The “As your team grows” Checklist for Customer Service Managers

Authored by Michelle Nickolaisen

Published on March 25, 2015

How many times have you read an article on customer service best practices and thought “that might have worked for our team six months ago, but it won’t work now”? Or, on the other hand, you may have thought that it won’t work for your team now…but it will in a few months’ time. As with most things, advice isn’t one-size-fits-all, and one big factor of that is how long your business or team has been around. With that in mind, we bring you a checklist that will guide you through each stage of your team’s growth:

The first 3-6 months:

Hire and train a solid core team.

Having a strong original team is where it all begins. Look for competent people who can think on their feet. Keep an eye out for people who have the potential to be managers in the future—retaining employees and promoting from within can help keep your company culture strong. Also, having people who have been there since the beginning makes training new recruits easier down the line.

Make a list of what you want in your employees and structure your process to test for that.

For example, if you want detail-oriented people, ask non-standard questions in the job posting and request for them to answer it in their cover letter or email. If you want to work with employees who are so personable they could have a conversation with a brick wall, observe how they interact with the receptionist when they come in for their interview.

In an infographic on the cost of a bad hire, FastCompany published that the most common reasons a hire goes wrong (aside from it “just not working out”) are:

– The company needed to fill the position quickly

– The company didn’t test or research the employee’s skills well enough

– The company didn’t perform adequate reference checks

Working backwards from there, you can make better hiring decisions by avoiding those mistakes. Don’t make hasty decisions after one quick phone chat and always check references. The above suggestions can help you screen out people who don’t have the required skills or personality for the job, but if you want to go the extra mile, you may even consider having potential hires write a reply to a test email or do a (paid) test day on the job to see how they handle it.

Nail down your core channels.

It’s tempting to try and have all customer service channels available from the very beginning. The big downside is that doing this stretches your team’s focus and creates a less coherent experience for customers. Instead, you want to focus on one or two channels, and add in more options later on. Start with scalable channels: email, Twitter, Facebook, live chat (during office hours), and so on.

Establish goodwill with customers.

There’s a lot of talk about scalability with customer service, and for good reason, but right now, you don’t need to worry about it. Instead of fussing over whether a specific high-touch practice will scale well or not, you need to provide the best experience possible.

Aside from the obvious factor of having competent representatives who give helpful responses, speed is a big part of this. And if you’re using email to communicate, reply-time isn’t all that matters—we’ve all been involved in that incessantly long email chain of questions and answers.

Instead of letting that happen, teach your employees to send better emails from the get go.

Many of the tips need to be modified to fit a CSR’s perspective, but this post has some great pointers (and a before and after example) on sending more effective email. The key takeaways for customer service reps are:

– Use if this, then that language. Instead of asking one question per email and waiting for the customer to reply, then asking another one, ask a clarifying question. Then follow it up (in the same email) with, “If you’re experiencing this version of the problem, can you try XYZ and tell me if that fixes it? On the other hand, if you’re experiencing this different version of the problem, can you let me know the following information…” This keeps email back and forth to a minimum, solving the issue in the least amount of emails.

– Include a screenshot or short screencast if you’re trying to illustrate something. Jingand Skitch are two easy-to-use free apps that can help with this.

– Keep it brief—customers don’t want to read a novel in reply to their question. They’ll get overwhelmed and frustrated.

– Make sure to read it back aloud and try to view it from the customer’s perspective.Did you assume knowledge they might not have? Did you make sure to include their name and make it sound personable, not like it came from a machine?

The next 6-12 months:

Start building (and adding to) a FAQ/knowledge base.

Self-service isn’t a replacement for customer service, but it does have its uses. One Forrester survey showed that  72% of US online consumers prefer using a website to get answers, rather than calling or emailing. Another survey showed that 70% of customers expect a company website to have a self-service option. And of course, when done well, self-service options can reduce the volume of emails and phone calls your team gets.

The problem is that until you have a good idea what customer questions will be, you can’t really build out a truly helpful knowledge base. At least, not one that’s useful. Over the last 6-12 months, your team has probably received several similar questions over and over again. Now’s the time to put that information to use and start putting together a database of common questions that customers can look through before contacting a member of your team.

As an added bonus, FAQs are great for increasing search engine traffic. This is probably why a survey reported in CRM Magazine showed that 54% of CRM managers reported an increase in web traffic after implementing self-service solutions on their site.

(For more on self-service customer service and the difference between a FAQ and knowledge base, check out our post on the topic.)

Start crafting templates and frameworks.

The reasoning here is similar: your team has been getting a feel for the most commonly asked questions thus far. Now’s the time to create templates that answer them, so your agents can reply quickly and effectively.

Of course, you don’t want to sound like a robot either. One easy way to personalize a template is to make sure and mention the customer’s name. Another pointer is to read the templates out loud and see if they sound conversational or not—you don’t want to sound unprofessional, but you also don’t want to sound stiff. If it sounds awkward when you say it out loud, it reads awkwardly to the recipient.

