The ultimate guide to customer support operations
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
In this guide you'll learn:
What is customer support operations (aka support ops) ?
What does a support operations team do?
Why is customer support operations important?
Who needs customer support operations?
How to build and scale your customer support operations
What tools do support operations work with?
How to save resources with support operations
Customer support is hard work, even under the best conditions. Your agents are on the frontlines, facing down a long queue of frustrated customers that only seems to get longer. Talking to support is the worst part of their day, so times is of the essence. You want to be sure you’ve got the product expertise ready to help them resolve their issue quickly, and with a friendly attitude.
But what happens when that’s not enough? You’ve brought on more agents, but there’s got to be a smarter way to work. You've asked about trying new processes and workflows to become more efficient, but between overseeing multiple teams and managing accounts you don't have the bandwidth to implement them.
This is a job for support operations: an elite unit with a very particular set of skills — skills acquired over a career that provides agents with the professional tools they need to get the job done and optimize customer happiness.
What is Support Operations (also known as
Customer support operations teams allow support departments to better serve the customer and the company as a whole. Support Ops teams are brought in to create a work culture that is conducive to agents doing their best work without needing to figure out new tools or logistics.
Whereas the customer support manager oversees agents, and agents care for customers, support operations focuses on providing tools, writing documentation, developing processes or implementing systems. All so that the support department is functioning at maximum efficiency, so agents can focus on doing their best work – caring for customers.
What does a support operations team do?
Support operations is responsible for overseeing training and quality programs that ensure agents provide a consistent level of support. They organize your knowledge management efforts in the interest of promoting customer self-service and maintaining your legacy knowledge. They scrutinize workflows on a large scale to identify and remove any possible roadblocks that cause bottlenecks in performance.
Finally, the support operations team combs through data to extract insights that can then be fed back to marketing and product teams, as well as to senior management – with recommendations for how to continually improve upon your support efforts.
Customer support operations is essentially a behind-the-scenes strategic team, carefully assembled pieces each performing a different function that serves the whole, and benefits your customs support agents in their work. These roles should be clearly defined each with their own specific expertise and responsibilities to create a well-structured operational layer that will collectively own a set of responsibilities.
What does it actually mean to support a team of support agents? How can support ops make them better? The responsibilities actually break down into a few distinct categories that span a wide range of tasks.
Training Before you put a new agent out on the front lines, you want to be sure they’re ready to interact with your valued customers. Training agents to incorporate your organization’s legacy knowledge is a critical step in the life cycle of a support department.
Workforce management Not all support departments carry the same load. Depending on the business type and size, support agents might be receiving tickets in one time zone or many. Agents that support a business in food delivery might be relatively quiet in the mornings and afternoons, but experience a spike in complaints around lunch and dinner when the majority of transactions are taking place. Building out an appropriate schedule for shifts and breaks means balancing both while also ensuring the busiest work hours have enough agents to handle them.
Workflows Most companies already have the beginnings of a support department in place by the time they start investing in support operations. One of the reasons to take this strategic step is to optimize existing processes and workflows you have in place. Ironing out your support process allows agents to provide the amazing customer service you’re known for – rather than spend their time shuffling through a cluttered desktop searching for a help article that should be at their fingertips.
Tools The right tool for the job can make all the difference, and this is especially true for sensitive work like customer support. Though most support departments rely on a help desk software to manage their tickets and track issues, a support ops team can also assist with building out internal tools to meet specific needs. Self-service tools such as a knowledge base and chatbots help to reduce the number of live support calls, while automations and dashboards can fine tune the efficiency of ensure support departments.
Reporting In order to ensure that you are meeting your KPIs, a support operations team tracks performance metrics of agents and the support department as a whole. Depending on the size and complexity of the company, extracting actionable insights from those numbers might involve an additional layer to your tech stack. The support ops team is focused on evaluating all of the support data that’s available to help assess the organization’s performance and making the necessary adjustments to improve the overall support function.
Support departments themselves are made up of agents (or customer service representatives), shift supervisors, support managers, as well as engineers and in some cases VP of customer support. Customer support operations spans a wider range of roles:
Support trainer Through a combination of in-person mentoring and remote knowledge management, the support trainer is responsible for agent onboarding and training in their new role. This covers everything from company protocol to product tutorials, as well as empathy training and best practices for what to do in the case of a difficult customer. The support trainer is responsible for preparing the training material as well as organizing the sessions for new hires.
