As humans, we like to avoid pain. This is a survival mechanism that has kept us alive for many years. People without the instinct to avoid things that might hurt tend to die early in life. For example, the first cave man who ignored the teeth and tried to cuddle a saber tooth tiger didn’t survive to tell us about it.
Maybe this is why some customer support agents are so good at avoiding terrible tickets. When we see an all-caps, overly technical, confusing ticket, our self preservation instinct kicks in. Our eyes slide down the queue to find a satisfying simple how-to ticket. Ah. Much better.
This selective choosing of tickets is called “cherry picking”. It’s an easy habit for agents to slip into, but it can have a big effect on your customer support team and customers. In this article, we look at why cherry picking causes so much trouble, how to measure its prevalence and what you can do to prevent it from happening in the first place.
The problem with cherry picking
Cherry picking affects three main groups: the agent who is being selective, customers who have more complex problems and the team members who are then forced to deal with them.
Cherry picking agents look for the simplest ticket with the least amount of effort. This means they always answer tickets within their comfort level. They never need to do much research, try things out or learn something new. They won’t grow or improve as fast as other agents on the team. When it comes time to step up and take on more challenging customers, they won’t have the necessary skills. Cherry picking will hold back the agent.
For customers with more difficult questions, cherry picking means that they will have to wait longer for an answer. If every agent sees their ticket next in the queue, opens it up, decides it’s too difficult to answer and skips to the next, easier ticket, that customer will be kept waiting. Eventually someone might pick it up, but if all difficult tickets are skipped over, you’ll see a big bottleneck at the top of the queue.
Finally, no one likes working on a team when some team members aren’t pulling their weight. Even if they enjoy the tough questions, agents who get stuck with the leftover, sticky problems will burn out and start to resent agents who’ve skipped over it.
If left unchecked, cherry picking can lead to poorly trained agents, frustrated customers and burnt out senior team members. This is why it’s super important to keep an eye on cherry picking, and reduce it as much as possible.
When we should be selective
With all that said, there are times when cherry picking can be a good thing. For example, if you’re training a brand new agent who has limited experience with your product, you might want to feed them some cherry picked conversations. This lets them dip their toe in the water and build confidence before facing the general queue.
For agents who aren’t feeling 100%, whether that’s from stress, mental fatigue or illness, cherry picking can be an easy way to keep contributing to queue crushing. (Although obviously, agents should be encouraged to take their sick and mental health days if needed!). One year, I had to have a tooth pulled due to an infection and was on aggressive pain killers for a week. I couldn’t take the full week of sick time, but couldn’t keep my thoughts focused enough for complex tickets. I spent the week on quick wins and cruising through simple customer questions. My team was happy for the help, even if I couldn’t contribute to my usual level!
Finally, cherry picking can be a great technique to get through periods of high volumes. Instead of switching your brain between different types of questions, power through similar questions to save time. For example, open up 10 tickets that all need shipping updates. You’ll have everything open you need to answer each customer quickly. Hey – there’s a reason why mass production worked so well for Henry Ford. Customers that don’t need to wait for longer answers will get on their way faster.
All of these are reasons you might want to cherry pick from the queue on occasion. But when business is running as usual, cherry picking will hold back the growth of your team and prevent customers from getting the quickest replies. So how do we know if someone on our team is over-indulging in cherry picking?
How to find the cherry pickers
If you’re not spending all your time in the queue as part of the ticket flow team, it can be difficult to understand where each agent’s time goes. But diving into metrics can help uncover some patterns that need attention.
Cherry pickers will look like ticket crushers. If they are choosing only easy, quick tickets, they will likely be closing a ton more than the team’s average. Because they aren’t spending time researching, troubleshooting or going back and forth with frustrated customers, they have a higher close rate. It might look like a good thing to start with… but it could be a sign of something troubling.
Time to First Reply
If there’s cherry pickers around, some tickets will have a much higher time to first reply than others. These are the tickets that look difficult at first glance, so agents skip over them in the queue. Instead of looking at the average first reply time, look at the distribution. If you see a big group of tickets that are outside your usual first reply time, it’s likely they are being skipped over.
