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. 

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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. 

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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.  

Scuba Diving with Anixety: My Certification in San Andrés, Colombia

I realized that I had a long weekend coming up for July 4th, but yet, hadn’t made any special plans. It sure would have been a waste of precious time off to not get out of Medellín and get to know a new side of Colombia.

Crunched for time, I decided on making a trip to San Andrés Island, a 2 hour plan ride from Medellín. All I had to do was look at a few images and I was sold! 

I like piña coladas, on beaches
I like coconut cocktails, on beaches

I really want to get SCUBA certified? Can I do it without freaking out?

I quickly learned that San Andrés Island is primetime scuba diving territory! Given that over 70% of the world is water, can I really call myself a world traveler without exploring the underwater world? Getting my open water certification was an exhilarating thought. One of those ideas that I know I want and that I would be so proud of myself for doing, but one I was terribly scared of. 

Diving with Anxiety

When I started emailing dive centers, I didn’t really think anyone would be willing to dive with me on my timeline. I needed to get it done Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and it was also a holiday weekend in Colombia…. what are the odds? Luck was on my side but interestingly enough, when I arrived for my first pool training session, I was already thinking I couldn’t do it. I am a confident swimmer and love the pool, but even doing the four laps with the snorkel (no coming up) scared me. My heart was racing the whole time while in a tiny, shallow pool. How was I going to be in open water? This was not a great start but I promised myself I could make it through the pool laps and took it one step at a time. 

What am I scared of, anyway?

On day two, I tried to pin point exactly what fear I had. Some might worry that the air won’t work, or even that they’ll see a shark…. so what was my fear? I had full confidence in my gear and identified that I was scared of me. I thought I wouldn’t be able to control my breathing and possibly get a full-blown panic attack under water.

Luckily, this fear is something I have control over; just breathe

Once I thought about it a bit longer, I built confidence I could do this. All I needed was to breathe in and breath out at a relaxed pace. Do-able. 

Even the other examples are things you can work around. For example, you test your gear; you know it works as you inspect it several times before going out and so does your buddy! You also practice tons of “what if” scenarios, and while this made me even more worried, to learn about every little thing that could go wrong, I was prepared for the unexpected! If you see a shark; wow, that’s rare; stay calm and enjoy the view. 

Diving is quite therapeutic

Once I got the swing of things, I felt at peace, enjoying the beautiful underwater scenery. I felt like an uninvited guest but I was thankful because the sea creatures didn’t mind my being there! 

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Think about the source of anxiety. What can you do about it? Is it the reward worth the trouble?

Once I thought through the fear, I focused my efforts on what I needed to do… breath in and out and relax. Plus, the beauty of the ocean really helped.

In my case, my heart was set on becoming a scuba diver and the risk was small enough to be worth it. Now, does that mean you are going to find me bungie jumping and conquering my fear of heights? No way, not interested in that one! Am I going to go off and start scuba diving with a buddy or two? No, not that one either. Even though I’m now qualified to open water dive with another fellow certified diver, I’ll be sticking to dives with a scuba trainer or dive master that I can trust until I have a lot more dives under my belt. I will probably even tell the instructor something along the lines of:

I just did my certification but just so you know, I am anxiety prone. Can you pay special attention to me in case I get worried underwater?

I know my limits and will stay within them but I’m thrilled to have pushed past a fear for something I really wanted! You might find me planning a lot of diving focused trips! 

Six Sweaty Days in Cartagena, Colombia

I am one month into my 3-month period of remote work. While my base is Medellín, I decided make the 1-hour plane ride to explore the historic city of Cartagena. I took a Friday evening flight and arrived at my hostel a couple of hours later! I spent my weekend “days off” at a hostel in hopes of meeting fellow travelers, but sadly, I arrived too late to actually pull this off. By the time I arrived, everyone was out and about and I hit the neighborhood solo. 

It’s really intimidating for me to go out to a bar alone, but I was glad I did it. I didn’t chat with anyone that first night but I enjoyed taking in the wifi and catching up with my friends back home over a cocktail. 

Day 1 – The Walled City

Cartagena is a beautiful costal city full of history! My first two nights I stayed in the Old Town which is where all the action is at, filled with cobblestone streets and vibrant colors everywhere.

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I had no idea where I was going and it’s small and cute enough to just enjoy getting lost, snapping photos along the way. The castle (Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas) is a huge tourist spot, but I opted to not actually go in. I hear great things but I was more in a “walk around and chill” kind of mood and saw the castle from afar.

Day 2 – Beach Bumming in Bocagrande & Sunset from the walls of the Old City

I know there are beautiful beaches in the area (Play Blanca got talked up) but since I did only have a few days and really wanted to soak up R.E.L.A.X.A.T.I.O.N. vibes, I took a 10-minute cab to the Bocagrande neighborhood. Being from Northern California, I’m a fan of any beach warm enough to jump into in winter, and this water was warm! Some might call it mediocre, I call it easy “vacation-mode.” I enjoyed a nice beach massage which I had to haggle hard for and apparently I still got way ripped off according to my Colombian friends 🙂 

One thing I noticed quickly here is that it is HOT. I was literally drenched in sweat the entire trip and this is during the June winter. There is zero reason to ever consider wearing makeup here so enjoy the natural life. 

In the evening I went back to the wall and sat there for a couple hours by my lonesome enjoying a beautiful sunset and the view of the Caribbean ocean.

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Day 3- NBA Finals. Enough said, right?

Again, this was a wandering trip for me so I got up early and visited a local Crossfit box, before going back to wander the colorful Old City again!

In the evening, I had nothing on my mind but watching Game 7 of the NBA finals and cheering on my Warriors. It was easy to spot fans on the street and I made some buddies this way. After the loss, I brushed it off and kept enjoying the beautiful night. 

Day 4- Snorkeling at Islas del Rosario

Luckily, I got Monday off so I got to make a nice, long weekend out of this trip. I woke up bright and early for snorkeling. This place was absolutely gorgeous and I have never been surrounded by so many fish on a snorkeling trip! The divers mentioned the visibility wasn’t great for them, but I honestly loved it and worked up quite the tan.

Day 5-6

Since I did have to be ready to hit the ticket queue come Tuesday morning, I opted to “work from hotel” for my actual “non-vacation days.” I didn’t want to be that awkward person on the computer at the hostel all day and I was ready for privacy, solid, fast wifi, and A/C. Doing my work from “hotel rooftop” was refreshing and I learned I can pull of the travel trip well. 

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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