Thinking back to the early days of my first management role in a small contact center, I can remember one day when a newly-hired customer support agent came over to my cubicle for what had to have been the twentieth time to ask me yet another question. Having been “interrupted” from doing my job, I’m certain that my response was neither graceful nor particularly helpful.
I wish I could say this only happened once — but the fact of the matter is that I didn’t fully understand that a huge part of my job was to be serving the people serving our customers. I now refer to this concept as “internal customer support.”
It wasn’t until a bit later that I read the following quote from former airline CEO and author of “Moments of Truth,” Jan Calzon where he says:
“If you’re not serving the customer, your job is to be serving someone who is.”
In fact, I have a throw pillow on my bookshelf from an ICMI conference with that quote emblazoned on it and it acts as a daily reminder of this important concept.
What’s internal customer support?
Internal customer support is the act of supporting the people who are supporting our external customers. One could argue that just about everyone in a company will be tasked with this responsibility at some point in their career, but the usual suspects in the contact center most certainly include team leads, supervisors, and managers.
And don’t forget about the various tools and technologies that also work to support our frontline agents. Yes, I’m saying that self-service even applies to our internal customers.
Why does internal customer support matter?
When that quote from Jan Carlzon hit me like a lightning bolt, I quickly realized that my attitude and level of helpfulness toward those people looking to me for answers had a downstream impact on the level of support they could provide to our customers. So if I was unhelpful or delayed in my responses, or failed to provide them with the tools and training to self solve their issues, chances are that customers also received a poor level of support.
When you think about it in these terms, it’s not difficult to tie the quality, or lack thereof, of internal customer support to customer outcomes like customer satisfaction and contact center agent turnover or retention. In short, make life easier for your frontline agents and they’ll stick around longer and in turn, make life easier for your customers.
A lot has changed since that first management job more than a couple of decades ago and the change has kicked into hyperdrive over the past couple of years with the increase of work from home. The days of “walk to your supervisor’s cubicle, take a number, and wait for help” are all but gone, and even when that was the thing to do, let’s not pretend that was the most efficient means of providing internal support. Lest you go thinking that a quick instant message is a worthy substitute.
No, providing great internal customer support requires a bit more thought and planning — and that’s more true now than ever. In the remainder of this article, I’ll share with you a plan, that works from anywhere, for the ongoing support of your frontline team as they carry out the unending and essential task of supporting your customers.
4 tips to best support your internal customers
Internal customer support is all about organizing our team and technology so our customers don’t have to wait for great service. In this world where our staff could be working from just about anywhere, let’s look at four key components required to make this happen.
1. Organize your unified communications platform to boost collaboration
Instead of the ability to walk to someone’s desk and ask them a question, we have a unified communications (UCaaS) platform. Currently, our company uses Slack but you should be able to apply many of these practices to your UCaaS platform of choice. When it comes to internal customer support, the way you organize this system is critical. Here’s where I recommend putting your focus:
Maximize channel use. Minimize 1:1 messaging – With much of the collaboration happening via messaging, the temptation of your frontline staff might be to message their direct supervisor for help. If the supervisor is away from their desk or helping someone else that means a potential delay for the customer.
Instead, encourage staff to ask questions in channels or groups. They can still directly tag their supervisor in the message but this allows others, including their peers, to quickly jump in and help. You also get the added benefit of allowing others on the team to learn from the answers provided.
On this topic, DO set an expectation with your leadership that they are diligent about setting their status in the platform so everyone knows who’s available and who isn’t. We don’t have the luxury of seeing if you’re at your desk so this is the next best thing.
Set clear guidelines around channel use – If you don’t have rules and guidelines around where and when people can post, your collaboration tools can quickly devolve into chaos, causing questions to get lost in the shuffle and inhibiting the ability to get answers efficiently. Some things we emphasize at our company include:
- Creating a specific channel for our support team to post their questions. They need to know where they can consistently go for support.
- Ensuring that channels are regularly monitored and owned by our supervisors. If there’s no owner, there won’t be a consistent response.
- Limiting who has access to our engineering team. Our engineers need to focus on building our product so we carefully vet any questions that go to them and avoid the free-for-all except in the case of critical issues.
