How to scale customer support for your growing business

A practical guide for growing your customer service team without sacrificing support quality.

Introduction

Customer service can make or break the growth of your company.

According to American Express, consumers are willing to spend 17% more on a company with outstanding customer service. Additionally, Accenture estimates that U.S. companies annually lose $1.6 trillion when poor customer service drives their customers to switch to a competitor.

Unfortunately, customer service is often one of the last things CEOs plan for when they’re thinking about growth. They don’t want to spend the money, or figure they’ll add more capacity when they need it.

But this can have disastrous results. If you fail to appropriately scale your customer support team, you risk alienating customers, damaging your brand, and ultimately killing growth altogether.

The bottom line: if you’re expecting to grow, you need to make a plan to scale your customer service team. This handy E-book will help you do just that.

After reading it, you should have a clear idea of how to develop staffing projections, create a scaling strategy, and reduce ticket volume with process improvements.

How many agents should you hire? Should you outsource or keep your team in-house? Should you build a remote team? What about international customer service agents? We’ll answer all of these questions and more. Read on!

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The Importance Of Planning Ahead For Scaling Your Customer Service Team

Whenever you’re planning a big project, it’s helpful to start by asking one question: Why? In this case, why is it so important to develop a scaling strategy early on? If you need convincing, here are three compelling reasons:

 

  1. 01

    It’s hard to build a plane while flying it

    Tech and Software as a Service (SaaS) companies have convinced many people that an iterative approach to business is the best approach: ship your product, learn, tweak it, ship again… It’s a cycle that results in quick learning and avoids incorrect assumptions.

    However, customer support is not an area where this approach tends to work. Scaling your customer service team takes time. In particular, you need to hire and train any new customer service agents you want to add to the team.

    It’s unwise to put yourself in a position where your customer service team is falling behind on incoming support tickets. When you get 2, 3, 4 days behind on tickets, your entire operation can start to break down. And it’s very hard to develop a solid scaling strategy when your team is already overwhelmed. You might end up hiring sub-par agents or engaging an outsourcer who isn’t really a good fit for your team.

  2. 02

    The risks of failure are too high

    The good news: your marketing campaign worked better than expected. The bad news: you’re getting more customer service tickets than you expected, too. You’re now a week behind. It was bad enough when customers didn’t receive their orders - but now they aren’t receiving responses to their emails, either. In a best case scenario, you’ll alienate a few customers. In a worst-case scenario, you’ll do irreparable damage to your brand.

    And if that wasn’t enough, PwC reports that 32% of consumers say that they will walk away from a brand they love after just one bad experience. Long story short, you simply can’t afford not to invest in customer service.

  3. 03

    The most helpful tools often take the longest time to put in place

    Later in this guide, we’ll discuss specific high-impact tools and strategies to help you deliver great customer support consistently. For now, let’s just note that many of these game-changing tactics — such as self-service options, improved FAQs, and outsourced support — typically require a significant investment of time, money, and/or forethought.

What if growth doesn’t materialize?

By now, you’re probably wondering what will happen if the growth you’ve been preparing for doesn’t materialize. After all, the last thing you want to do is to hire new agents now just to lay them off six months later.

Fortunately, hiring in-house isn’t your only option. The less risky alternative is to work with an outsourcing partner, who’ll assume responsibility of all new hires in your team. At Peak Support, for example, if one client scales back, we can typically re-staff the agents on another account.

Now that we’ve laid a foundation of why early planning for scaling your support matters, let’s switch gears and look into how you can accomplish this.

Developing staffing projections

Before you can determine exactly what your customer service team should look like in the future, you’ll need to do some work to understand where your business is going. Below are four specific steps you can take to gain the necessary insight.

Step 1: Work with other teams to understand projected sales growth

Before you can project your customer service ticket volume, you need projections for sales growth. Work with other teams like sales and marketing to understand the factors that will drive the overall growth of the business.

Ideally, you’ll get growth projections from your company’s leadership team or from the sales and marketing department. If you don’t, you may have to get the ball rolling by coming up with some estimates of your own as a starting place for discussion.