Systems Analyst A systems analyst has the most diverse role in the operations team, covering tasks that range from scheduling shifts to reassigning queues. Often working closely with the customer support manager, an analyst job revolves around scrutinizing the data of the support operation to spot any gaps in efficiency and predict possible downtime.
Developer Having tools in your customer support tech stack is critical for a functioning support department, and finding the right tools for your needs can greatly improve resolution times as well the quality of service you offer. Developers assist with the design and rollout of new support channels and service offerings, or in some cases building internal tools for custom use cases. This can include a help desk to manage tickets as well self-service tools such as chatbots or a knowledge base.
Support operations manager The head of your operations department is the ultimate combination of a ‘people person’ and someone who loves drilling down into the data. They must be both strategic and tactical in their work, while at the same time a liaison for different parts of the company. This of course includes everyone in the customer support department, from managers down to individual agents — but it’s also about the product team, the marketing department, and the C-suite. An operations manager must therefore speak many languages while acting as a moving bridge between departments. They must be able to analyze support metrics and read a dashboard, but also understand how those metrics tie into the broader goals of the company. Their responsibilities to the support department include:
Analyzing workflows of support agents, running tests to spot inefficiencies, finding ways to close the gaps
Overseeing the shifts of support agents to meet customer demand and as well as service level agreements (SLA), processes and policies for checking quality, forecasting, metrics
Identifying and acting to remove obstacles to delivering consistently high levels of service.
Leading and supporting customer service teams through required changes.
Yes, the head of operations is responsible for tracking and planning all of the above.
But they are also tasked with collecting support information and presenting it in a way that it makes sense to other teams, ultimately tying this data back to the financial goals of the company:
Preparing performance reports by collecting and analyzing data from the customer service functions and benchmarking performance against industry standards
Taking part in forecasting and budgeting for customer service and tracking the actual performance against budgeted expectations
Maintaining relationships with product teams, checking in to see what they’re working on next. Identifying which customer feedback they need to inform upcoming work
Working closely with senior management to help customer service deliver on their overall company goals and objectives, as well as measuring the business impact of customer care
Why is support operations important?
When most companies are still small, customer support departments are self-sufficient. They assist customers before, during and after their transactions, and support them in using the products and services if and when needed. They also manage their own process and workflows, choosing tools, documenting customer interactions, developing their own processes or implementing existing systems.
But in a growing company, in order for agents to do their best work, they must be allowed to focus solely on the customer – on listening, on understanding their issue, and on providing a fast and easy resolution. Support Operations teams not only allow agents and managers to focus purely on support work, they also streamline their processes and workflows.
On a company level, this brings the call volume down and the support quality up. It means that agents aren’t working from a place of stress because their inboxes and workstations are clutter-free.
Advantages of having a support operations team
Expert perspective – Adding a new layer to your support efforts isn’t just about putting more hands on deck. Support Ops professionals come from a career in operational functionality (applying that eye to customer support or elsewhere) so unlike most support agents, they’re not learning on the job. Instead, their background expertise brings a more objective perspective that helps them analyze the work of the support department and optimize it for the benefit of agents and customers alike.
Custom solutions – Every support department is different and the workflows that support one industry don’t necessarily translate well to another. An in-house operations team allows a growing support department to adopt its own way of managing its work and optimize for that, using a combination of existing tools and new ones built for purpose. They understand the main issues and challenges and can build custom support tools to fit your needs, not someone else’s.
Analysis & insights – Support Ops teams have the experience to carefully build out tools and processes for measuring and analyzing support metrics. Whether you have gaps in documentation or gaps in product capabilities. They have the perspective to thoughtfully implement tools and processes for measuring and analyzing customer support metrics.
Renewed focus – Your customers aren’t there to learn how to use your product – they’re there to achieve a goal. By removing procedural roadblocks, support ops teams allow agents to simply focus on serving customers and helping them get back on track. Being more responsive to their needs has a tangible effect on customer experience.
