Scaling a customer service team isn’t easy, let alone for fast-growing startups. For brands such as Birchbox and Warby Parker, which were born to compete on the basis of service, the challenge is even greater. These companies must ensure they have the right resources in place to consistently meet the sky-high expectations they’ve set while serving a rapidly expanding customer base.
Are you in the same situation?
If so, this post was written for you. To help you move forward in a less haphazard, more confident way, we’ve compiled a list of the top 10 things you need to keep in mind as you build out your contact center at your startup.
Top 10 Things to Consider When Scaling Your Customer Service Team
As you read through the following questions, remember: there is no right or wrong answer. Only you can decide your priorities and weight them accordingly. As long as you factor in your branding and business goals, the products you offer, and the types of customers you serve, you’ll come up with the right formula for growth.
1. Will you use in-house agents and/or outsourced teams?
Keeping your service teams in-house will require significant, ongoing investment in hiring, customer service coaching and training, and infrastructure—both physical office space and technology stack (see question 5). But you maintain complete control, which means you can hire people who are the right fit for your brand culture and monitor them closely.
“[W]e don’t treat customer service as a cost center . . . and we don’t outsource customer service to save money. We apply the same rigorous hiring standards in that department as in any other function. We strongly believe that our service centers are a critical part of the customer experience and that if something goes wrong and we’re able to fix it, we’ll have that customer for life. And our data confirms that.”
Outsourcing, however, offers big savings and few administrative burdens. You won’t need to worry about HR responsibilities, employee pay and benefits, infrastructure, and all the rest. Nor do you have to worry about seasonal hiring to handle high volumes (see question 4). But relinquishing control means you can’t ensure agents will reflect (let alone embrace) your brand personality and values. If there is a disconnect, customers will feel it, resulting in a loss of brand equity.
That said, if you’re looking to outsource as a way to save costs at this early stage, it is possible to align outsourced teams with the brand and empower and motivate them to represent it well. Call center outsourcing provider TaskUs, for example, encourages clients to treat outsourced reps as part of the team—the benefits of which companies like Brooklinen have seen firsthand.
“Many companies fly their executives to TaskUs’ offices in the Philippines to get to know the people interacting with their users and to train them directly. After hiring TaskUs this year, Century City storytelling app Flipagram sent company shirts and signage to its 10 TaskUs reps, who used the swag to decorate their workspaces.”
2. How many agents will you need?
This is one of the biggest questions startup brands grapple with. If your team size is off by even a few agents, you’ll either waste precious resources or degrade service quality. We wrote recently about the Erlang C formula, which you can use to calculate the ideal number of agents—provided you have the right inputs.
When it comes to controlling operating costs as you scale your customer service team, we can’t overstate the importance of minimizing agent attrition. Erlang C can help you save money, but those savings are easily overwhelmed by the costs of continually hiring and onboarding new agents.
3. What will your agent-to-manager ratio be?
We’ve seen agent-to-manager ratios run the gamut, from 1:5 to 1:20. Your ideal ratio will depend on how much your managers are tasked with on a daily basis.
If your management team is responsible for QA reviews, handling escalated calls, service recovery, customer service coaching, and training, putting each manager in charge of 20 agents isn’t realistic. Managers won’t be able to give agents the personalized 1:1 attention they need, and morale and service quality will suffer as a result. To prevent this downward spiral, make sure adequate agent support—your managers’ primary responsibility—is the starting point for your calculations.
4. How will you hire for peak volume seasons?
Hiring for your brand’s peak seasons (holidays, back to school, etc.) may involve seasonal brand hires or temporary outsourcing. Regardless, timing is everything. If you’re preparing for the Christmas shopping season, for example, starting the hiring process in mid-September won’t leave you enough runway to get your fledgling agents off the ground.
Faster response times aside, hiring an army of new agents at the last minute will backfire on your brand. Without proper training and onboarding, your new hires won’t be effective at resolving customer issues. Managers will spend too much time hand holding and not enough time supporting the entire team. To survive this high-stress period with customer loyalty intact, be sure to start the hiring process early and prepare agents to take calls well in advance of surging volumes.
