Louis Ross

A collection of best practices and lessons learned – hope you find a pro tip or two you can use!

Build a scalable CX system

(How to build a highly effective and responsive 24/7 customer support system/team)

If you lead the Customer Service/CX function for your company, your customers expect:

  • Quick solutions to their issues (high first contact resolution)
  • An agent available when they contact (no/low hold times)
  • A satisfying user experience (or I’ll tell my friends!)

The CEO/C-Suite really expects one thing: provide great service (achieve what the customers expect) for less cost, year over year. To make that happen, you have to build a foundation that will grow with the business (scale) and cost less as a percentage of revenue as the revenues grow.

Here’s how to do it.

The five major components to building scalable customer service are:

  • Knowledge management
  • Process improvement
  • Workforce management
  • Operations analysis
  • Operations leadership

High level, here’s how these five building blocks are paramount to great service and how to build them. When the company is small, you’ll have to do all/most of this. As revenues/number of customers grow, you’ll have to add managers of these areas to build each component deeply.

Knowledge management – think of it this way: garbage in, garbage out. You can have the nicest CSR in the world, but if the information that CSR has is wrong, the service will be bad. All questions that are coming in to the company need great answers. The answers must satisfy the users and build brand. The secret sauce here is to leverage your investment in this great information in a self serve helpcenter for your users.  Measurables include FCR (first contact resolution), CSAT (customer satisfaction scores), and NPS (net promotor scores).

Process improvement – this is where CS can really help a company get better. How the app works or order is fulfilled is critical and users/customers contact a company when something doesn’t work right. CS must categorize and prioritize this feedback to keep the business improving the corresponding processes. A good business analyst needs to document internal and customer facing processes so CS can answer customers’ questions. A problem well defined is half solved and this is where solutions are made. And, the right tools must be in place; a world class CRM with help center functionality must be properly installed and maintained.

Workforce management – running Customer Service means having great people to answer contacts. Payroll isn’t cheap, so it’s critical to make the most of this investment. Forecasting is critical and scheduling, including adherence, is of course required. Measuring productivity/utilization is a must have – how would you ever know if you need to hire more? Software can help, and good coordinators are needed to make sure the right number of people are in the right place at the right time. Without good planning, forecasting, analysis and execution here, costs can quickly spiral out of control.

Operations analysis – so much analysis is needed in CS, and this is where the alphabet soup is thick: FCR, CSAT, NPS, ASA, AHT, ATR, ACW, and more – all the KPIs that are indicators of performance. And these indicators optimally should be built into a dynamic dashboard that leadership can access at any time to see how the team is doing. Throw in cost per contact, channel mix, and missed calls, and more – this analysis is vital to identifying where there is opportunity to do more with less.

Operations leadership – these are the leaders of people. CS is about people and bringing all that information and skill to each contact. This is the role most people think of in a “call center”. The other foundational pieces have to be in place for these leaders and their teams of agents to do a great job. A servant leadership style goes a long way.

The Head of CS who successfully builds these foundational blocks will be able to scale the business and handle growth as it comes. It’s tempting to just “hire agents” and try to take the calls/chats/emails as they come in, but that action is a short term band aid that will lead to frustration. The other pieces must be in place so that the agents can be excellent interacting with customers. Identify the top 10 contact drivers, write great answers/processes for these issues, document in the helpcenter, and train agents to efficiently handle these contacts – be excellent at what you do most. Then measure and set goals for constant improvement. These are the foundational keys for scalable, excellent service.

Keep Small Teams Omni Channel

In customer service there are channels (phone, email, online chat, social media, and others).  Obviously, customer service is expected to handle contacts for a company that come in via these channels.  As a company grows, it is common to segregate teams by channel, as there are some benefits in doing so (workforce metrics, quality improvements, and more).  But this article is to caution leaders who might want to create channel specific teams too early or with teams that are too small.  For a small company, if leadership creates a voice only team, or email only team, the risk is those agents sitting idle (being underutilized) when the phone is not ringing (for email agents) or when emails are not coming in (for email agents), etc.  The same is true for teams that service a special function for the company (such as tech support or a VIP line).  It is important that these agents stay omni-channel, or leadership will waste their talent waiting for the phone to ring (for email agents) or for an email to come in (for voice agents) etc.  Specialized teams usually require higher skilled agents and these agents can handle switching between channels, going where the action is.  Don’t waste your talent by limiting a skilled agent to one channel; keep them omni channel.  Yes, your workforce measurement metrics will be harder to calculate, but it will be worth it.  Remember, your ultimate goal is to provide great service via contacts, and that will happen more if your (best) agents are available as much as possible, regardless of channel.

Iteration Is Key

I’ve learned how important an iterative approach can be to business (and more).  For example, as entrepreneurs, my wife and I are passionate about helping others learn, set goals, grow, and achieve.  We’re constantly trying to find people whom we can help with these goals.  It’s no different than any small business that has a quality product/service, seeking to find more clients.  Because our time is our most precious resource, it is imperative that we test marketing, communication, and methods before we scale them up.  We need to avoid making assumptions (that something will work) before we spend dollars on marketing, or spend our time.  Just because we think it will work, doesn’t mean it will work.  In business, we can be our own worst “Sample of One”.

