Death of the Customer Support Representative

A couple of weeks ago we officially buried the customer support representative role at ASAP. There is no longer a job here that involves answering a neverending barrage of emails and phone calls from clients in varying degree of crisis, and no longer a position where the primary role is to sit on the front lines and protect the rest of the team from the outside world. We all know it, the traditional customer support role is both a terrible job and a potential detriment to the company.

About a month prior to making this move I was struggling with problems around how to scale up our team to support our current growth pattern. We had limited resources for new hires but also bottlenecks in multiple areas. At the same time we were having a mini crisis in the support team as one of our reps was out for personal reasons and this time of year is the busiest for us so everyone was feeling the pressure and the burnout was visible. That’s when we came up with the idea that maybe a simple restructuring of roles could in fact solve both of these problems.

As I said, the traditional support role is terrible, at least the way we had it structured. Not only was everyone spending about 90% or more of their time answering clients directly they were also responsible for answering questions across the entire breadth of the the product, meaning everyone was basically a generalist. So when it came to a need for deeper knowledge things would escalate to the (under-resourced) product team for answers.

What this also did was insulate the product team from customer feedback and complaints. The support team became an abstraction layer between our clients and the team that is building the product for them. While we do other outreach directly from the product team to clients, this particular disconnect was an important problem to solve.

Probably obvious to everyone reading this now is that this was a terrible set up. But what is interesting is that changing our process never really occurred to me because all of our KPIs in the customer service bubble were excellent. We had done a shift in that department back in July of last year and we’ve seen response times way down, % of solved cases have climbed up above 98% even though our volume was higher than ever, and on and on. So in a vacuum there was really nothing wrong in customer support, but taking a wider view it was easy to see how it was impacting the company at a deeper level.

The lesson I’m learning here is how much impact even small changes can make, especially when they’re packaged correctly. The new role is in fact not a big shift in responsibilities, and yet the psychological change alone is making everyone happier and more productive. The team feels like they have more control over their own destiny, and as a company we have a team with a more vertical (and scalable) set of responsibilities.

Here’s a quick look at the new Product Specialist stack:

Supporting clients — Zendesk — incoming issues are automatically routed to the PS based on their feature domain. This is responsibility #1: get responses to the customers quickly and keep the queue clear.

Tracking and prioritizing issues — JIRA — bugs reported by clients are sent to JIRA via Zendesk and PSs are responsible for tracking their issues through the development cycles. In addition to keeping track of the status of their issues they are also responsible for prioritizing the items in their feature domain. They do this via a drag/drop view of their items in the Backlog in JIRA, often meeting with the head of product to discuss overall priorities.

Verifying fixes — JIRA — After issues go through QA the PS team is responsible for reviewing the fixes as a final validation before the fixes are released into the system.

Optimizing features — Balsamiq — When not responding to clients or prioritizing issues the PS team is reviewing their features looking for ways to make both incremental and exponential improvements, drafting mockups in Balsamiq and generating new issues in JIRA.

Writing articles & documentation — Zendesk — We use Zendesk’s help center and the PS team is responsible for creating and managing the content for their features. Articles, how-to’s, videos, etc.

Training — GoToMeeting — Each of our new clients receives several online training sessions targeted to specific areas and features. The PS team will now be responsible for providing this training.

The PS team also works closely with the Customer Success team, working on specific client needs and managing feature requests.

We also have a couple of Product Specialists that are on technical Product Management tracks and they are also often working directly with developers on technical project details.

Our team is re-energized, several bottlenecks have magically evaporated, our internal depth of knowledge in the product has increased tremendously, our product is getting closer attention, and our clients continue to receive the best service in the industry. And I’m personally sleeping a little better.

So queue up a little Nina Simone… it’s a new day for customer support at ASAP. And I’m feeling good.

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