The year was 1966 and Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott were in trouble. What was supposed to be a routine docking manoeuvre involving an Agena Target Vehicle (ATV) caused the ship to go into a spin. Armstrong used the Gemini’s rotation thrusters to stop the roll but the problem recurred. Worse, even when he detached from the rogue ATV, the spinning didn’t stop.
Gemini 8 was out of range for ground communications so they had no help from ground control. The astronauts were on the verge of losing consciousness when Armstrong saved their lives with some quick thinking, using the re-entry thrusters to stop the spin and allow them to diagnose the problem — a stuck “on” position on one of the regular thrusters.
That isn’t the situation today. NASA has since replaced its communication array with a network of tracking and data relay systems so they are always in touch, a network so efficient that astronauts can even tweet from space if they so wish (and they do).
If NASA Ground Control can interact with the International Space Station and manage to effectively achieve its objectives, even though they’re separated by 239 miles, then it’s no stretch for you and your remote support team!
With technology advancements, customer support is no longer a 9-to-5 desk job. Agents can answer support queries from anywhere in the world, at any time – during their morning commute, on a coffee run, or during the previews at the movie theater. This has enabled businesses to set up remote support teams – support reps who follow the sun all over the world. Zapier, for instance. No matter what the time, someone’s awake and ready to answer your question.
The Challenges of Remote Support
However, managing, a remote team can be quite challenging. Your support team may be in a distant location, far, far away from everyone else (though not with the same sense of isolation they’d face if they were in a space station, Internet or no Internet!). They’ll be asleep when everyone else is awake and vice versa. They won’t be able to call on your developers or product managers for help. They’re essentially islands. So, how do you make sure that you choose and train the right employees?
Here are a few guidelines:
Navigating the Hiring Process
There is a galaxy of difference between a good support team and an excellent one, and the difference has everything to do with hiring for the right fit. When you look for a support rep, you look for someone who is empathetic, patient and technically skilled. Couple that with essential qualities like a propensity to action and the ability to prioritize, and you have all the ingredients you need to find a pink unicorn. I wouldn’t go so far as to say hiring the right fit is difficult, I’d just go as far as to say that I’d rather go through astronaut training multiple times instead.
So, how do you go about it?
Zapier, as detailed in their Ultimate Guide to Remote Working, talks about their preference to tap into their personal networks to hire remote personnel. This way, not only can you make sure that you look at amazing candidates, but you can also leverage personal recommendations. If your personal network doesn’t extend to a particular region, tap into local meet up groups, your user base, and job boards. We’d also recommend that you consider it an asset when a candidate has a large network; this way, when you’re looking to expand the team, they’ll be able to mine their network and you won’t have to go through the whole process all over again.
Now, let’s get to the actual tough part: the hiring.
Your concentration will be on finding the right fit in two main categories: working remotely and understanding the role of support.
Working Remotely Requires Special Skills
The best way to look for qualities like self-sufficiency and trustworthiness is to find out the kind of projects they’ve worked on before, their previous roles and their hobbies. This will give you some idea as to how independent they are and how flexible they can be with work.
Kuty Shalev, who has hired an entirely remote workforce at Clevertech, shines new light on hiring in this HBR article.
“We also include a call to action at the bottom of the description that says, ‘Log in with Google’, where they can apply for positions. If someone doesn’t have a Google account and isn’t willing or able to set one up, that person probably isn’t advanced or flexible enough to work remotely and positively impact our company.”
While interviewing candidates, we’d also recommend multiple interview methods — both over email and a video chat. Differing approaches will showcase different skill sets — the email will help demonstrate their communication skill and their ability to write concisely and in a timely manner. The video interview will help you assess their personality and determine culture fit.
The Softer Skills for Support Roles
Patience. Empathy. Communication skills. When it comes to a position like customer support, it can be quite difficult to gauge if the candidate has everything you’re looking for in a rep. Lucky for you, our CEO, Girish Mathrubootham, has a tried-and-tested set of questions that he prefers to ask when he’s interviewing for customer support.
“Empathy. That’s what I look for in all my employees. Only when they can understand the feelings of their customers, can they provide top notch service. I can teach them Linux or Windows but nobody can teach them empathy; you’re either born with it or you aren’t.”- Robert La Gesse, Rackspace.
