Scaling Customer Support — Without Breaking The Bank
By Gary Engel Vice President of Business Development
Let’s blow the lid off of this right up front.
When you scale your support, you can’t just spend your way out of every problem by hiring more and more agents — the goal is to support more customers, not necessarily to build a massive team.
The key: get more efficient as you grow.
As a general rule, the more customers and products you add, the more support contacts you’ll get, requiring some additional support staff. But as you expand, from say 1,000 customers to 10,000 customers, you should be able to find some economies of scale and improve efficiencies, so you can add customers without a straight-line increase in support costs.
In the example shown in the graph below, the operation that doesn’t improve efficiency needs 10 new reps for every 1000 customers it acquires, and that never changes. But the efficient operation needs incrementally fewer reps for every 1000 new customers, adding up to long-term savings. This type of gain should be your goal as you scale:
So how do you do it? As you add customers, invest in ways to:
Reduce your contacts/customer number (limit growth of new contacts and staff) by:
Solving bugs upstream before they cause support contacts
Creating an exceptional knowledge base
Make your team more efficient so each agent can resolve chats, tickets or contacts faster
Start by making scaling up a strategic, proactive process instead of a reactive one. In this article, we’ll walk you through the big aspects of scaling strategically:
When to scale
What to scale
Where to scale
And we’ll show you how to handle each efficiently, so you can limit your growth in support reps and save money.
When to Scale
If you already see any of the issues listed below, it’s time to grow your support team, now:
Lost customers due to poor support
High volumes of bad reviews and complaints
Increasingly long wait and handle times
But if you don’t see these issues yet, don’t wait until you do. Scale proactively to prevent the bad reviews and lost customers, while also capturing savings. Here’s a game plan:
Identify past drivers of new customers and support contacts (product launches and improvements, marketing campaigns)
Track when your company plans these initiatives and how much customer growth is expected
Using your historical contacts/customer numbers for each channel, and considering upcoming initiatives, model the expected growth in support contacts
Calculate how many support staff you’ll need to serve these customers
Identify the key “trigger points” you will use to determine when to start scaling your operation
Determine how long it will take you to expand appropriately on a per-channel basis as you hit these trigger points, so you can scale proactively
Once you’ve modeled out how many people you’d need, take a step back.
Before you throw money at hiring more agents, try to solve more customer issues before they arise (reduce your contacts/customer) and do more with what you have (handle more contacts/agent).
Once you know how much customer growth to expect and have an idea of when to expect it, strategically plan major investments in efficiency and contact reduction.
For example, you can plan an investment in a major website or mobile app version update that addresses known causes of support contacts. Some other ways to reduce contacts/customer include:
Closed-loop systems to track and eliminate root causes of contacts
Self-service — creating a robust FAQ section and knowledge base
Chatbots and IVR systems
Strategically using proactive chat on key pages
Basic automation, such as pre-written responses to specific inquiries
The more you grow, the more you save by proactively investing in solutions that reduce contacts. By modeling when to scale, you can strategically time contact-reducing investments so they pay for themselves.
What to Scale
As you scale, consider precisely what you need more of. The most common examples include:
Agents — do you need more people to handle growing volume?
Hours — do you need 24/7 coverage? Many companies, particularly SaaS firms, require off-hour support for global customers.
Channels — do you need expanded capabilities within existing channels or additional channels (e.g. adding live chat to reduce call volume, a potential savings)?
Languages — do you need to add support in English or other languages as you expand globally?
A game plan to manage “the what” is to take stock of the basics:
Track use patterns across channels and hours
Learn what your customers expect — surveys can help — in our experience, customers expect at least live chat and email
Log where you’re deficient (pushing the limits of what your team can handle) and strong (can add more support interactions with your current team)
Model costs to expand
Invest in solutions
A big key in determining what to scale is continuously measuring and improving your team’s performance and efficiency, which will allow you to add less over the long run.
As you monitor that performance and add customers, keep investing in training and mentoring for your team. Set up systems to reward agents for excellent performance and efficiency. Give your team increased ability to resolve problems with strategic escalations and arm them with better and better tools as you go along. In other words, never stop improving your operation, and you’ll need less of “the what” than you otherwise would as you add more and more customers.
Pro tip: one costly trap is not covering enough hours. For example, if you’re only available from 9-5, you may see surges during peak times, possibly resulting in the need to hire more staff than if you offered more hours. Again, we recommend exploring workforce management. Our support experts can help you with this.
You effectively have three options to scale your support capabilities:
Scale your in-house team
Scale a team with an existing vendor
Scale by adding a new external vendor
The choice of in-house vs. outsourced support depends on your budget, strengths, company culture and values. But broadly speaking, successfully scaling a sizeable support operation is no joke. It requires:
True support and operations experts
Robust processes and accountability
Investments in the right technologies
Serious hiring and training programs
Tracking and measuring results
Scaling internally may make sense if you have:
No existing pressure to reduce overall support costs
Room to grow within your existing location/infrastructure
A local available workforce that would support an expanded operation (i.e. if you’re adding a 3rd shift, could you easily staff that shift from your local workforce?)
Scaling externally with an existing vendor may make sense if you:
Already have a backup/secondary support coverage in the case of an emergency or a disaster
See past and current performance of your existing vendor that exceeds your expectations
Have a strong relationship with the vendor
See metrics all trending positively
Can confirm they have a proven ability to scale quickly with qualified staff
You might consider scaling with a new vendor if:
You’re looking for additional opportunities to cut costs
You need a new channel capability, process or technology that isn’t offered by your existing support organization
You’re looking for improved performance over what is being delivered today
You would like to mitigate your risks by adding another vendor/location to your support mix
Your relationship with your existing vendor is more that of a supplier than a partner
There are trade-offs with each approach, such as ramp-up time, the effort it takes to replicate your company culture off-site (it’s doable with a good team) and the likelihood you’ll need to send someone on-site if you outsource. But the savings can be well worth it — at GlowTouch, we often cut our client’s support costs by 70%.
If you outsource, you can go onshore, offshore or both. Onshore vendors provide accents native to your customer base, key for phone support — but not important for chat, email or social channels. Offshore vendors can deliver major cost advantages; in India, support agents often cost 1/3 of U.S. agents.
Focus on Efficiency
No matter when, what and where you scale, if you focus on efficiency, you’ll have a better shot of building a sustainable operation. At GlowTouch, that’s what we’ve done since 2001. Today, we handle more than 10,000 contacts/day for clients worldwide with more than 4 million customers. We live, eat and breathe support and love helping our clients.
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