Secrets to Big Success with a Small Customer Service Team


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Make no mistake, working in customer service is rough. It's a volatile business that relies on a perfectly blended combination of people, processes, and technologies to ensure success every single day. And while this is true of every customer service team, it is the smallest of the bunch (think 75 people and less) that can experience the reality of this volatility at exponentially heightened levels.

As a former small contact center leader and someone who spends a lot of time around customer service teams of all shapes and sizes, I've gained exposure to organizations at their best and at their worst. Here is a collection of the five most common mistakes that I've witnessed in small customer service organizations and some advice on how to ensure that they don't make an appearance on your team.

Mistake #1: Cancel training to cover high contact volume/traffic.

We've all been there. A training session was planned weeks or months in advance and when the day finally came, we were so underwater that we couldn't let our employees attend. This is a mistake for two reasons: By cancelling the training, our actions send a clear message that professional development isn't a priority; agents will give us their best work only if we invest in enabling them to work their best. And second, chances are that the training session was important. Let's be honest, nobody wants to train for no reason. By cancelling the training, you could be preventing your agents from improving the efficiency, quality, or effectiveness of their work. Even if you reschedule the session, who is to say that high volume won't strike again? If you've determined that your agents need training and scheduled for it to happen, it needs to happen. Don't try to sacrifice a long-term benefit for a short term fix.

Mistake #2: Misunderstand the dynamics of small queue groups.

The smaller the queue group, the more volatile the arrival pattern and predictability of incoming contacts and the more significant the impact if we get the forecast or staffing levels wrong. We all know what this feels like, but many leaders of small teams don't understand the science behind it all. To be completely candid for a moment, not educating myself and the other leaders in my small contact center sooner in my career was one of my biggest professional mistakes. Explaining planning theory and the dynamics of size requires a bit more than I can provide in this article but, if you recognize that this is a struggle for you, I'm personally willing to be a resource to help get you on your way.

Mistake #3: Coach only to the bad behaviors (if you coach at all).

Most customer service environments are rich in coaching opportunities, but poor in time to do so. The reality is that in addition to coaching, we could be assisting in times of high volume, resolving escalated customer issues, running reports, monitoring queues, answering agent questions, researching solutions, and doing a litany of other things. It's easy for coaching to fall to the bottom of the bucket and gain the perception as a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. In addition, the little time that is made available for coaching is used to address major concerns or problems. The good agents receive little to no coaching or feedback and the problem agents get all the coaching time and attention. This affects all agents in a negative way, as the good agents could feel neglected and question their importance or value, while the problem agents feel as if they only ever hear about the things that they do wrong. Coaching is incredibly valuable and, when done right, can resolve many of the other issues that we experience on our teams. To get started on the right track, we need to spend our coaching time with all agents and use those conversations to not just address the opportunities for improvement but to also reinforce the positive and desired behaviors.

Mistake #4: Spend most of your time firefighting.

Many leaders of small customer service teams feel as if they are running toward a finish line that never gets any closer. It's not uncommon for them to walk into a day with a to-do list that was left over from the previous day and will only increase in size by the next. Their time is spend trying to get additional shift coverage, shuffling around breaks and queue assignments, answering questions from the endless line of agents at their desks, or throwing on headsets and helping to lower the queues themselves. The primary reason that many leaders are making this mistake is that they know they're understaffed but they don't understand the real reason why. The two most common contributors that I see are incorrect internal reporting and inaccurate shrinkage calculations. To address the first of these, small teams should be measuring and planning to half-hour intervals. Essentially, this means that the forecasts for volume and schedule for staffing should be broken down to the half-hour level. This provides an increased degree of accuracy and empowers leaders with actionable opportunities for improvement. As for the second, your shrinkage factor takes into consideration the time your agent spends off doing things like breaks, training, coaching, etc., and accounts for vacation time, average call offs, and other events that will impact when and how many agents are available to work. When properly calculated and applied, small team leaders will gain an accurate understanding of how many agents are needed to handle their projected forecasts.

Mistake #5: Lose sight of your advantages.

For as tough as it can be to lead a small team, it also comes with some incredible advantages, which can be easily forgotten amid the day-to-day hustle. Small team leaders are often able to build closer and stronger relationships with their teams, they can communicate information more quickly and personally, and they can implement ideas and respond to changing customer landscapes more rapidly and nimbly than their peers who lead larger teams. Take time to recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of your team and the incredible advantages that you have as a small group.

The reality is that running a customer service team isn't necessarily a glamorous, job but it is a tremendously important and noble undertaking. Without us, organizations would be unable to effectively serve their customers and deliver on their needs and expectations. Never make the mistake of believing that what you and your team doesn't matter. You provide value beyond what you might ever realize and make a difference to people every single day. Own your position as this asset to your organization, and strive to deliver excellence one interaction at a time.


Justin Robbins is group director of content and community at HDI and the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI).