Today’s customer support professionals, particularly those who work with SaaS products, face a landscape in which customer expectations are higher than ever. Consumers know that technology evolves quickly and demand that agents stay abreast of these constant changes to meet their ever-increasing expectations.
Meanwhile, companies know that customer experience has become the business differentiator and require their agents to deliver a high level of service as part of the company’s overall value proposition.
Add to this the fact that customers are more informed than ever before. They have access to a variety of resources, including customer reviews from sites like G2 Crowd. They’re reading social posts, subscribing to newsletters, staying up-to-date on the latest industry news, and reaching out to their network for recommendations.
All of this is set against a backdrop where time is precious, and customers want nearly instantaneous resolutions to their issues.
How Today’s Landscape Impacts Customer Support
So how does this landscape impact today’s companies and the agents who are tasked with delivering a top customer experience that both attracts new customers and retains current ones?
It means that attracting and empowering customer support reps who will thrive in this environment is now table stakes. For agents, it means that fast access to the information they need to resolve issues and delight customers is no longer a “nice to have” — it’s a requirement.
Tools: A Double-Edged Sword
There are a variety of technological tools an agent may have at their disposal to meet these growing expectations. But these can be a double-edged sword in that they provide more detailed information to agents, while also requiring agents to dig through more and more data to find what they need.
Tools such as ticketing automation programs, collaboration software, tracking software, various cloud-based knowledge management systems, and marketing analytics programs constitute just some of the channels that support professionals must access in order to perform their duties. And the agent must sift through all of them several times a day, often on each call or ticket, to find the right information.
While these tools serve the agent, customers — as informed as they are — expect modern CS reps to have fast and easy access to all of the information needed to resolve an issue and could care less how many systems they have to search through.
Many customers also have access to online support portals and other information from forums and user communities. So when they reach out to support, they’ve probably already tried to resolve the issue on their own and expect a trained agent to be able to find the answer quickly.
This means that, before even speaking with a customer, a CS rep knows their individual performance and the company they represent will be measured against big players known for exemplary service. That knowledge necessitates a great level of “soft skills” an agent must incorporate into the art of customer support if they are to be successful.
B2B Support Professionals Face Additional Challenges
B2B customer support agents also have the unique challenge of meeting the needs of entire organizations rather than just an individual. It’s not uncommon for a whole department or organization to be impacted when an enterprise product isn’t performing as expected — adding more stress and frustration to the customer calling in and more pressure on the agent.
In many cases, it’s not just a single subscription the software provider risks losing, but dozens of licenses across the organization as tickets that aren’t resolved in a satisfactory manner can send customers running to a competitor.
What Exactly Does a B2B Support Agent Do?
Now that we’ve explored the current landscape in which customer support professionals are operating, let’s take a closer look at the work of a typical B2B agent.
As you might imagine, the bulk of their days is spent resolving issues and processing requests. In many cases, they must follow up with customers to ensure post-resolution satisfaction or give additional updates, provide timely responses to customer queries, prepare detailed reports and/or notes for management, meet company goals and quotas, and ultimately bring a variety of issues to resolution. Plus, they must maintain regular and accurate communication with several other departments.
These are typical responsibilities for most customer support reps. But of course the role could, and often does, go far beyond. Each of these tasks could require a different set of information housed in different systems. It’s starting to become clear why an agent has to stay sharp and be able to quickly search, find, analyze, and process a large amount of data.
For most companies, customers have access to large amounts of information about the product or service as well. Thanks to online resource centers, support hubs, social media, product review sites, and more, customers now enter into engagements already carrying a wealth of knowledge.
An agent needs to meet this educated and self-informed customer with even more knowledge, or at least have quick access to the information needed to resolve the issue.
In addition to taking full advantage of all resources at their disposal, CS reps must bring a slew of well-honed people skills to the table. We’re talking about qualities like patience, a willingness to listen to the customer’s needs, and an ability to empathize. From a technical skills perspective, they need in-depth product knowledge, an ability to quickly learn and navigate internal systems, and practical problem solving/troubleshooting skills.
It’s these soft skills in tandem with tech savvy that together paint a picture of the modern agent.
Who Are Today’s CS Agents?
Today’s agents must be data miners who can pivot on a dime and quickly get the right information needed to bring customer issues to resolution.
The traits, backgrounds, motivations, and skills that make up the personas of these data miners vary. According to a survey conducted by Dimensional Research, 53 percent of support agents enter into the field with the intention of making it a long-term career. An even greater percentage (55 percent) enjoys helping people.
These findings demonstrate that typical agents have long-term plans in their field and are passionate about the crux of what they do. This means that the odds are good that anyone who answers a support call is sincerely interested in doing their best and is genuinely empathetic towards the customer on the other end of the line.
And it’s not just helping people that agents enjoy. A large majority of them (62 percent) appreciates the problem-solving aspect involved. An agent loves a good challenge, and while most report dealing with job-related frustrations (87 percent), that doesn’t stop an even greater number from reporting that they are, overall, satisfied with their work (97 percent).