So we are careful to document exactly what we are doing (email verbiage, target market attributes, web page counters, etc.) so that we can measure every round of effort we make – every iteration.  We take action, measure the results, and tweak as necessary.  Write, test, repeat.  Iteration after iteration… making progress towards our goals.  We’ve all heard Edison “failed” over 1,000 times in his pursuit of inventing the light bulb.  When asked about these failures, Edison replied to the effect of, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times.  The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

SaaS = Solutions as a Service

It used to mean Software as a Service.  Nowadays, everything is software; it’s a given.  While some on prem structures may still be warranted in unique situations, the subscription model via the cloud is the present and the future.  Once we acknowledge this fact, we can look at what the business needs.

Businesses need solutions.  Every business has problems – issues that need to be fixed.  No one, no company is great at everything.  So smart companies seek help in the areas where they are not great.  But they maybe don’t articulate their needs perfectly.  And, of course regardless of what the company is doing, vendors are hammering away, relentless in trying to sell their products, their service, their software.

Smart vendors figure out the best way they can help their clients is to solve problems.  To provide solutions.  To not assume you know the clients’ problems.  To ask questions. And most importantly: to listen.  And here’s the amazing nugget in today’s world:  an incredible amount of listening can be done by just researching the client’s company.  Walking through their front door, using their service/product, etc.  Finding what their issues are.

It’s an amazing time to run a business.  You have an issue?  There’s an app for that.  I mean, a solution.

I’m curious… are you curious?

Two little words, yet so powerful: I’m curious.  I don’t remember when I learned this tool, but it has been so helpful.  We all hear that we should listen more than we speak, that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that ratio.  That great conversations and relationship are built by listening.  To listen, we need to ask questions.  But if we ask questions straight away, we leave an unanswered question in the recipient’s mind.  They hear our question, but they might be thinking, “Why is this guy asking me this?”  “What does he want from me?”  “What is he trying to sell me?” For example, “How do you keep track of knowledge within your company?” vs simply adding “I’m curious…” to the front of that same question.    I’ve found this simple tool can quickly fill in the blanks, disarm doubt, and help someone move straight to providing information.  Which is what you want – what you’re curious about anyways!

Get all in or get all out

Hopefully your organization invests in a great culture (there are lots and lots of ways to do this, just search a little…), but you, as a leader, have the ability to make or break that culture within your own team.  Make it a fun place to work.  Be the leader you would like to work for.  Smile.  Celebrate what’s working, start meetings with victories and focus on what you want to see more of.  Surprise your team with treats (listen, so you know what they like) and have informal subgroups that celebrate holidays and milestones.  Know your work volume so you can make things fun during the down times.  Work hard, play hard.  It’s up to you.  Get all in or get all out.

Are you a complainer or an improver?

We’ve all had poor user or customer service experiences.  When you provide feedback, via a survey, a post, a tweet, etc, do you just rip the company and the experience, or do you share why it was poor and your idea(s) on how to improve it?  Often times those who receive the feedback are aware of the issue and without ideas, your complaint makes you just another complainer.  But complain and throw in a few ideas, from the simple to the elaborate, and you’ve just become an improver.  You might be surprised at how many companies haven’t thought of a way to fix the issue that you’re complaining about and your idea is just what they need.  Finally, when you complain, be sure to include specific details such as an order number, or specific product that failed, or time/date of service failure.  “Your service sucks” is not actionable by the company.  “You sucked on order #123456 because it didn’t include everything I ordered” is not only actionable, it also has a high chance of being corrected quickly because the company knows clearly what to do to fix it.

Ask: “What’s working?”

A typical career path is to join a team that is already in place.  When we do, we have an opportunity to be an agent of change.  We have been hired because we bring skill and experience and the expectation is we will add value.  Rarely do the methods/processes of the new team match our experiences, the lessons we’ve learned, or the vision we have to make improvements.

Great leaders spend some time in the beginning of this chapter of their career asking questions.  They have an idea of what success looks like, but they are wise to not assume all solutions will fit every situation.  By asking questions, including the critical, “What’s working?”, a leader can determine priority and ultimately help the team the fastest.

For example, with the critical topic of knowledge, there is probably someone, somewhere in the org that has correct information.  By learning who are the subject matter experts, defining and documenting the roster of who knows what, and then finally empowering them to share their knowledge, a great leader just completed a critical early step: tapping into the fount of knowledge – at the source.

But if you, the new person to the group, assume you know the best way to accomplish a task, because it’s what worked well at my last job and it’s the reason they hired me here anyways, you’ll miss your opportunity to assess, prioritize, partner, and ultimately deliver.

Bonus: we’re all leaders, regardless of level.  Any person, at any level in an organization can lead and effect change.