The previously cited survey that mentioned self-service found customers list these as the most important factor when an issue comes up:

– The company taking the problem seriously

– Speed of response

– Transparent overview of next steps

– Friendliness of the representative

– The problem is solved with one interaction

Again, this is where crafting effective emails comes in handy. An answer template should be helpful, thorough, and friendly. Your templates should be living documents that are updated as the product and company policies are updated, and as representatives test them to see if they actually answer the customer’s question in one fell swoop.

Hire more people and hone your CSR onboarding process.

As the business is growing, it’s likely that your customer service team is, too. As it does, you need to review your employee onboarding processes and make sure that they’re doing their job. Onboarding is easy to overlook, but it makes a big difference in retention: a study from the Aberdeen Group showed that new employees are 69% more likely to stay with a company for longer than three years if they experience well-structured onboarding. The New York Times has a great round-up from various businesses (including Warby Parker, ZocDoc, and Birchbox) on how their onboarding processes work now and how they’ve changed as the company has grown.

The common theme is socialization. Here are a few key takeaways:

– Even if you don’t have an open-office floorplan, make sure that your new employees meet the rest of the team in their first week and get a chance to chat with them.

– Start new employees in pairs groups and train them together, letting them bond over a shared experience.

– Try and build your company values into the onboarding process. For example, ZocDoc aims for a company culture that involves an approachable executive team. That’s why groups of new employees have lunch with the executive team in their first week.

– Survey new employees or meet with them at the 30 day mark to see how the experience is going and what could be improved for the next round of employees.

If need be, expand customer service channels.

If you’d like, you can start to expand your customer service channels now. Start with where your customers are naturally contacting you. If you’re getting questions on Twitter or via posts on your Facebook page, for example, then it’s time to integrate those social media channels into your helpdesk tool of choice. This is also a great time to add a live-chat option, especially if you’re hiring more people.

12+ months into having a team:

Expand your hours, if there’s enough demand.

If you’re having a significant amount of email requests or call attempts come in outside of your normal office hours, now’s the time to expand your hours and add 24-hour email, phone, or chat service. Over at the UserVoice blog, Evan Hamilton posted a case study of how AirBnB expanded to 24/7 customer service, over the course of just a month.

To start the process, they looked at their existing data on the number of calls and requests coming in overnight (and after office hours). Based that and on the current workload of an average CSR, figured out how many new hires they needed to make. They made all the new hires (31 total) in one month—this is where having existing structures for employee training and onboarding will serve you well. To help keep morale high, even when representatives were working difficult shifts, they incentivized working during off-hours with higher pay and gave high-performing employees more control over their schedule.

Consider adding an on-site forum or community.

This is a little more along “community management” than “customer service,” but there might be some overlap depending on the function of the forum or community you add. The pros of adding an on-site community for customers are that it’s great for SEO, it keeps customers coming back to your product and using it, and it builds a community around your product/business. The main downside is that it can take a lot of maintenance work, especially if your team is very active in the forums.

One way to get a feel for whether this might work for your business is to look at similar “outlets” right now and see how your customers are acting. Do they tend to interact with each other and heavily engage in conversation on Facebook and Twitter? You could also test the waters with a private Facebook group for customers and see how much engagement it gets, and then expand to a full-blown forum later.

Revisit your training and educational systems (for current and new employees).

At this point, you have more data on not only what’s working in your onboarding and training systems, but what’s working to satisfy your existing customers. That makes this an ideal stage to revisit your training and revamp it, if need be. MailChimp, renowned for great customer service, puts training and education as one of their top team priorities, with a year-long process that involves not just normal training, but also on-the-job shadowing and test work with supervision. That kind of intensive training is hard to bake in when you’re in the early stages of a business, but can be added later.

Build out your knowledge base with screencasts and screenshots.

This is a little bit of extra updating that can go a long way in making your existing knowledge base more useful. Using free tools like Jing or Skitch (as mentioned before), you can add visual information to articles that can clarify any points of confusion.

For bonus points, you can also upload the videos to your company (or customer service team’s) YouTube video. That makes them even easier for customers to find, since videos from YouTube show up in Google search results.

Make sure your internal systems are all working together.

Depending on what your current set up is, it’s time to look at adding, moving to, or integrating a helpdesk, live chat, or CRM tool. The idea is that all of the internal tools should be playing nice together to give your team more insight into customers and their problems. Now that you’ve got a year or more under your belt in working with customers, it’s worth it to have insight as far as what a customer purchased and when, and what previous tickets they’ve submitted and when. This lets your team have more context as far as where the customer is coming from and how their problem can be solved.

Keep internal communication open, too.

Customer service doesn’t just provide value to the customers, it can help other internal teams, too. Namely, make sure that communication channels are open between customer service teams and product teams. The benefit here is twofold:

– It makes sure that the customer service team is giving customers accurate information as far as when features will be added.

– It gives the product team valuable insights into usability issues and current customer feedback, letting them get a head start on user testing and research, and adjust the product roadmap accordingly.

Keeping the communication channels open between customer service, sales, and product teams can let your company build the best product possible. Which, in turn, creates more happy customers. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.




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