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.
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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