- Responding to individual questions in a thread. Threads keep our discussions organized and make it much easier to see the full issue and resolution should we need to reference it in the future.
Encourage the best communication channel for the situation – Just as is the case with customers, sometimes messaging isn’t the best way to solve a problem. Don’t be afraid to pivot the conversation to a phone call or even a video chat with screen sharing to ensure that communication is clear and a resolution is achieved as efficiently as possible.
Integrate other tools into your UCaaS – We use Zendesk at our company and they have a feature called “Side Conversations” where we can post a question to a Slack channel directly from a ticket. This is incredibly valuable for a couple of reasons. First, our agents can ask questions from Zendesk and continue working tickets while they wait for an answer. On the other side, our supervisors, managers, and engineers can remain in Slack without having to click over into the ticket.
Given the sheer number of windows and clicks required to support a single customer or solve a single ticket, Side Conversations has helped to eliminate some of the need to switch between different windows and applications.
2. Build your knowledge base with internal customers in mind
Proclaiming the need for a knowledge base is nothing new — but how many of us view a knowledge base as a resource to help customers solve their issues? The fact of the matter is that it’s also an essential resource for internal customer support. Just because there are answers in the knowledge base doesn’t prevent customers from contacting support to answer those questions. This means that your support team also benefits from the availability of these questions and answers.
In addition to an external knowledge base, you also need an internal knowledge base for storing knowledge that isn’t customer-facing. Early on, we hacked something together on an internal website but have since migrated our internal knowledge into Zendesk Guide, the same system we use for customer-facing knowledge.
The beautiful thing about this move is that all of our knowledge is stored in one place, making it convenient to search for both internal and external articles on a given topic.
And one last word about Slack, or similar collaboration tools. Earlier I mentioned the importance of discussing topics in channels and threads rather than 1:1 messaging. I’ve often found that savvy agents can expertly search Slack for the answers they need — drawing from past discussions. Encourage your team to get into the habit of searching before they post new questions.
3. Share screens whenever you can
Yes, the fact that we’re not all physically in the same location does pose a challenge — especially in cases where we want to demonstrate a skill or show someone else how to complete a task. There are two reasons this is a non-issue in our contact center.
First, Slack allows us to screenshare and your UCaaS or video conferencing solution surely does too. When an agent is trying to describe an issue, or I need to show them the proper way to complete a task, I simply say, “Do you have a few minutes for a call?” We get on a video call and I can screenshare and show them in a matter of minutes. Foster a readiness among your team to talk to one another and not hide behind messaging. That human connection is important.
Another incredible tool we use every day is Loom. It’s almost daily that someone reports, “I’m having an issue” or “I’m running into a bug.” The standard response is “Can you send me a Loom?” Installed in our web browsers, we can record our screen with audio and send a link via Slack in a matter of minutes — helping to quickly and efficiently get to the root of the issue.
4. Don’t forget about the people skills
Looking back at the anecdote that I shared earlier in this article, it’s fairly safe to say that, had you graded my internal customer support skills on a typical contact center quality assurance rubric, I may not have passed with flying colors.
When I look at the quality rubric for my own team, we emphasize and evaluate important people skills like:
- Making a meaningful, empathetic connection with the customer
- Providing them with timely and accurate information
- Communicating clearly and with an appropriate tone of voice. And now, the ability to communicate clearly in writing is more important than ever.
- Empowering the customer with additional training and information as needed
I believe that if my team can do these things consistently, we will earn high marks on customer satisfaction surveys.
Think about this for a moment. If we require this of our frontline staff, why shouldn’t we expect the very same from those people internally supporting them? And my job as the contact center leader is to be the model for what I expect from my team.
As I conclude, the modern, work-from-anywhere contact center requires that we adopt the right tools and practices to internally support our agents so that they can effectively support our customers. But be sure that you also create a culture in your company where, paraphrasing Jan Carlzon, those who aren’t directly serving customers are wholeheartedly serving the people who are.
And finally, part of my reason for writing this article is to learn from you. Have I missed anything when it comes to internal customer support in the contact center? Please, leave a comment and share your thoughts.