Career growth – Custom support departments are a great place for spotting and promoting talent within your company. Support work demands a wide range of skills from multitasking to quick learning empathy. Employees with wider abilities have ample room to show it. Among these candidates there will likely be those with an analytical mind – those who not only love to solve problems, but to get to the root of the issue. Promoting internally is a smart way to keep your A-players on board and support ops is an ideal next step for an agent.
Feedback loop – Acting as both a champion for the support team and an advocate for the interest of the company, support ops has a direct line to senior management. This two-way line of communication connects frontline workers to senior management. It also allows the executives to see and appreciate the value of the work that customer support is bringing to the company – and to further invest in customer experience.
Predict Churn – Customer retention is key for a growing business to remain profitable, and this is especially true for SaaS companies whose entire business model is based on renewals. The question is why customers churn and how can you track the warning signs? By processing the data from customer conversations, support operations can analyze customer behavior and help predict churn, building a profitable and long-lasting business.
Who needs support operations?
Not every customer support department needs to hire its own operational support layer. Startups and SMBs with fewer than ten support agents can usually handle their ticket volume without needing external help with streamlining their workflows. However, when runaway support queues cause escalating resolution times and adding more agents is no longer closing the gap – it may be time to consider support operations. If you’re reassigning agents from support work to for support management tasks, then it’s time for a change.
Customer support operations for Startups
For companies that are just starting out but don’t yet offer customer support, a support operations team might be more than you need. Consider starting with one of the many existing solutions that you can work with before even building out a support team. Self-service channels such as a knowledge base or an embeddable widget make it possible to provide 24/7 localized support before you even hire your first agent. By laying the groundwork with an in-house support solution, you’re already paving the way for your future support agents to succeed. Additional channels such as ticketing and call center can be activated within a SaaS customer support platform.
Customer Support operations for SMBs
If you already have a support team but your agents are struggling to keep up, it may be time to consider adding tools to make the whole team more efficient and productive in their work. Implement customer support software that works now but can grow with you. This will help you scale more efficiently so that customer experience doesn’t suffer as your company grows. To avoid a breakdown in systems that worked when your business was smaller, it’s important to constantly reassess your tools.
Signs that it might be time to hire:
Are you feeling overloaded trying to balance people management with operational process management?
Do you feel like you could be getting the same level of result with less manual work simply by working smarter, not harder?
Are the employees tasked with improving processes also the same people leading a division of support agents?
Do you feel like you’re starting to let people down on a strategic vision, with support processes not as smooth as they could be?
Is your head of support spending time thinking about the HOW of support (the channels you offer your customers) instead of the WHAT (which channels are and aren’t working for us)?
Have you ever had to pull an agent off of customer care and onto workflow tasks?
If you checked one or more of these boxes, it might be time to reassess your support operations. Many SMB’s make the mistake of not prioritizing their data in the early stages of their business, but analytics come into play as you grow in many different ways. The sooner you start using a sophisticated customer support software solution the better.
Customer Support operations for Enterprise
If you’re an enterprise company, your support team is already in place and ready to take on more volume. The challenge with scaling support is that it often comes at the expense of quality service. This is where support operations can step in and help, streamlining your processes and allowing you to continue growing your business.
As your audience grows, support work naturally becomes more complicated – and not just due to higher ticket volume. As your products and services become broader, so must the nature of the support you offer. Tickets that used to be open and closed in a day now unfold into conversations that last several days. This shift in timescales is normal and should be embraced, not feared as something that will disrupt your support metrics.
Providing true conversation-based support at enterprise level requires you to reevaluate your systems and tools to keep things running smoothly. Enterprise teams need simple, yet effective tools for their agents, smart automations to iron out their workflows, and robust reporting so that shift managers can see what’s going on. Providing a solid foundation for growth is going to help your agents avoid uncomfortable juggling on priorities and focus on the tasks they were hired to do.
How to build and scale your customer support operations
Customer support operations teams consist of support trainers, systems analysts, and sometimes developers to build internal software – but when a company is first building out a support op team they always begin with a head of support operations. This first hire is the most critical, because he or she will be the strategic lead from which all subsequent hires follow. They might hire support ops professionals that they’ve worked with in previous roles, recruit them from elsewhere, or promote agents internally who are new to operational work.
