Customer Advocacy

Not-so-dead-end: Career Progression in Customer Support

I’ve already shared how I believe in a career in Support, but I only recently outlined what career progression looks like within my own team. We’re a small and mighty crew but it’s time to articulate how one can expect to grow within the Support realm. 

Many are familiar with the traditional leadership path which I actually went through myself. I won’t spend too much time here since this is already alive & well at a lot of places:

The “typical” Support trajectory

But we also need a track for team members that don’t want to necessarily people-manage

Make no mistake, to manage others is not the only way to progress in your career. In fact, I’ve met some brilliant people (not only in Support, but in technical roles, marketing, sales, etc) who don’t necessarily want to manage others or perhaps aren’t well-suited for it. Think about it: the skills it takes to be an amazing troubleshooter or writer may be different than the skills it takes to manage and motivate a team. Or they may not be. We’re all unique. 

The benefits of a dual career path

I love research or journals when I can find them and stumbled upon this article about dual career paths within the tech industry. While it’s geared towards engineering, it was a great starting point for my own work and easily applicable to other disciplines. Before we dive in, I’ll highlight a couple of the top reasons they cited for setting up this dual path.

More Successful Hiring Practices

You can attract a larger set of candidates, including those that don’t necessarily see management as their ideal track.

Reduced Turnover

The Support industry can bleed employees, mostly when the gig is not-so-great to begin with, one that provides little to zero career growth. This is where this path really shines!

“Individuals who are encouraged to advance in areas they enjoy and excel in will derive greater job satisfaction and will be less likely to leave the company. Further, the opportunities offered by a technical (individual contributor) track may not exist at competitor organizations” — Dual Career Paths, Hill, Bradley (1992)

 

Let’s do this! Planning your Individual Contributor Track

Being I’ve never planned this sort of thing, there wasn’t a much better place to start than my own team. I was pointed to this article on how this marketer managed to grow her career without managing people. I absolutely recommend reading the article (marketer or not) but this image highlights the point. You don’t need to be a manager to lead. 

move-on-up-manager-vs-contributor-career-track
How I’ve Managed to Grow My Career Without Managing People Written by Pamela Vaughan | @pamelump

So what are some buckets Support Individual Contributors can own?

This is the fun part. There are SO many different options:

  • Help Center — owns educational customer-facing content 
  • Social Media Support — manages the most complicated of social replies 
  • Bug Queen / King — knows all things bugs
  • Product-specific — one person may know your Android app inside & out, another may take iOS, etc. 
  • Product / Support liaison– in charge of that relationship, may be involved with triage 
  • QA — reviews tickets for quality and shares feedback on how/what to improve
  • Fraud or Billing– owns chargebacks and invoicing 

Think about your specific needs, the career aspirations of your team, and try to find a “niche” that aligns.

Leadership Opportunities for all Customer Service Pros

While any process takes iteration(s), here’s the first pass at what progression “levels” might make sense. These are my own personal thoughts; your list may look different 🙂 

  • Product Knowledge & Skills (I,II, III)
  • Proactivity in improving customer experience (I,IIl, III)
  • Advocate for the customer; advocate for your peers (I, II, III)
  • Rallying the troops; ability to lead, direct others, and execute (I,II,III)

Some blend of the above might help guide the right level for the Individual Contributor. 

ict

Leave room for adaptability & iterate

People are ever-changing, so you may even want to move from one path to the other. You shouldn’t lock folks into one. I’m also new to this so I would absolutely love to hear what others are doing! There is a huge lack of resources in this area but I’m thrilled to know that a future in support exists.  

How weight training has made me a leader

This post has been fizzling around in my mind for months now. I’ve grown a lot professionally in the last year and there is still much work to do. One year ago, I thought I had some leadership traits but I wasn’t a true leader. One year ago, I knew I was hard-working and driven but I didn’t see myself as strong. At times, I was tough on myself, feeling weak and overly sensitive. I’m sorry self of the past; I really was too harsh. 

Right around the time I started my current job, my first time as an official “manager” and leader at a company, I joined Crossfit too! A lot of the movements were familiar to me: burpees, push ups, box jumps, but I hadn’t touched a barbell since college, and even then, it was a scary object. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 7.48.14 PM
Photo credit: brianandjessicaimages

Let me tell you, weight-lifting did not come naturally. I still can’t do movements overhead after months of consistency and practice, and that’s ok! I’ve seen myself build confidence, overcome adversity, and I’ve even gotten the chance to help a couple newbies by now. 