These numbers tell us that agents are not only driven and enjoy providing assistance and solving problems, but that they remain motivated even when dealing with their own frustrations and those of customers.
CS Agents Must Navigate a Sea of Systems
From proprietary software and databases to popular platforms like Salesforce and Zendesk, today’s customer support agents are responsible for navigating more systems than ever before.
In addition to being the world’s most popular CRM, Salesforce is often used by support professionals as an interface for case and task management, including the ability to auto-route and escalate tickets and events. This lets agents track events and seek out data attached to a specific ticket, individual, or company.
Many companies find convenient the multiple integrations that allow different departments including marketing, sales, and support to utilize the platform to meet their own needs. They can each input relevant information about a customer and have it all brought together within Salesforce.
Many CS reps also use Salesforce Service Cloud as a primary support interface that allows them to resolve customer issues across the web, from social to chat.
Zendesk is a customer support platform that helps track, prioritize, and solve customer support tickets. Agents love its omnichannel capabilities that let them resolve issues generated via email, phone, message, social, or live chat.
Zendesk also enables companies to create self-service resources for customers, helping to speed time to resolution.
Confluence is also a collaborative tool used heavily for its knowledge bases. Companies, teams, and users can create portals that contain documents, tips, and how-tos all related to a certain topic. Agents use it for easy access to in-depth knowledge on a particular product or specific features within a product.
JIRA is used to receive, track, manage, and resolve requests from customers. Companies often use it as a tool for integrating with other departments. For example, technical support and IT issues can be linked directly to existing backlogs used by development teams.
Customers use Jira as an information portal where they can also submit their issues to initiate a ticket. Meanwhile, CS reps can track progress on an issue, see what’s been done to resolve the issue, and update the ticket with ongoing relevant information. It has a seamless integration with Confluence and other apps to further extend its capabilities for support.
Slack is a cloud-based collaboration tool known for its chat function and high user capacity. How different companies and teams use it can vary widely.
The platform makes it easier for agents to work collaboratively within and across departments to resolve issues and track tickets and events across their life cycles. More and more companies are also using Slack to share real-time updates that agents can access to help bring issues to resolution more quickly.
A Packed Toolkit
These and other commercially-available tools — along with internal, proprietary programs containing information, documentation, or other resources — make up a typical CS agent’s toolkit for ticket resolution and overall workflow.
A customer support department likely won’t utilize all of these platforms as several overlap in terms of their functionality. But an agent can still expect to encounter a combination of several of these and other comparable systems in the course of their work day.
An Omnichannel Agent in an Omnichannel World
The term omnichannel refers to the various methods available to customers for contacting service providers with questions and issues. Examples include phone, email, text, chat boxes, and social media.
Most companies strive to make contacting support easy and to make the experience match the customer’s preferences as closely as possible. So it’s not uncommon for support centers to offer several (or even all) of these communication options.
Add to this the expectation of consistently delivering a high quality customer experience along with the vast array of internal systems agents must use to access information, and you can see why the demand on support professionals is greater than ever.
Because of the nature of omnichannel support, CS reps may be juggling several open tickets at one time — an inquiry via social media, an email thread, a live chat, and follow up on an ongoing issue. Here’s a brief look at each of these communication channels and some challenges agents face in an omnichannel world.
Social media has become one of the most common ways for customers to reach out for support, particularly for B2C but increasingly for B2B as well.
Because of the real-time nature of social media, customers expect companies to constantly monitor messages and offer a quick response. In fact, a recent survey found that 32 percent of customers expect a reply in 30 minutes or less and 42 percent expect it within the hour — including nights and weekends.
Through platforms like Zendesk and Salesforce Service Cloud as well as traditional social media monitoring tools like Hootsuite, support professionals can engage in ongoing tracking of brand mentions and also receive alerts about new posts from customers.
It’s important to note that social media presents a particularly public, and therefore high-stakes, support channel. CS reps want to put out the “brush fire” before it becomes a full blown “forest fire,” meaning quick and satisfactory responses are needed. Otherwise, companies risk unhappy customers complaining about their issue, which can then easily be shared, retweeted, or commented on by others having similar problems.
The popularity of customer support via text has grown significantly in the past few years. Again, while less popular for B2B companies, text offers a proactive way for companies to quickly reach out to customers for updates or to alert them of outages — planned or otherwise.
This can be an optimal approach since SMS has an 98 percent open rate compared to just 22 percent for email. Additionally, it’s an efficient way for support reps to send quick, direct updates regarding ongoing issues or follow up to ensure an issue is fully resolved and the customer is satisfied.
It’s not surprising that this support channel continues to gain in popularity, and companies (and their support agents) should expect that growth to continue. TechCrunch recently reported that Americans spend five hours per day on their smartphones. Additionally, younger professionals (18-34) are increasingly preferring electronic communications, even for support, over voice/phone.
Live chat is another preferred means for customers to contact support as it provides instant assistance (at least in an ideal world). Customers can get help right from their desktop while also potentially continuing to accomplish other tasks.