Adequate Training Saves Time and Effort
Buffer puts all of its new employees through something that they call Bootcamp. The new employees work for 45 days with the team in the capacity they’re hired for. At the end of the 45 days, if it looks like the candidate is happy doing what they do and the team is happy with how they do it, they go ahead and offer them the position. This Bootcamp not only helps prospective employees understand what they’re getting into but it also helps the team confirm culture fit.
While this is an excellent approach, there’s only one problem: Buffer requires all of its Happiness Heroes be familiar with the product, if not an expert. Even if they’re not an expert, it won’t take them too long to become an expert seeing as familiarity is a requirement.
If your product is relatively complicated, your onboarding process might take more than the 45 days that Buffer takes to gauge fit, so you might need to tailor your onboarding process. Some companies prefer to fly their remote employees in during the probation period so that they can immerse themselves in the company culture and figure out where they fit and how they fit in the bigger picture.
As for the actual training process itself, there’s no training like on-the-job experience. Once your support reps get themselves up to speed, you will need to throw them in the deep end and let them learn how to swim.
You can also, of course, liven it up by creating flashcards for common support terms (we have a glossary you can draw from) to help them learn the jargon of your helpdesk. You could also conduct fun product quizzes and examples of real-life support scenarios with the help of interactive of tools like Brainshark and Litmos.
Communication: As Crucial as Oxygen
The key to many things in this world — from a long distance relationship to building trust with your remote support team — lies in communication. It is the vital force that will keep your remote support agents in stable orbits.
“Communication is oxygen.” – Matt Mullenweg, Automattic
Make genuine efforts to break ice and build quality relationships during the onboarding process so that you can draw on this relationship later on when you’re no longer face to face. Enforce company-wide retreats every few months to reinforce this connection.
As GitHub puts it, “It will make a huge difference when they disperse and go back to being distributed. It means that even when they’re remote, they no longer see you merely as an avatar when you’ve made a connection and developed empathy for that person and that means you’ll get along with them much better while working as a team.”
Once everyone does go back to being distributed, make sure that the bulk of the communication happens online. Launch schedules, bug fixes, and the committee to plan the office party — put everything online so that discussion and collaboration can happen regardless of whether they’re in the same room or not. It’s all about making everyone feel included at all times, even if it’s something as small as a ‘I’m bored’ GIF to shake off the blues.
It could be a chatroom like HipChat or Slack or a video conferencing tool like Sqwiggle or even your own, custom tool if nothing fits! (You wouldn’t be the first to come up with your own tool). The better your collaboration tool, the better your team will work together.
Motivation and Engagement: More Than Just a Job
If you thought keeping your support agents motivated and engaged was hard when they’re in the same office as you, wait till they’re across the world. Customer support, by its nature, is difficult and demanding. No matter how naturally buoyant your support reps might be, you’ll need to have a solid motivation strategy in place to make sure that they’re always functioning at an optimal pace and don’t burn out.
Some companies check in on their employees by having a one-on-one “pair chats” every week. Every week, you’re paired randomly with someone else so that you can have a chat, blow off some steam and basically, get to know your colleagues. This helps people catch up with other people’s work and social lives.
“Picking up on subtle communication cues such as body language, or inflection is not always possible in case of email or even live chat.” – Niche Video Media
So, you should do everything in your power to make sure that your employees are on the same page. Having a water cooler chat room allows employees to blow off steam, get a little silly, and just unwind from the demanding job that is customer support.
Culture: Where the Mission Is What Matters
The problem with balancing the work culture across different teams is this: Regardless of your best efforts and noble intentions, it’s almost impossible to have the same kind of work culture across regions.
Our North Star- Freshdesk Culture Cards
And that is because people don’t work the same way across regions. We have differing notions across regions about organization, communication, and culture. Any attempt to establish a universal working style will just end in chaos. This isn’t really a cause for worry. As long as everyone keeps in mind what they’re working towards — the company’s goals and your team’s goals — and as long as the mission and the motto mean the same to everyone, you’ve succeeded. Lead by example and your team will fall into place.
If you have had experience in building, running or working in remote support teams, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below. We love comments.