Factors to consider include:

  • Year-on-year sales growth: How fast has your business grown over the past year? Do you expect that pace to continue?
  • Seasonal variations: Are your sales steady throughout the year, or do they peak at different times? Does your customer service ticket volume tend to mirror that pattern, or is it different?
  • Changes in marketing patterns: Are your marketing efforts yielding more than they used to? Or less?
  • New marketing or sales channels: Do you have any new marketing or sales channels you’ll be trying this year?

Step 2: Choose the right metric

Next, you have to translate sales projections into a projection for ticket volume. But if you’re expecting sales to double, that doesn’t necessarily mean ticket volume will double as well.

One useful strategy is to measure how customer service ticket volume rises and falls based on a variety of different sales metrics. For example, you could look at historical data for:

  • Customer service tickets per units sold
  • Customer service tickets per customer
  • Customer service tickets per order
  • Customer service tickets per dollar of revenue

What you’re looking for is the different ways to connect sales volume and support. In a perfect world, you’d be able to calculate each of the metrics above and identify which one is the most consistent over time. This metric is then what you can use to forecast support volume.

Let’s consider an example:

  • After comparing the four metrics above, you find that tickets per order is the metric that has the lowest variance and is most consistent over time. The median tickets per order for the last 18 months is 0.12.
  • Your marketing and sales teams expect to drive an additional 10,000 orders per month in the next quarter.
  • Using the median above, you can calculate that you’re likely to see an additional 1200 support tickets each month during the upcoming quarter (10,000 x 0.12).

This is a very straightforward example, but it gives you a good starting point. Based upon historical data, you know you’ll likely see an additional 1200 tickets per month. From there, you can begin to estimate how many agents you’ll need to handle those tickets.

Step 3: Use a queuing model

Here is where it may get complicated, particularly if you offer phone or chat support.

Some companies may be able to accurately predict their staffing needs with a simple calculation: if each agent can process 600 tickets per month, you need to add two more agents to the team to handle the additional 1200 tickets you’ve projected.

This type of calculation may work if your ticket volume is fairly smooth over the course of the day, and/or if you only provide email support.

But if most of your tickets come by phone, and most of them come between 12 and 2, that won’t work. Even the best agents can’t be on four phone calls at once, so many of those calls are going to go unanswered.

You’ll need to have enough staff available to handle the peak number of phone calls (or at least a large percentage of them) that could come in at the same time. As a result, you’ll need to add more staff than you expect – even if many of those agents are idle the rest of the day.

This is where a queueing model comes in. If you’re not familiar with the term, a queuing model is a tool to help you understand when your tickets come in, and how many agents you need to hire as a result.

Queuing models can quickly grow complex, so we’ve put together a video where you can see exactly how a queuing model works. In a nutshell, a queuing model ingests four main data points:

  • Your projected ticket volume per interval, i.e. how many tickets you can expect during a given time period.
  • Your service time, i.e. how long it takes to complete a ticket (e.g. five minutes per ticket).
  • Your goal time, i.e. how long customers perceive the time to resolution, calculated as service time plus wait time (five minutes per ticket plus one minute on hold).
  • Your service level agreement (SLA), i.e. the percentage of tickets you want to have handled within goal (e.g. you need to answer 90% of calls within one minute)

These four data points are entered into a formula that outputs the expected number of agents you’ll need during each interval to achieve your goals and service levels. If you’d like to understand this in more detail, you can book a free consultation with Peak Support.

Step 4: Consider other factors

While the above three steps will build out the core of your staffing projection, there are a few other factors that could impact your staffing and need to be taken into account:

  • Attrition. Even the best company in the world loses people at times. Because attrition is a reality, it’s often best to slightly overstaff. If your projection says you’ll need ten people four months from now, it might be a good idea to hire eleven or twelve so you don’t end up in a bind.
  • Promotions or responsibility changes. If you bring in additional support, you’re going to need someone to help onboard new team members. This responsibility often falls to senior team members. Don’t forget that if your best people are spending time training and managing newer agents, they will have less time in the queue answering tickets. A good rule of thumb is that you need one full time team lead — who isn’t answering tickets — to support 10 production agents.
  • Process improvements. While ticket volume may rise dramatically from time to time, hiring more support people isn’t your only option. While you’re upping your staffing in preparation, you should also consider whether there are process improvements that can help you reduce total ticket volume.
  • Task specialization. If you have enough simple, tier 1 email tickets, it will be easiest to train new hires on those and let your experienced customer support agents take on more complex tasks. If most of your queries are complex, however, you’ll need more time to make sure your new hires are up to speed.

