The Right Number

This is a part of a continuing series that is also available as a downloadable book. We talked to 35 companies, including Stripe, Twilio, and Mailgun, to get a sense of what it takes to run a great customer support organization. While every company is different, there were some trends that we could identify as benchmarks for great customer support.

It's All About Momentum

Superstar customer support teams don’t need 20 people right off the bat. Think of it as a car picking up speed from a red light. The heavier it is at zero, the harder it will be to get going. Instead, take the weight away, let it accelerate, and slowly add more to the car as it’s accelerating, adding more positive momentum.

Instead, pay close attention to the few right people, right personalities, and right ideas that will foster healthy cultures, communications, and processes later down the road. Hiring too fast too soon can result in mismanagement, misaligned expectations from a variety of people and personalities, communication problems, training deficiencies, loose team cohesiveness, and much worse.

Get used to doing more with less. Your customer support team can easily manage the first year or so with just a few people. Look for alternative and creative solutions to offset spikes or unexpected events. Can technology help? What about changing the process? If all else fails, it’s perfectly okay to hire. However, remember that firing someone is much harder than hiring someone. Know exactly who you’re looking for, what qualities are the right fit, the scope of their role, and the cost vs. benefit for bringing them on board.

What To Hire For

Hire for consistency. Hire for happiness. Hire for creativeness. Hire for intelligence. There are plenty of brilliant and hirable people out there. However, not all brilliant people are the right fit for your organization. With a small team like ours, it doesn’t make sense to hire people with overly specific experiences, goals, and skills. Instead, we choose to focus on picking out people who are genuinely happy, who like to ask questions, who wants to spend time chatting it up with customers, and who are intelligent enough to think of a way to work with our values and culture.

Christie @ Outright

"When hiring, there are personality traits that you can't teach. Focus on those things that need to be pre-programmed. Hire the personalities, not the skills."

Courtney @ Eventbrite

"We don’t wait until someone joins our team to start espousing philosophies. We start at the interview stages to begin talking about what our CS philosophy is and what we look for. Starting with the interview, we’re really talking about the experience, the different types of customers we have, talking about key elements such as accountability and ownership to make sure that anyone that joins us has the drive and internal interest and seeing the bigger picture. Curiosity is a key trait we look for to make sure they can venture out by themselves."

Spend and invest in hiring the right people. The right hires promote consistency as an organization. Rock star teammates are able to affect the mood and effectiveness of your entire team. It’s your responsibility to not only find rock stars but make sure their qualities permeate throughout the entire team so that their knowledge, passion, and drive are consistently projected both internally and externally

Lauren @ Twice

"Put yourself in their shoes! I try to picture how I'd feel in their situation (especially given the traumatic experiences most people have had with customer service elsewhere) and make it as pain-free as possible. While many would groan and roll their eyes when given a not-so-technically-inclined customer, I love the challenge of teaching them and they're always so thankful that I helped them through their crisis without making them feel stupid."

The T Individual

You want to hire customer support agents who can wear multiple hats. Customer support is a skill set that encompasses a wide variety of knowledge and talent regardless of company size and scope. If you’re a growing company, it doesn’t make sense to hire something like a customer service analyst. You might need a customer support agent who is also a genius with copy. You might need a customer support agent who is also a great videographer. You might need a customer support agent who is also great at QA. At the same time, these customer support agents are wonderful with people. These T individual can be proficient at many different things but can also always focus on exceling the primary task.

Michael @ Stripe

"Our backgrounds are pretty varied, so we're each bringing something new to the table. An important quality throughout all of Stripe is that we're independent and able to individually impact both what support and all of Stripe look like. "

Jason @ Twilio

"I look for a blend of talent, skills that complement each other. I treat support as a training ground for the rest of the company and bring people that have bright futures ahead of them but might not necessarily have a wealth of expertise, and it gives us an opportunity to indoctrinate them into how we want to approach customers and how we want to build a company."

Happy People, Happy Customers

Look for people who can’t fake enthusiasm even if their life depended on it. People who are genuinely empathetic, friendly, and genuine are a scarce resource.

Courtney @ Eventbrite

"When evaluating candidates for a position on our client services team, we’re looking for people who are friendly, genuine, empathetic, and naturally resonate with our support philosophy. We’ve created a culture in which problem solving and curiosity is key, since learning is ongoing. This is a place for people who thrive off of ownership and accountability, so we look for candidates who have an innate interest in creating a world-class customer experience. My advice is to spend money on hiring people who will personally thrive and professionally drive your organization forward if given the chance. Hold out for the rock stars – it’s worth the investment. Their happiness transfers directly to your customers."

Enthusiasm feeds enthusiasm. To your advantage, enthusiasm also has no prerequisite. Enthusiastic people don’t need to have an extensive background or a pre-developed arsenal of skills to be enthusiastic about something. Value those who are excited about building what you’re building, love what you love, and can’t wait to get their feet wet. These are the people you can trust to make customers happy and excited about your business.

Jason @ Ideeli

"Everything starts during the hiring process in order to find people that are motivated about support. As a startup, we’re not looking for people with a call center mentality. When you hire those types of people, that’s the type of support they will deliver. We try to find people that are empathetic and have the intuition to look beyond what the customer is saying and get to the root of what the customer actually wants."

Keep Them Happy

Let’s admit it; customer support can be terribly dreadful at times. You want to keep those enthusiastic and forever-happy teammates happy in the long run right? To stay happy, your team needs to work in an environment that fosters happiness and use tools that are designed with maximizing happiness and simplicity in mind. Look beyond what everyone else is using simply because it might be the best option. It’s likely that thousands of companies out there find it dreadful.

Just because a certain tool can handle “tickets” doesn’t mean you should use it. Heck, even a simple email client can handle “tickets”. The difference between a capable tool and the right tool can make all the difference between frustrating and inefficient, and fresh, fun, and intuitive. Happy customer support agents treat customers respectfully, respond faster, have more mindshare to be creative and innovative, have more fun, and generally make those who interact with them happier as well.

Give you support staff some freedom in choosing what they enjoy working with. Have them pick the tools that make their workflow more exciting and less dreadful. Happiness can be viral when your staff has a vested interest in working with something every day.

Taylor @ Rackspace

"I think the two biggest issues are that most customer support tools don't integrate with existing workflow tools well enough and they get in the way of a personalized experience with the customer. Some of this just can't be avoided when you get to scale. But putting my startup hat on, the ideal tool when we were starting out would be almost completely transparent to the customer but would provide good admin and monitoring tools for us, the vendor. Something that would allow me to just use my email or chat client of choice and it would be a background process keeping track of everything."

Jason @ Twilio

"For us, it's about finding people who care. We look for people who like dealing with people and it pains them to tell customers "No" so they will look for creative solutions. If you find the right traits, you don’t need to instill that sense of responsibility because they already have it. We look for backgrounds such as teachers. Attitude is most important. Everything else you can teach."

Read Next Chapter: Words of Wisdom

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