However, your new head of support operations should have a proven track record of operations work in other companies. What skills and experiences are required to become a support operations manager? For a start, you need an understanding of people management, data science, forecasting and building models for support work – and how to keep your eye on the bottom line while implementing the strategic objectives of senior management.
While no two customer support departments are exactly the same, here’s a checklist of some key criteria to look for in hiring a support operations manager:
Experience in anticipating trends and managing workflows
A proven track record of business process improvement
Ability to lead a team and motivate a range of players
Ability to communicate effectively with senior executives
Ability to analyze and identify improvements in service systems
Experience delivering frontline customer service
Experience in managing cross-team projects to completion.
What tools do support operations work with?
While every company is different and customer needs vary from one industry to another, support operations teams are all about streamlining processes for agents and helping senior management track and meet business goals. Here are some of the common tools that can be found in the tech stack of most support operations teams.
A knowledge base (or knowledge management system) is a tool that allows organizations to create and share product knowledge with their customers. A knowledge base is in fact a form of proactive customer service, anticipating your customers’ needs and supporting them with answers to common questions before they arise. A modern knowledge base is a dynamic platform that meets its users’ needs while measuring their behavior.
Pro-Tip: The humble knowledge base is a powerful secret weapon for companies looking to maximize their existing expertise. Empowering customers to help themselves through self-service isn’t just an economical support channel – it’s a savvy way to track customer engagement across your entire product or service. Track your content’s performance to identify knowledge gaps or the need for product improvements.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Knowledge Management
Automatic actions, or workflows, are a way to cut down on the repetitive tasks that quickly pile up as a support department scales. This allows agents to maintain operational efficiency and continue meeting SLAs, while avoiding unanswered tickets and long customer callback waits. Smart queues and segmentation help agents prioritize which cases to tackle first. Case management is simplified, workflows are streamlined, and tickets are united across channels.
Efficiency at scale is the name of the game and support operations will work to remove unnecessary and redundant manual tasks until your support department is running like a well-oiled machine. To prepare for high workloads, simply select who in the support organization will get a heads-up when spiking ticket volumes need attention.
Customer support dashboards allow shift managers to monitor agent activity across all channels. This sheds light on what’s really happening with ticket volume, agents’ queues and resolution times. With this clarity, support departments are able to improve their customer experience at scale.
Dashboards reveal an overview of team workloads, agent availability and overall efficiency. Support leaders can act by assigning more agents to take calls when there's a surge in volume, or change agents' tickets, call and chat capacity during rush hour.
Pro-Tip: Not all support dashboards support real-time data. Many only offer reports and insights into shifts that have ended, meaning that support actions are based on old performance stats. Instead of making retroactive decisions, make sure your dashboard can measure customer support KPIs in real-time, allowing you to take action on the spot.
Incorporating feedback into your support strategy is a practice that a customer support operations should implement if it's not already something you’re doing. This allows them to measure customer service KPIs and achieve clarity on how your efforts are paying off. This also enables you to identify which customers are advocates and when others need extra attention. Knowing more about your customers helps you to meet their needs as well as make decisions about allocating resources for support in the future.
How to Save Resources With Support Operations
It’s clear that having a customer support operations team in your corner can optimize efficiency and bring support costs down — but staffing out a whole new team is a big investment that not all companies are ready to make. Fortunately, these days there are options available for companies of all sizes that give support departments the benefits of an in-house support operations team at a fraction of the cost.
Many support organizations are paving their own way, or supplementing their support efforts with powerful new tools that give agents and managers more control over their work than ever. These modern support solutions take much of the busy work off your plate, and enable support departments to achieve enterprise level efficiencies without an enterprise budget.
A complete solution
With a help desk software designed to work as one system, you’re set with a platform you can effortlessly grow into. And by providing a holistic solution to your support needs, you are not only set for success, but miles ahead of the competition as you will be working with many of the same tools used by companies with support operations teams:
Companies can save resources with support operations tools that automate daily tasks (by routing tickets with easy to set workflows) and keep call volumes low (by using self self-service as a means to deflect tickets).
Help desk software makes it possible to provide customer support, manage your team and gain valuable insights into your business — so the sooner you implement the better. It will not only scale with you, but also enable you to grow faster.