Creating a scaling strategy

If you’ve taken the time to work through the items above, then hopefully you now have a general idea of how much additional support you’ll need in the future. That’s huge - and that means that now it’s decision time. There are three main decisions you’ll need to make when developing your scaling strategy: internal vs. outsourced, international vs. domestic, and remote vs. in-office.

Internal support vs. outsourced support

The first major decision you need to make is whether you should hire internally or whether you should bring on a customer service outsourcing company.

This can be a complicated decision. While you’re the only one who can know for sure what the best approach is for your company, there are pros and cons to both.

There are a number of great reasons to consider hiring outsourced support for your organization:

  • Scale quickly. It might take you a month or more to hire an internal customer service agent. An outsourcer can typically onboard a new team member in as little as a week.
  • Add as many agents as you need. If you’re based in a major metro area, it may be challenging to find enough customer support talent. If you’re struggling to add even five or ten new agents, you should probably consider outsourcing.
  • Get expert help. Your outsourcing firm should be able to help you add new channels, measure KPIs, schedule your team, and more. Furthermore, outsourced support providers often have access to top-tier, experienced support agents. You’ll rest assured that your customers are in good hands.
  • Take recruiting, hiring and managing off your plate. The least fun, most time-consuming, parts of leadership are often dealing with all of these HR-related tasks. With outsourced support, you simply specify what you’re looking for and they handle the rest.
  • Gain flexibility. Because of their specialization, outsourced support companies can often scale far quicker than you’d be able to on your own. If you’re about to get slammed with tickets, outsourcing for help may speed your preparations up in a big way. They can also downscale more easily, because they have other accounts where agents can be re-staffed.

International vs. domestic

Building an international customer service team — or one with both domestic and international components — is a good fit for many companies. Tapping the international talent market offers a number of benefits:

  • The quantity of talent. It’s often difficult to find enough qualified customer service agents domestically, particularly in major metro areas. By contrast, countries like the Philippines have millions of agents who see customer service as a career, not just a stepping stone to another job.
  • The quality of talent. The Philippines and some other international markets are packed with true customer support professionals. Peak Support’s agents in the Philippines, for example, typically have college degrees and 7-8 years of experience working for large U.S. and European brands like Verizon, eBay, and more. They also speak excellent English, with a limited accent.
  • Cost. Going overseas is typically more cost effective than hiring in the U.S.

There are, however, some companies for which international outsourcing is not the best fit. In particular, you should think about your customer base. International outsourcing can be a controversial political issue, and some customers are particularly sensitive about it. If you think that might apply to your customer base, you’ll have to evaluate whether the benefits exceed the risks.

A blended team, with a mix of domestic and international agents, can be a great middle ground. For example, you can task your international agents with Tier 1 and Tier 2 email tickets and let your domestic staff manage complex tickets, live chats, and phone calls.

Remote vs. in-office

If you’re ignoring the remote workforce, you’re ignoring a huge potential talent pool. According to a report by Global Workplace Analytics, approximately 3.7 million Americans are currently working remotely, and that number is expected to grow. In fact, more and more companies are going remote-only, meaning that everyone, including the executive team, works from home or from a co-working space of their choice.

This saves money on office space and allows the company to find the best talent, wherever it might be. For customer support, a remote workforce also increases redundancy. If your customer service team is based in a call center in Florida, for example, a hurricane could knock out your team for days.

If the majority of your company works in an office, however, you’ll need to ensure your remote team is seamlessly integrated into your operation. At Peak Support, we use six strategies to ensure that everyone we work with, regardless of where they are in the world, is doing the right work, in the right ways, and at the right time.

A note on achieving a cohesive company culture

One concern companies face — especially if they’re hiring remote workers, international agents, or outsourced representatives — is how these new team members can assimilate into the company’s culture. After all, how can someone working remotely be a part of the close-knit team culture your company has developed?

If you’re using an outsourcing partner, it’s important to screen for company culture before you sign on the dotted line. After all, it’s hard to build a consistent customer experience if your customer-facing support staff doesn’t share the core values with the rest of your team.

After you’ve made the decision to hire or outsource remotely, the key is to treat your customer service team members like all your other employees. No matter where your new team members sit, educate them on your company’s values, goals, and identity, starting on the first day of training.