5. What kinds of technologies will you adopt?
Agent empowerment, operational efficiency, and an effortless customer experience all depend on the customer service stack you have in place. High-functioning contact centers rely on technology to manage call queues, route calls effectively, and manage live chat and email.
To strengthen customer loyalty as you scale, you’ll also need a CRM or ticketing system, which will give your team crucial context for every contact. The first time a customer calls, the agent who responds can see the reason for the call, log that information against the customer inquiry, note how the issue was resolved, and close the ticket. Each time that customer calls back, agents can pull up a detailed brand history and tailor the service experience accordingly.
6. How will your QA process work?
This will depend on the type of business you’re in. If you’re in a heavily regulated industry like financial services, you’ll probably need a dedicated QA team to ensure your agents are in compliance—asking customers the right questions, providing the right disclaimers, etc.
If compliance isn’t a concern, a dedicated QA team might be overkill. Having QA leaders compile score cards and pass them along to managers, who use them as a basis for coaching, simply adds an unnecessary step. Better to put QA in the hands of team leaders.
7. How will you manage call center coaching and training?
Many contact centers still treat coaching and training as interchangeable, deliver them in an imbalanced way, and/or get the frequency wrong. As a result, these programs have limited value.
While training is designed to impart brand knowledge to the entire team—products, policies, procedures, etc.—coaching is (or should be) a 1:1 encounter with a focus on individual performance.
- Micro-coaching, which happens spontaneously and in real time following specific interactions, should happen daily to help agents improve on the spot.
- Formal coaching should happen once or twice a month, depending on the amount of down time your agents can manage.
- Tactical coaching helps agents get up to speed fast on new promotions or products.
- Training shouldn’t stop with initial onboarding but occur periodically to refresh knowledge or address trending performance problems.
The data you use to inform coaching and training makes a big difference. Customer feedback collected on the front line in real time not only makes coaching and training more timely, relevant, and meaningful for agents, but also motivates them to improve on their own—thus taking some of the burden off of team leaders.
8. How will you instill passion for the job?
If an agent isn’t a good cultural fit for your brand or isn’t cut out for a customer service role, there’s little you can do to change that. As you grow your team, make sure you’re hiring people who meet these criteria and share key characteristics with your top performers.
If your team is outsourced, it’s important to emphasize your company’s story, values, and customer service ideal in the initial training period and keep an open communication channel (e.g., Slack) that allows agents to feel connected and grow with your brand.
Firsthand product knowledge is essential as well. Having a showroom within your contact center, where agents can touch, feel, and try on merchandise, will build their enthusiasm for the brand and help them educate customers more effectively (thus closing more sales).
9. How will you keep agents engaged?
You can’t achieve excellence, and keep attrition under control, without building a call center culture that inspires. But it’s a tough thing to do when you’re scaling your team from dozens of agents to hundreds in a short time.
Empowerment, recognition, and friendly competition are the big three drivers of agent engagement. Agents should be empowered to make decisions on their own on customers’ behalf, and they should be recognized for great performance—personally via micro-coaching, during training sessions, and/or with meaningful rewards (material or otherwise). Encouraging friendly competition through the use of leaderboards will reduce agents’ feelings of isolation, give them a sense of shared purpose, and motivate them to raise their performance scores.
10. How will you manage performance?
To understand how well your coaching, training, and QA programs are working—along with identifying your top and bottom performers and any program adjustments that need to be made—you must measure performance on an ongoing basis.
Leading brands rely on contact center performance management software to gather these insights, and they use the data to continually drive improvement. Traditional performance management tools tend to be cost prohibitive for startup companies; a nimbler solution that’s proven successful may be the better way to go.
To Scale Successfully, You Must Build the Right Foundation
If you carefully weigh each of these questions and make sure you have all the right pieces in place, you can continue scaling your team without compromising service quality or exploding your budget. In time, as your contact center culture and processes mature, your loyal customer base—and resulting revenue growth—will allow you to compete on a whole new level.