challenge, kind of write-your-own-app assignment). I was lucky enough to be successfully hired and by the time I came on board I was keen to “sail this new ship” :)
“Whenever I managed to overcome one obstacle I would have two more waiting”
The learning curve was, though, much higher than I could ever expected it to be. As I was immediately proposed to enter the support team, instead of getting a regular developer position, which meant I had to manage to relearn all the basics I was lacking (after dropping my computer science degree back in 2006), but also get to know all the business logic for the several products the company had, and understand the profile and the type of clients I had to deal with every day.
Easily as it sounds, right? By that time the support team was basically one guy (for storytelling purposes I’ll call him “Ancient Hawk”), who would be soon relocated to the development team. So I was basically getting all the stuff in hands.
I was comfortable with dealing with clients since a great part of the experience of running my own company was a lot about being a people person, but I was feeling that whenever I managed to overcome one obstacle I would have two more in front of me.
The first year was too overwhelming, but then it came the second year...
1. Keep both eyes on the ball
After one year we had a second person joining the team in august 2015 (let’s call him “Blue Fish”). He was clearly technically fit but the stress of dealing with the client support pressures was rapidly killing his spirits. The situation was very challenging since at a personal level I was still trying to find the source energy to keep all these battles in place, and at the same time find ways to motivate him.
He left after a couple of months and we were back to square one.
2. Watch out for the burnout
As it’s trendy to say, we need to “embrace the change”. The thing is that change was embracing us, even if we didn’t want to. By that time Ancient Hawk (remember him?) kept giving us some help answering all the support requests, but we had to find a better long term solution.
With very few choices ahead the HR department asked another person (“Smiling Dragon”), that was being recruited to the front-end team, to join the support team, and luckily he agreed!
Very soon this bet was showing to be a successful one.
He started to learn very fast all the tips and tricks of our daily requests, furthermore he was a welcoming and warm people person (more than myself, must admit). Smiling Dragon had a really positive and energetic way of working. Even if he was less technically fit than Blue Fish, the motivation levels delivered high standards of work, and kept the pace for the multi-challenge environment. For the first time the “client support area” was actually a team with integrated procedures both internal and external.
Another ingredient for the team success was definitely our strategy of complimentary action, we would separate “urgent-stop-everything-you’re-doing” stuff from “planned and calendar” based stuff. This was a very simple yet a high throughput and efficient way of doing things.
One year later, though, I’ve started to feel some differences in his behaviour but I thought it was because of other internal issues. Let’s say that basically sometimes you are a victim of your own success, people trust in your work and you have to start to say no or else you’ll go insane! Furthermore because he was always so highly motivated I was not quite aware of his mojo going down the drain.
Looking backwards is tempting to say “How could I’ve missed that?” but I believe the most valuable lesson is about watching the burnout of dragons (aka highly self-motivated people).
He eventually left the company, after a period of a 18 months.
We were in february 2017.
3. Welcome new people (or die trying)
By then we were a little bit empty handed, no tricks up the sleeve.
The short term option was to invite another person inside the company (“Lone Wolf”). He was on the company for a little more than six months mostly doing our client training courses and implementation follow-up.
“We were trying to shift the focus on building a community spirit instead of a team strategy”
The HR was still putting a lot of time and money in the recruitment process, since we knew that Lone Wolf would still keep his tasks and the support as a whole needed more hands. But he came along as a great option to help us keep the customer support “service-level agreement” (yes, sometimes we would still bother Ancient Hawk, we still do actually). More than that, within a couple of weeks we were already changing the mindset of how to restructure the profile of the team to accommodate all these changes at a deeper level.
In March 2017 “Sunday Tiger” came along! The company was having some college students that were doing their final thesis and he was asked to integrate the support team in a kind-of trainee programme. More than having low-paid labour (unfortunately as many companies still do), we decided to invest our time and resources in giving him more time adapt to our team without the rush of having a fully operational member in a 20-day period. It was a risk for the company, not used to have interns, but the bet definitely paid of.
I believe this was a crucial turning point. Moreover we were trying to shift the focus on building a community spirit instead of a team strategy. Sure, work has to be done, and there’s loads of it. But our eyes were in the long run.
Example of that is that in the mean time, around June-July, we even had a high school internship for a summer experience (“Wandering Mouse”). Maybe most of his work had no real-practical application but the whole team was growing with the experience of sharing and inter-helping.
“Along with the big tumbling waves, we’ve managed to sail the ship”
By the end of that period we also recruited another person (“Giggle Swift”), to join the support team. Similar to what happened with Smiling Dragon, she has quickly become a part of the team because of her enthusiasm in learning. Again, the difference was much more on the people skills, welcoming clients with their doubts and difficult questions, and with the extra effort she is managing to keep up the pace for all the technical stuff.
4. Keep your feet on the ground
It’s now October 2017, more than 3 years and a half after starting this new challenge in my life. Gosh, time has really flown by so fast…
By now we are a team of four people: Lone Wolf, Sunday Tiger, Giggle Swift and me — the Snoring Monkey!
Along with the big tumbling waves, we’ve managed to sail the ship, and we have now a strong team with very different characters and synergetic profiles. Personally I believe that now we have more space to breath in terms of big picture thinking and structure the future work with a more refined KPI analysis.
Don’t take me wrong, we still have days of pure madness, but hey, that’s customer support life!
All this time I had a lot of feedback from our managers and must say that was definitely one huge influential attitude, in order to not feel alone when all the efforts crumbled.
The thing with teams, though, it is always a working process, which makes it both a daring and a daunting adventure!
Post Scriptum: Yes, I still have a beer (or a tonic gin) with Smiling Dragon once in a while :)