How to Lead a Customer Support Team you Inherited

How you approach the first 90 days of your new role, can make or break the long term success of the inherited customer support team.

You walk into the room on your first day as a new customer support manager. Ten pairs of eyes turn in your direction, trying to decide who you are, and how your presence will affect their career. Can they trust you? What happens next?

HBR compares the act of managing a new team to repairing an airplane in mid-flight: “You can’t just shut down the plane’s engines while you rebuild them—at least not without causing a crash. You need to maintain stability while moving ahead.”

For new customer support managers, it’s tempting to go in with guns ablaze, and start tearing apart processes on the first day. The old manager did things differently (wrongly?) and it’s time to set things straight. But rushing into changes can have long term effects on the health of a team. Rather than diving in and making any big changes right away, take the opportunity to look around and get your bearings.

It’s essential to build trust with the team before shaking everything up. By exposing issues early, you also inadvertently expose the people associated with them. Only by building trust and understanding the history of the team can a manager maintain team morale while making big changes.

The first three months should be focused on learning, benchmarking and understanding the inner workings of the current team. Here’s the to-do list for any manager taking over an existing customer support team:

Learning the Product

So much of making good decisions in support depends on having a deep understanding of the product. While many managers or directors won’t spend their time in the queue day to day, they are often a resource for the team. That might mean jumping into the inbox on busy days. Acting as a sounding board for difficult conversations or dealing with upset VIP customers. If the manager doesn’t have strong product knowledge to fall back on, they will struggle to lead inherited customer support team successfully. It’s also difficult to lead inherited customer support team by example when a team leader isn’t able to model great customer service because they don’t know the product.

Make product knowledge a priority through the following activities:

  • Spend time pair supporting with agents on the team to build relationships and learn about the support process.
  • Set up a typical customer account from start to finish. What is the onboarding experience like? What steps felt like the most effort?
  • Ask questions relentlessly, even if it seems silly. Customers probably have the same questions.

Share Communication Expectations

Lisa Hunt shared her communication style on the Support Breakfast Podcast. At Moz, she created a “feedback blueprint” to share with the rest of her team. This important document gave examples of how to provide feedback, how to show appreciation, and how Lisa felt when her feelings were ignored. This was especially important as one of the few remote members on the team.

New managers can encourage their inherited customer support team to submit their own feedback blueprints. It’s a quick way to understand where potential landmines of communication are. Knowing that one member is highly sensitive to the tone of emails can help prevent mistrust from forming.

Creating a communication blueprint for a new team can also be a very fulfilling personal development experience. Internal reflection on your own communication strategies can help identify areas of opportunity and help you really understand how you come across to others. Questions to consider:

  • How do you like to receive feedback? (for example, “privately in writing so I can digest it before responding” or “face to face, bluntly”)
  • What’s the best way to have a discussion? (for example, “I like to talk things through outloud and brainstorm” or “I need to have time to prepare ideas before presenting them”)
  • What is your signal for “do not disturb”? (for example, “never interrupt me if my door is closed” or “I always wear headphones, so feel free to tap me on the shoulder any time!”)

Assess the Team’s Skill Set

One of the most important tasks in the first 90 days is to understand the people you are working with. In order to build out the team later on,you must a working knowledge of your employee’s strength, weaknesses, motivation and long term goals There’s several ways to approach this.

First, take the time to meet one on one with every team member. Developing a working relationship takes time and effort. Tom Davenport, consultant and author of Manager Redefined suggests asking three big questions to start the conversation: “Why did you join the company, why do you stay, and where do you want your career to go from here?” Inquire about their employment history. What skills do they have that might be of use to the team. Keep detailed one on one notes in a tool like Lighthouse. These first conversations should help set the tone that you listen to feedback and have the agents’ best interests at heart.

Ask external stakeholders for their opinions of team members over coffee. Who do they like to work with? Where is the team falling short? What does your boss expect to see improve over the next 6 months? Does HR keep files on any current employees?

Finally, start building your own opinion of inherited customer support team members based on their actual work. Look through customer support tickets, read customer satisfaction surveys, follow up on any projects outside the queue. What isn’t meeting expectations? Who are the standout agents when it comes to making things happen? Keep detailed notes on your observations to assist with performance management down the line.

Dealing with Underperformers

Inheriting is much different than building a team because the new manager has had no hand in hiring the team members. They are stuck with the team they’ve been hired to lead, at least for the short term. It’s usually not possible to simply swap out team members, for political or logistical reasons. Hiring new talent is a lengthy process, so the best course of action is usually to make due with the existing team.

However, if a team skill assessment identified underperformers, it’s important to take action, even if it’s not possible to remove them from the team. Ignoring poor performers is not an option as it sends a signal to others that the new manager is not serious about meeting goals.

The first step is to set clear performance expectations and communicate them to the entire team. It’s possible that the previous manager did not hold employees accountable to a high standard, and that this has created the habits observed during the team assessment. If this is the case, communicating the new “normal” will automatically improve performance.

Secondly, meet with the individual underperformers to understand why they are falling short of expectations. They might not have been aware of what was expected of them. Alternatively, they might have realized they are not right for their role. These agents, when faced with honest, specific feedback, might start talking about other jobs where their skill-set would be more appropriate.

Finally, create an action plan to get the agent back on their feet.

Set specific goals and a timeline to follow up

  • What training do they need?
  • What metrics need to improve? (eg. customer satisfaction, # of tickets answered)
  • Who can act as a resource for their ongoing improvement?

If the agent is not willing to commit to the action plan, it’s time to start discussing exit strategies. By giving the agent clear guidelines of what’s expected of them to remain on the team, you’re leaving the choice up to them. They can either commit, or move on.

Ultimately, the new manager needs to set the expectation of high performance quickly, and support team members on their paths to achieve it.

Score some easy wins

After spending time listening to the team, working with the product and understanding the team history. It’s time to get after the low hanging fruit. Most new managers will have a list of easy changes their team suggested in one on ones early on. For example, agents might be keen to clarify the escalation process, offer additional training or improve the time-off policy.

Are any of these suggestions feasible to try? Agent driven changes are often more successful and well received than decrees handed down from leadership.

Implementing easy, simple changes early on helps create momentum and build trust in your management style. Keep a list of these easy wins on hand – you never know when looking over a list of improvements could help improve your own self confidence.

World’s Best Boss

That coffee mug isn’t placed on your desk on the first day, it’s earned over time. Taking over a new team can be stressful for the first few months. Whether the previous manager was universally loved, or universally hated, you have a big hill to overcome.

The important thing to remember is that it takes time to know your team, and for them to know you. By being consistent in your expectations, and being patient, you’ll build a strong base for future cooperation. And at the end of the process, you’ll have earned that World Best Boss mug.

How did you like this blog?


Sarah Chambers Sarah Chambers

Sarah Chambers is a Customer Support Consultant and Content Creator from Vancouver, Canada. When she’s not arguing about customer service, she’s usually outdoors rock climbing or snowboarding. Follow her on Twitter @sarahleeyoga to keep up with her adventures.

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