Then include them in your internal meetings and updates so they can feel like they’re active participants in your company culture. The bottom line is this: the more communication the outsourced or remote team members can have with your internal team, the easier it’ll be to foster collaboration.

For example, we typically have weekly calls with our clients. When possible, we’ll include the entire outsourced team in the call. This helps our clients feel more connected to their team members, and helps our team members feel more connected to the client.

Intentionality is the key. If you make an active effort, you can foster a community of cooperation and communication that will improve the day-to-day experience of your entire team.

Reducing ticket volume with process improvements

As mentioned above, growing your support team is only one way that you should be preparing for growth. Implementing process improvements is a great way to both reduce ticket volume and improve your customer experience in the long run.

There are a number of different ways you can achieve these two goals. We’ve highlighted two different categories and some specific examples below, but remember that you should use these to spark creative ideas based upon your knowledge of your unique business.

Step 1: Analyze your most common tickets

Spending some quality time reviewing your most common tickets can be a very eye-opening experience. You’ll walk away with plenty of ideas on how to eliminate the need for customers to contact your team.

Some examples include:

  • Where is my order (WisMO) inquiries. You can eliminate the need for these inquiries through things like automated delivery notifications, multi-channel support, and chatbots.
  • Cancellations. Do you make it hard for customers to cancel or suspend their accounts? If so, consider whether that actually helps or hurts your business. Automating the process could reduce ticket volume.
  • Returns & exchanges. E-commerce or product companies often get bogged down in questions about returns and exchanges. Consider revising your policies to give shoppers more time. You could also make your policies easier to find, implement an FAQ, or update your order confirmation emails with clearer information.
  • Product Questions. If you can identify products that drive high ticket volume, there may be an opportunity to improve your product descriptions, FAQs, and so on.

Step 2: Improve your self-help options

Once you understand your customers’ common inquiries, you can improve your self-help options.

  • Build a knowledge base. If you have no self-help option on your site, build one. Even just an FAQ with 10 common questions is a good place to start.
  • Audit your knowledge base. If you already have a knowledge base or FAQ section, do a full audit. Often, companies build a knowledge base early on and then forget about it. Does your knowledge base still line up with the most common issues you’ve identified above? Are the answers clear? What are your competitors including in their FAQs?
  • Incorporate video or other improvements. Are there ways you can improve the way you communicate basic how-tos to your customers? How-to videos can be very useful, particularly for technical applications. You could also consider creating webinars or other resources.
  • Make your knowledge base accessible. Is your knowledge base easy to find on your website? If customers Google for answers, do your FAQ articles pop up? Your self-help options are useless if customers can’t find them and easily search for the answers they need.

Step 3: Improve your support team’s efficiency

If there is an unavoidable need for the customer to contact your support team, then you need to find ways for your team to assist them quickly and effectively. Several examples of how to achieve this include things like:

  • Set targets for productivity. An effective team needs clear goals. You can do this in many different ways, but once you’ve landed on the right goals, make sure you keep them front and center for your team.
  • Add more macros or templates. Macros and templates are simple tools that can have a large effect on your support team’s efficiency, particularly with common questions or issues.
  • Add a QA program. A robust QA program allows you to monitor your agents’ tickets in a systematic way. You’ll quickly identify opportunities to improve both efficiency and quality.
  • Provide refresher trainings. Your team will be more efficient when they are confident in their product and process knowledge. Consider organizing short training sessions to sharpen their knowledge and ensure they’re prepared.

As you’re working through the options, remember that process improvements can require a fair amount of time and energy, particularly from your senior agents and leads. Make sure you’re building these realities into your timeline and staffing projections.

Closing remarks

While we’ve done our best you set you up for success, the truth is that planning ahead requires making certain assumptions. Even when you’re using accurate data, volume and staffing projections are never guaranteed.

Because of this reality, you should constantly keep an eye on your staffing model to make sure you haven’t missed anything. If you see your ticket volume begin to veer away from your projection, it’s time to dive deep into your recent data to look for discrepancies.

Once you’ve found out what you’ve missed, you can make adjustments, and continue monitoring as you move forward.

Should you need any help with scaling your customer support team, we’re happy to help. You can book a free consultation here, or contact CEO Jonathan Steiman directly to set up a call.

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