In the bad old days, being customer service representative wasn’t thought of as a “career.” It was an entry-level job with limited potential for growth. If you were hired into one of these roles, you were expected to muscle through the work until you were promoted out of the department and into a better position.
Fortunately, those days are long gone. Customer experience is legitimate, a 21st century discipline that smart companies are obsessed with perfecting. The once-overlooked customer service representative now has a seat at the table, especially in technology companies that seek to deeply understand their users.
But the question of how to encourage your top customer support team members to build a career in the field remains. What’s the best way to keep your customer support talent engaged, excited and challenged so that they’ll stick with the profession for the long haul?
There’s no silver bullet, but with the right strategy, you can grow and develop your customer service representatives into the next generation of customer service leaders. Here’s how:
First, Put the Right Tool in Place
One of the hardest things for many customer support professionals to grapple with is understanding what building a career in support looks like. What constitutes stellar performance? How do you advance in a support role? Are there support careers outside the queue? Offering concrete answers to these abstract questions is one of your key responsibilities as a support manager. If your team sees a clear path to growth in their roles, they’re more likely to stick with them.
The best tool at your disposal to accomplish this is a job architecture. A good job architecture will show your direct reports both the levels that exist in their particular role (maybe customer support analyst is the first level, then customer support associate, and so on) and the key performance indicators they’ll need to hit to be promoted to the next level. Performance indicators should be clear and easily understandable to anyone who reads your job architecture document.
The trick to creating a good job architecture is making it specific enough that it’s meaningful, but not so rigid that your team members feel stifled or boxed in. One of the wonderful things about working in customer support, especially in a startup environment, is that there’s a “choose your own adventure” element — carving out a career path that you wouldn’t want an overly prescriptive job architecture to snuff out. But even a good job architecture is only one piece of your strategy for helping your direct reports build a career in customer support — there’s a lot more to it than just one document.
Next, Get to Know Your Team
A job architecture only goes so far because, for most engaged employees, building a career is about a lot more than getting a raise or a better title. Learning new things, increasing their scope of responsibility, and gaining more ownership and influence over key team tasks is what really keeps people motivated over the long run.
To this end, great managers help their direct reports set and achieve professional goals. But in order to work with your directs to set meaningful career goals, you’ll need to deeply understand what motivates and engages them. The best way to get this information is in the regular one-on-one meetings you have with your team members. Here, you can ask the right questions, listen carefully to their responses, and gain a thorough sense of what aspects of their work they want to lean into in the future.
To be clear, understanding your team members on a deep professional level isn’t something that happens as the result of one conversation. You’ll need to build up to this over time, and again, asking the right questions is critical. Here are a few examples of questions that can help you tap into what your directs are motivated by—
- What do you enjoy the most about the work you’re doing now? Why?
- What do you wish you could do more of every day?
- Is there someone on or outside of our team whose work you think you’d enjoy doing? Why?
- What’s the thing you’ve done in the past week that you’re most proud of? Why?
- If you could wave a magic wand and never have to do one of your regular tasks again, what would it be? Why?
- What do you want to learn about/how to do in the next six months?
- When you wake up in the morning, what excites you about coming to work? Why?
Listening closely to the whys behind each of the answers to these questions. It is the most important part of this exercise as they provide valuable information about your team member.
For example, let’s say you asked one of your direct reports which of her regular tasks she’d like to stop doing, and she tells you she’d love to stop answering customer phone calls and focus just on responding to tickets. Without asking why, you’re not getting any useful information from her. But if you follow through and pose the question, and learn that she’s passionate about writing and would love to spend more time on it, that’s critical information you can use in the future.
Know Your Company, Too
Aside from knowing what makes your team members tick, it’s also critical that you’re closely clued in to what’s going on in your company, too. As the leader of the customer service team, deeply understanding your company strategic objectives and long-term vision is key to helping your direct reports build long-term careers in support.
Why? Because when you have both a strong understanding of how your team members want to grow and develop and a strong understanding of what your company’s business needs are, you’re equipped to build a “virtuous Venn” for each of your direct reports.
A virtuous Venn is a riff on the traditional Venn diagram. In the circle on the left is a list of tasks and responsibilities that one of your direct reports wants to tackle to further her professional growth. In the circle on the right is a list of tasks and responsibilities that someone on your team needs to take on to keep the business running towards its goals.
The space in the middle where those two circles overlap is the “virtuous” part of the Venn. It’s a list of tasks and responsibilities that your direct report is excited to tackle, and that the company also needs someone to take on so that the business can grow. The items that fall in this sweet spot are the ones that you should give the direct report ownership over. This way, both her career and the business are moving towards their long-term goals.
Circling back to our earlier example — Let’s say you learn in the course of your one-on-one conversations with one of your directs that she really enjoys writing, and wants to keep building her skills in this area. Because you’re plugged in to the company’s priorities, you also know that the C-suite wants to make an investment in self-service, so that customers are better equipped to answer product questions on their own.
Giving this direct report ownership over developing and maintaining your external knowledge base would be a great opportunity for her. She’d have a chance to flex her task leadership muscles while simultaneously continuing to build her writing skills, something she’s expressed a lot of excitement about. It’s the ultimate win-win, and likely to keep her engaged in her support career for the foreseeable future.
One of your biggest responsibilities as a manager is to help your direct reports grow and develop in their careers. Hopefully, you’re taking the multi-pronged approach outlined above, and they’ll be able to do this on your team.
But sometimes, even when you do everything you can to keep someone motivated and engaged, they outgrow the role or company over time. If they choose to move on, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve failed. In fact, it may mean that you’ve done a good job of empowering them to go after their next opportunity with confidence. That’s something to be proud of, too!