Touches per ticket
It’s difficult to directly measure the complexity of different tickets, but we can get pretty close with Touches per Ticket. This measures the average number of agent replies per ticket. It’s fair to assume that tickets with more back and forth are more complex tickets. Obviously this isn’t a stand alone metric. However, if you see one agent with consistently lower touches per ticket, it’s more likely they are picking up easy tickets.
On the flip side, your senior team members should be picking up more complex tickets. So if you see them slipping down the scale, take a look into the types of tickets they are working on. Maybe they’ve just found ways to close tickets faster – most likely they are handing off tougher tickets that require more back and forth to find a solution.
First contact resolutions
If someone is cherry picking, they are likely to have far more tickets that are closed with one reply. That’s actually exactly the type of ticket they look for! Simple, how-to questions or one action tickets are a cherry picker’s dream. Compare each agent’s percentage of tickets to the average of the team to find outliers.
None of these metrics alone will tell you if you have a cherry picker in your midst, but they can help you start the investigation. To truly understand if one of your agents is trolling for easy tickets, you’ll need to spend some time looking into their replies.
Reduce unwanted cherry picking
There’s many ways to help cherry pickers, or to prevent it from happening. From choosing better metrics, to ongoing training and accountability, a little bit of focus will get your whole team ready to answer any questions.
Understand what’s driving cherry picking
Why do people cherry pick? Usually it’s due to a pressure to perform. If you have a ticket closing quota, or a minimum customer satisfaction score, agents could feel pressured to hit their targets. To boost their numbers, or avoid any negative customer reviews, they start looking for easy to solve tickets. They might also be worried about asking too many questions, taking too long troubleshooting or feel like they should “already know it”.
If you’re focussing too closely on these metrics, you could be rewarding the wrong behaviour. Instead of encouraging curiosity and learning, bad metrics encourage short cuts. The first step to preventing cherry picking is to avoid making everything about the numbers – or at least the wrong numbers.
Focus on First In First Out
Keep an eye on the queue, or appoint a queue manager each day to make sure tricky tickets don’t stay at the top of the queue. Help Desks like Zendesk will show you who’s viewing tickets, so you can see who is working on which ticket. By asking team members to pick up specific tough tickets, you make it harder to say no. And you can help answer any questions they might have while they work through it.
“Hey Jess! This ticket has been sitting at the top of the queue for awhile. Mind picking it up and working through it? I’m here if you have any questions!”
Make sure the team knows that the oldest tickets get picked up next, no matter what, and soon it will just be a habit to dive on in.
Once you’ve started spreading more difficult tickets around, there needs to be a good way for agents to pull in more experienced agents. But rather than throwing them into a black void of an escalation queue, encourage follow ups. If possible, have the senior team member work with the agent asking the question to find an answer. That way, they can do it themselves next time. It’s an excellent training tool to keep knowledge flowing throughout the team.
If that’s not possible, have agents tag their tickets so they can follow up on them later. Make it a habit to go back at the end of the day to read over the responses to escalated tickets and learn for next time.
The main cause of cherry picking is a lack of knowledge. If you can empower your agents to respond to any question, they won’t be looking for the easy ones, because *everything* will be easy.
Identify areas where tickets are frequently skipped over, or ask agents where they feel weakest. Then, deep dive into complicated tickets in your next team meeting. Invite a product manager in to ask even more in-depth questions. Every minute of training will pay off with better and faster support for your customers.
Empowering a team of Queue Crushers
Cherry picking creates knowledge silos, and slows down the replies to customers. But the anecdote is simple. Create a sense of curiosity in your agents, and drive first in first out processes.
Instead of developing a team of agents who focus on closing a set number of tickets and pick and choose the tickets that will get them there, develop a team of empowered queue crushers. Every agent on your team will feel ready to tackle the hardest problems, and your team will continue to grow and improve.