These same things I see in my career too. I’ve just begun seeing myself as strong, a leader, someone with a unique opinion on things, and more assertive. Much of this has to do with mentorship and experience (they may not know it but I have a couple co-workers that have coached me immensely). However, I do attribute a portion of that growth to that barbell. I keep track of all my PRs in my handy Moleskine, and it’s inspiring to crush my previous max weights. There are also some lifts (ugh overhead squat and snatch) that I am still in the same place with, and I’m proud of that too. I keep showing up and working on my mobility. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 7.47.27 PM
Photo credit: brianandjessicaimages

My professional-life weight-lifting victories

  • It’s my personal time to decompress. Time away is what makes me able to deal with difficult customer issues day in and day out. Plus, I deserve some fun each day, and yes, I’ve grown to find throwing heavy things around fun. The pull-ups, not so fun. 
  • I’m learning to overcome challenges. There are many things I am no good at. I am not a natural-born athlete. I keep at it and sometimes find success. I’ll take this same attitude with me to the workplace. I won’t be be the best at everything, and that’s fine. I’m proud of my strides and I modify or even just stretch if I’m not “there yet.” 
  • I’m lifting more weight. Literally. I’ve shifted my vision of myself from “weak” “too emotional,” to strong; I can do this. I am a strong woman with grit. 
  • I’m committed. I set clear monthly fitness and nutrition goals with deadlines. I have learned to do the same in my professional life. 

Now, I’m not suggesting every woman go out and start weight-lifting now. It has amazing external and internal benefits but I believe there are so many ways to stay fit, you should do what works best for YOU. There is no need to conform to a style you don’t enjoy. However, let’s get away from those old conventions of “lifting will make you bulky.” It won’t; but it may help you feel confident and strong. Then, go take those fierce strong lady vibes with you to the office. 

No, support is not something “anyone” can do

The customer service team is sometimes pushed to the basement, or even worse, shun to some creepy metaphorical dungeon; the task at hand, solve tickets quickly and don’t make too much of a ruckus.

Why would we ever treat a specific department at our company “lesser” than the rest? Maybe we haven’t yet shaken that image of a support as cost center work that “anyone could do,” and because most of us still deal with terrible support in our day-to-day experience as consumers. 

In the real world, especially at tech startups, customer service actually has to have mad skills to be successful: 

customer service skills of today
Support: Not something “just anyone” can do.

Even my most well intentioned co-workers have told me “oh….I could never do support,” with a look of disgust. I’ve wondered, is this because the image of what I actually do is still this terrible support dungeon, which no one talented voluntarily walks into? Or is it because, this work is challenging and no, not just anyone can pick it up?

Luckily, I’ve also had the pleasure of working in some amazing environments, where we see great service as a key differentiator, where our team is part of the crew like everyone else, included in key decisions, and even praised company-wide when it’s due. We see service as our place to shine, a branding opportunity, a retention and advocacy tool, and a way to gather feedback and keep iterating on our product. 

Our support conversations create value.
I dare you to tell me this is not creating value.

Recognize your support team is talented and they do work that most people on your team would not only dislike, but they would be terrible at. You wouldn’t ask me to push production code; why do you think a developer can jump in and do support’s job without the proper training, skills, and desire? Now, with those things, yes, they can do it too and I admire companies that have made “all hands support” work for them!  

If your support team is not-so-talented, because you hired a queue monkey to close cases at an un-livable wage, then it’s time to re-think not only your customer strategy but your company values. Bad service you can build a robot for; the “valuable” kind of service takes a “valuable” employee too. 

SupConf- For People Making a Career Out of Support

Last week, I attended the inaugural SupConf, a conference for support pros who want to make a career out of support. This conference was different in that I knew a whole bunch of the attendees on the interwebs via the Support Driven community. This group is a “meta” support group; it’s support for support people and we chat daily on Slack. We are hundreds of people who care deeply about support and we support each other along the way. With that said, I had never met anyone in real life, except the organizer, Scott, so it was quite different to meet in real life.

Photo credit: SupConf 2016 - Ben and Kim MacAskill (https://macaskill.smugmug.com/Conferences/SupConf-2016/)
Photo credit: SupConf 2016 – Ben and Kim MacAskill 

There were a few themes over the course of two days (like Scaling support, Owning your career and Changing the conversation around support, for example), and we took many “breakout sessions” to chat with our peers and learn from one another’s expertise.

Being part of a scrappier startup, there was no budget to send me to a conference like SupConf, but another amazing thing about this event is that they offered several scholarship tickets, one which I got!

If you are curious about some other folk’s wrap up blog posts, you can find them here, here, and even one from an organizer’s perspective, here.

I’m more of a “soak it all in” type person and find note-taking distracting, but I got into “jot this down mode” during one talk in particular by Jeremy DuVall, “Hi. I hate your Product.” I’m sure any support professional can relate, no matter how great your product is!

Hi! I hate your product. SupConf 2016. Photo credit Lance Conzett.
Hi! I hate your product. SupConf 2016.
Photo credit Lance Conzett.

