This week someone asked me if I thought tiered customer support was a good thing.
My answer was No … and also Yes.
This is because it depends entirely on the purpose and how it’s implemented.
It’s all about the $$$
Most companies implement tiered support as a cost-savings measure. It can be hard and expensive to hire support staff that have the “total package”.
People that have great soft skills, while also having a high ceiling for hard skills are rare. They are harder to find and more expensive to hire and retain. For this reason, many companies resort to hiring (or outsourcing) an initial layer of customer support that is only meant to handle the easy stuff. By only handling easy/one-touch interactions, it reduces the entry barrier dramatically. Your hiring pool broadens exponentially and training/onboarding becomes faster and cheaper.
So what’s the problem with this?
It’s typically a recipe for a bad customer experience. Yes, that tier 1 team can handle the quick and easy stuff. However, what about anything outside that? For anything else, it often turns into a barrier for customers where they look at tier 1 support as something you have to navigate/fight past in order to “get someone who knows what they’re doing”. This further perpetuates the “Can I speak to a manager” culture.
Because the intention here is cost savings, the time and resources aren’t put into training and developing tier 1 support. As a result, your tier 1 support will often end up giving out incorrect, conflicting, or frustrating advice when asked about something that they haven’t been trained on.
“Wouldn’t the Tier 1 support just forward anything they don’t know to Tier 2?”
Sometimes. But often not.
Because this is all about the money, these sorts of team structures are often incentivized around preventing escalations. Escalations cost more money, so the focus will be on volume and not creating escalations. Plus you haven’t invested as much as you should in soft-skills training (again, it’s about the money). So now you get templated answers that lead to a frustrating experience and the team becomes more of an obstacle than an aid.
Can tiered support be done well?
At the start is said Yes and No. So there has to be something we can do?
Take away the financial benefits.
If you are doing tiered support because it will save money, it’s an inevitable ride down the mountain chasing dollars. You’ll cut more and more corners and the customer experience will be poor.
However, if you are doing tiered support for the purpose of providing a great customer experience – you can actually improve customers’ overall experience.
Depending on your service or product, there is likely a certain degree of niche knowledge. This is important stuff to know, but may be difficult or time-consuming to train for.
This could be things:
Rare use cases that are outside the norm
Technical skills like reading/writing code
Due simply to your support having a huge scope. If you selling 200 unique products, it’s not likely your team will be an expert on ALL of them at the same time.
In these situations, it makes sense to break that knowledge up. Have different groups of people specialize.
There are three very important pieces to making this setup work.
Notice that I said “groups of people”. You should never rely on a single person as the sole source of information for anything in your company. Knowledge silos can be deadly to a team when someone leaves the company. There should always be redundancy.
Everyone on the team should have the same core training and development. And everyone should be equally empowered. There shouldn’t be a difference in the experience a customer has, based purely on the nature of their question.
Always minimize transfering a customer. But when you need to, it should be done early in the interaction and should be done in a seemless and positive manner.
The same person that asked me this question, also asked if I could point to companies that I felt do this well. Nothing came to mind at the time, aside from companies I had worked with – which obviously has a level of bias. However the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that I didn’t instantly have examples. This is because of point number three above. If done well, this should be transparent and feel natural to customers.
If your team all has the same core training, development, and empowerment – they are capable of making a great experience for a customer.
They’ll be more aware of their blind spots and when to ask for help.
They’ll also be more aware of what specialized knowledge other teammates have over them.
Being able to recognize when a interaction should be handled by someone else comes easier. In those situations, you want to act on that right away. There’s no point in having a customer go through a 10-minute conversation with you if you know you ultimately can’t help them, but someone else can.
How you move that customer within your team is important. No one wants to feel tossed around.
A handoff should always be positioned as a benefit to the customer. Champion your colleagues as “specialists” for that specific type of question and frame your language around connecting the customer with the most knowledgeable person.
To support those handoffs, you also need to ensure that your team infrastructure supports a seamless crossover. If you need to pass a customer to another group whose SLA is 10x another group, that’s a problem. You need to train up more people to support that queue, otherwise, customers are just being handed off into the abyss.
Creating specializations within your support team is a great way to stimulate the team with new learning opportunities, foster cross-collaboration, and scale your support requests.
If done properly, you can create a system that is totally transparent to customers, while also improving the overall experience.
I’ve been working in the Customer Support / Custom Service realm now for well over a decade. During that time I’ve learned and worked on becoming more empathetic and understanding on customers. I’ve learned how to understand what customer’s truly want/need. As well as how to communicate in more universally understable ways.
So how did that all make me a worse customer?
Yes, I am definitely a far worse customer now than I was 15-20 years ago. The reason for that, is everything that I listed above. Listening, communicating, helping customers find solutions… All the things that I’ve worked at are all reasons why I make a crappy customer now.
I know how little effort it often takes to turn a bad situation into a positive one. I know what it looks like to make a decision based on profit, instead of outcome. I know that you can show a customer that you value them, even when you can’t provide them with the solution they want. I know that scripts are great for efficiency and terrible for creating a customer experience.
you can show a customer that you value them, even when you can’t provide them with the solution they want
So when I get a canned copy/paste reply to an interaction, it annoys me that they could have taken 10 seconds to alter that message to fit my inquiry better. When someone defaults to blaming “company policy”, without actually thinking about other solutions that are possible. Or when someone offers an appology or an “unfortunately” and then proceeds to inadvertently explain why they aren’t actually sorry…. It pisses me off.
Providing a basic level of quality customer service can be done in any industry, at any scale. It’s a pretty low bar and there isn’t an excuse to not meet that. If you aren’t, it’s either lack of effort or lack of caring.
So, yes! I am a worse customer now because I can’t stand seeing companies doing the absolutely bar minimum to provide a access to their customers. Note that I didn’t say provide “service” or “support” to their customers, as I don’t think anyone would describe talking to their phone company a “service” 😂
That’s an odd thing for me to say, seeing as how I don’t really enjoy reading and rarely dive into books. This was a little different though.
A few years ago, while I was still working at FreshBooks – a customer who I had interacted with reached out to a podcast called the UnPodcast. They shared a story with them that was about me. Well, that podcast grew into a book and I’m in it 🙂
While I would have never forgotten this story, it’s nice to know that I will now have a physical reminder forever. If you’d like to hear the original podcast, I’ve linked the original YouTube video on my WHY CUSTOMER SERVICE? page.
This time last year I was working at FreshBooks, but now I’m realizing it is my 9th month working at Automattic and I can’t believe how fast it has gone. Our Grand Meetup, which happened just after my hiring, is only 3 months away.
In the past 9 months, I have grown so much professionally and I know I still have far more in front of me.
One of my colleagues recently wrote a great piece on what it’s like to work with the customer support team at Automattic. We call our crew Happiness Engineers, which despite being a trendy-cliché title, is actually quite correct. How we engineer that happiness is with a team of brilliant, motivated people that wear a lot of hats and have a deep pool of knowledge. If you are interested in reading his breakdown, I recommend reading his article here:
My name is Phil Thompson. I'm a customer support enthusiast working at Automattic, currently with the Pressable support team.
I love customers, animals, people, video games, and technology (in no particular order).
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