Why Your Best Customer Support Agent May Not Be A Successful Team Lead

Let your ticket heroes and chat champions do what they do best, while you work to identify a candidate who will grow into the role and prioritize moving the team forward.

Your support team is busy and getting busier. Even with a wealth of effective self-service tools that can help your team scale up, sooner or later you’ll have to expand headcount.

True, it’s a good problem to have!

Your customer base is growing, which means many of those excited new customers will need an assist from your friendly and knowledgeable support crew.

Of course, even though growth is a sign your company is thriving, there are still new challenges to face. A larger team means it’s probably time to reconsider your team structure, and once you’ve settled on the right number of direct reports for you to manage, you’ll need to appoint a new team lead to carry out tactical planning and day-to-day operations while you focus on strategic planning.

You’re probably already thinking about which members of your current team you could promote to the team lead spot. After all, internal promotions increase motivation by showing employees that their hard work will be rewarded as the company grows. Plus, it just makes sense. Your team is part of the company culture, they know your product and services inside-and-out, and they work together like biscuits and gravy!

Who better to lead the team than the person who sets the bar for success day-in-and-day-out?

customer support agentTop Individual Contributors Are Not Guaranteed Leaders

Well… not so fast.

Sure, your best performing customer support agent is a true subject matter expert with sharp instincts for capturing feedback with valuable customer insights that drive revenue through product improvements. They have their teammates’ respect and appreciation for the hard work that they do, and they exemplify your company’s culture. There should be parades in their honor every month since the success of the company rides on their shoulders (or so it seems, at times).

But talk to experienced managers long enough, and you’ll hear an important cautionary tale about not assuming your top Individual Contributor (IC) is a solid lock as a dynamite team lead. The stories may vary slightly, but the elements will be very similar.

It starts with a legendary team champion, a skilled ticket-slayer who charged into the queues on a daily basis, wrestling unwieldy chat backlogs into submission and almost single-handedly punching team CSAT into the stratosphere. When the time came to appoint a lead, the choice seemed obvious. The agent was thrilled to have their hard work recognized and dove into the challenge with the same enthusiasm they brought to first resolution rates and minimum escalation targets.

And then – to everyone’s surprise – cracks started to show. Sometimes the issues surfaced in skip-level check-ins, where former fans of the champion now confided that they didn’t feel supported.

Maybe new hires brought on to expand capacity ramped up slowly before plateauing. Then comes an uncomfortable meeting with the shaken employee, who confesses to feeling overwhelmed and uncertain of why things are going wrong.

Far too often, that conversation ends with an admission along the lines of “I used to know what I needed to accomplish every day – now I don’t know what is expected of me.”

Now there’s a problem – this team lead needs a sharp turn-around before the next conversation is even less comfortable.

customer support agentWhy Top Individual Contributors Fail as Leads

Perhaps the most important reason why strong ICs often fail as team leaders is down to the fact that they are already leaders within the team – and the failure is actually yours for not recognizing that fact.

Consider the differences between the workflow of your current top IC and the team lead role you’re going to fill.

As an customer support agent, the IC is going to have a routine workflow with minimal variance from day-to-day. They log in, check backlogs and active queues, review the shift hand-off channel for updates, then dive in to contact requests. It’s the perfect role for goal-oriented workers who also love problem-solving and helping other people.

Now consider the average day of a typical support team lead.

They may start by reviewing confirming everyone has logged in, then shift into tasks that will rarely look the same on a daily basis. They may prepare a KPI report, review QA for recent trainees and conduct one-on-one meetings with direct reports, attend a capacity planning session, follow up on escalated cases that require coordination with development teams or marketing managers… you can see where this is going.

Prioritizing Team Goals

A team lead has one core function that should guide their actions on a daily basis, which is to clear roadblocks so that the team can deliver on their goals.

That often means taking care of things that would otherwise be a distraction for the ICs who are powering the team – such as making a coffee run or ordering in food during a crisis-mode stretch, clearing a conference room so the team can focus on a training session, building custom macros to speed up routine response times for FAQ-level queries, and so on.

It doesn’t matter if the lead attended every meeting and filed every report punctually, the only measurement is whether the team meets their target each day.

They must always prioritize the team goals over personal success metrics.

On the other hand, a great IC sets a high standard by tackling personal goals in the service of team goals.

They’re adept at task-switching, tabbing from their own chat session to assisting new hires in reviewing a ticket and advising on escalation processes for a thorny issue. The team lead relies on them to rally the team when a critical SLA is about to fail and the team needs must rise to the challenge. They’re tireless, they’re fearless, and they are always inspiring.

As a result, most top-performing ICs are exactly where they should be, leading from within. Shifting them into a managerial role can actually have a detrimental effect on their motivation and performance, taking them away from the clarity of their mission and tasking them with a role that goes against their core strengths of collaboration, inspiration, and raw production capability.

True, there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t just focus on hiring “rockstar” ICs instead of developing a balanced team. But one or two über-focused agents with deep product knowledge and a love for solving problems while helping other people can provide a great foundation for building a dynamic and multi-talented team that will delight customers on a daily basis.

Recognizing the Right Individual Contributors

Of course, some ICs actually make great team leads.

The challenge is often to look past the top performers to recognize the traits of great managers within the current team. While there are many qualities that are important for success in team leadership, there are a few that stand out as great comparison points between your current ICs.

  1. Project Volunteers
    Team leads need to be comfortable with open-ended tasks that often have shifting goals. If you have an IC who frequently volunteers for more complex project work or mentions hopes of project work in one-on-ones, they may be a good candidate.
  2. Informal Coaches
    People skills are high on the list of requirements for team leads. That doesn’t just mean “are they an extrovert” – many top ICs are extroverts, while great leaders can be introverts. Instead, look for people who like to help others, or frequently serve as a sympathetic ear when teammates need to vent frustrations.
  3. Comfortable With Ambiguity
    A team lead needs to be ready to think on their feet and adapt their knowledge to the situation at hand – a checklist isn’t always available. Many focused ICs become frustrated when a workflow is “messy” – meaning, a high degree of individual decision-making is required along the way. Meanwhile, team members who enjoy debating possible outcomes to workflow changes could be ready for greater strategic challenges.

Supporting New Leads Boost Chances of Success

Managers often make the mistake of thinking that any team member who consistently exceeds expectations will somehow automatically teach themselves how to be successful in any new role, and are surprised when the opposite happens.

Instead, any team member taking on a new role actually needs a higher level of direct supervision and assistance as they grow in task-relevant maturity (TRM).

No matter how successful the IC has been in their former role, don’t expect them to deliver the same level of results as a team lead from day one. They’ll need a ramp to achieve success, just as if they were a new frontline customer support agent tackling tier one contacts for the first time.

You need to set clear expectations for them from the start, including which targets they are expected to hit, and when. Be prepared for them to fret a bit over a challenging goal that’s now weeks or months in the future, since they’re likely used to weekly or even daily targets.

Setting frequent check-ins and providing an open-door line of communication is a must to help your newly-minted team lead have the best chance of success.

customer support agentConclusion

Let your ticket heroes and chat champions do what they do best, smash the queues and inspire their peers, while you work to identify a candidate who will grow into the role and prioritize moving the team forward.

Just be sure to partner with them to identify their needs in the new role and build a solid structure to support them in their first steps. Putting the right person in the lead role while empowering top individual contributors will find your team achieving new levels of success in no time.


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Josh Magsam Josh Magsam

Josh Magsam is a freelance writer and consultant specializing in customer experience, operations management, and team leadership. When he’s not building support teams or writing content, he enjoys hiking in the Cascades with his wife and young son.

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