If you are still stuck thinking as support as reactive, some of these points may be surprising. Jeremy shared how at Automattic, makers of WordPress when a major update is released, they actually go as far as  rehearsing objections people might have and tackling them. Think about this…. they are preemptively using empathy skills to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, dream up rude but totally fair objections, to prepare the team to best handle communications.  They are working through difficult situations before they happen. Just wow. We’re making big strides on my own team, but at times, I’m lucky if I know all features coming out, and when they are slated for. Trust me, we’re working on that.

My chicken scratch on "Hi, I hate your product."
My chicken scratch on “Hi, I hate your product.”

When a new feature or major change is on the horizon….

Rehearse objections

“this new design is terrible,” “I can’t read this tiny font,” “this new pricing is unfair to your early customers.”

  • Tackle the negativity. What are you going to say back as a team?
  • Discuss rationale. If some of these objections are really fair and important, are you sure you are making the right call? Make sure of it by bringing your concerns to product or engineering.
  • Once you are feeling solid that pushing this release is the right thing to do, rehearse team communications. Consistency is key. You DO NOT want support agents relaying totally different messages. A customer should hear about the same thing (writing style will vary, but the key message remains) no matter which agent you get.

Don’t drown in suck. Stay happy

Even the most thoughtful agents get mean emails. I have gotten some terribly vulgar, abusive messages when I specialized in fraud. Sometimes, the “suck” can last weeks too, say after a really bad bug or new pricing model. To keep your spirits high,  just remember, you probably have a ridiculous amount of support “love” notes around from folks that think you are the most helpful, amazing, understanding person around. There are few things you can do to keep these warm fuzzies top of mind when you are feeling down.

  1. Keep a “happy file” for yourself! I used to keep a folder of screenshots of really sweet emails from customers. I’m about to start this back up again because it’s a great reminder that this job is rough, and I’m good at it. I’ll recommend my team do the same! Early in your career, this can also be a wonderful supplement to “prove” to hiring managers how amazing you are in action.
  2. Peer Reviews. Go through the Good and the Bad. Something like 3 Good to 1 Bad is a nice ratio, but it doesn’t matter too much. Just do more Good than Bad because only discussing what you did wrong is soul crushing. Also, don’t give generic, “this sucked” feedback. Be specific. Be helpful.
  3. Spartan Kudos. Keep a team-wide happy file. This is a compilation to remind you how kickass the entire support team is.
  4. Sharing #hugs. This is a compilation of the flattering, loving tweets, customer posts, or general company or product love. Personally, I am guilty of sharing too much negativity but I love the idea of making a company-wide Slack channel to share the good as well.

Is it permanent? No.

Is it pervasive? No.

Is it personal? No, it is about a thing not about me.

The alternative to permanent, pervasive, and personal is temporary, specific, and external.

Remember, the “suck” is not about you; it’s about a product. When in doubt, just think, “I am the person that is going to turn around any suck they are feeling.” That’s what I do 🙂

Major industry themes

I did not take awesome notes the rest of the event, but there were definite themes that came up again and again.

Use the right language

Talk like a boss Photo credit: Lance Conzett.
Communicate like a boss
Photo credit: Lance Conzett.

Often times, Support says it “feels” problem X is super annoying. Use the right language to appeal to the person you are trying to convince. If you are talking with finance, use money or other metrics, if product, perhaps frame it in terms of WAU or MAU or retention. The point is, think about your aligned interests and frame it their way. After all, you are the communication expert.

Language is also important to growing your support career. I personally took away huge value from Nykki Yeager’s talk on “communicating like a boss.” My action item from this will be to stop saying “sorry” for things I didn’t do and stop ending my statements with questions, “I think this is really bothering customers, maybe this would be a good idea?….just a suggestion” is not boss language.

Support as a Career

Stop the bleeding. Photo credit: Lance Conzett.
Stop the bleeding.
Photo credit: Lance Conzett.

The fact that support is moving from “cost center” and “reactive” to “brand-building” and “proactive” shows this trend. We need to be proud sharing that we work in customer service and that we think about this differently. Even I am somewhat embarrassed saying, “uhh I work in support….” worrying that people will think I work at a horrific call center. I will use this as a chance to explain what it is I really do.

As managers, we also need to embrace the “slash.” There are a lot of “slash support” type things people may gravitate to: bug reporting, content creation, help center, social support, support engineering. We need to provide career paths for our people, so they feel there is a way to progress at the company without moving to another department or company.

One thing I plan to implement is “sharpen the saw” which I learned about here! It’s official time totally “out of the support queue” off email and Slack to work on development skills of the agent’s choosing, whether that be reading industry content or taking a coding class.

Me deep in talks. Wow, I'm a sloucher. Photo credit: Ben and Kim MacAskill
Me deep in talks. Wow, I’m a sloucher.
Photo credit: Ben and Kim MacAskill

Be proud Support friends. We can change the way the industry is perceived.

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