Many customers choose this approach for its digital convenience that also maintains a level of humanization. Customers also like the fact that they can save the chat transcript for future reference.
For less urgent issues, email still remains the communication tool of choice for many customers, with most expecting it to be a support option for companies with which they do business. While less personal, it’s convenient for customers who may not have the time available right then to have a phone call or engage in a live chat or text conversation with an agent.
Even with all of the other communication methods available today, there’s still a lot to be said for the most traditional form of customer support: the call center.
This channel requires the most focus and attention on the part of the agent. But in an increasingly digital and disconnected environment, many customers appreciate the personal, human interaction that phone support provides.
Challenges of Omnichannel Support
These communication methods exist to serve the customer and the agent. However, for the agent, omnichannel support can present several challenges.
First and foremost is the difficulty of absorbing and managing data through so many different channels. In addition to having to keep track of best practices for each channel, CS reps face competing priorities when trying to juggle many open tickets.
Another challenge is ensuring a consistent brand and support experience. Oftentimes, customers use multiple channels for the same ongoing issue. Sometimes they’re serviced by the same agent, sometimes not. But they expect to receive the same answers and high level of service, regardless of the method or particular agent.
Having these channels all “talk” to each other can present yet another challenge. In particular, keeping a record of the interaction, the resolution, and any needed follow up, and centralizing this information can prove burdensome for support departments not already using an integrated software system.
Integrating Customer Support Across the Organization
In order to truly be successful, customer support agents must collaborate with other teams to integrate their work throughout the entire organization. From marketing and sales to product development, all departments can benefit from a greater alignment with customer support.
Customer experience includes every step of a customer’s journey, which generally starts with marketing.
Through inter-departmental communication and collaboration, companies can leverage customer support’s insights to drive marketing efforts. The most obvious example is utilizing CS reps’ first-hand knowledge of customer needs and frustrations to develop content based on common complaints or questions, ongoing product issues, or unexpected use cases.
Support agents can also share valuable data to help marketers refine customer personas and target audiences by answering questions like:
- What type of customers use the product most? Do they use specific features more than others?
- Which customers tend to be the most demanding? Why?
- Which customers seem to be most satisfied with the product? And which are the most dissatisfied?
This data will enable the marketing team to better segment their audience and build campaigns that target the customers likely to be the best fit for the product or service.
Additionally, support agents are key drivers of word-of-mouth marketing. Think about the positive support experiences you’ve had. How many people did you recount them to? Beyond spreading organically, these personal stories can serve as a jumping off point for testimonials, case studies, and other promotional materials.
Through customer reviews, CS reps can even contribute to SEO initiatives. After all, each time a customer generates a review online — whether it be via your website, a product review site, or social media — it shows search engines that the company has authority and is trusted (or not).
Just like the marketing department, it’s important that your sales team has a solid grasp of your typical customer profile. What better place to get this intel than from the professionals who are on the front lines with customers every day?
Insights from the support department can help sales teams:
- Decide how the product should be pitched to potential customers
- Know which features of the product are most important
- Anticipate what types of questions they will be asked
These insights help sales teams gain a better understanding of the customer profile, which in turn allows them to focus their efforts on the leads that are most likely to convert.
In addition, support agents play a key role in a successful long-term sales strategy by contributing to cross-sells and upsells, thereby helping to increase the lifetime value of a customer.
Customer support and customer success go hand-in-hand, with both serving an important function in post-sales customer experience.
One of the success team’s primary objectives is to provide customer education. As they work to develop or strengthen the customer onboarding process and other training materials, they should look to their counter-parts in the support department to learn more about:
- The most common customer questions and complaints
- Which aspects of the product cause the most confusion or uncertainty
Beyond improving customer education programs, collaboration between the support and success teams can help to reduce churn. If a particular customer seems highly frustrated or has had multiple tickets in a short period of time, CS reps can alert success managers. They in turn can be proactive about reaching out to the customer to ensure issues are resolved and frustrations are soothed.
We all know that it’s much easier and more time- and cost-efficient to retain a customer as compared to acquiring a new one. So this is where customer support and success can really shine to not only enhance the customer experience but also boost the company’s bottom line.
As designers, developers, and product managers work to release product updates or perhaps even to create entirely new products, they can look to support agents to provide “insider information.”
The questions, complaints, and requests coming directly from the mouths of customers can, if clearly communicated, help ensure companies stay on the right path when it comes to product development. Data from the support department can serve almost as a built-in focus group. Companies should be sure to take full advantage of this invaluable resource!
The Future of Customer Support
Everything we’ve discussed thus far is what “today” is like for a modern CS professional. But what does “tomorrow” look like for customer support and the agents who provide it?
Viewing customer support through a wider lens, we expect the future to be marked by ever-evolving technologies and ever-increasing customer expectations.
Companies should not rush to eliminate any support channels, but they should be thoughtful about how they allocate their budget and other resources as customer preferences continue to evolve. Technologies that offer a mix of real-time resolution with convenience will be most successful.
Reports show that live chat can provide businesses with a competitive advantage that can boost sales and loyalty, especially in the B2C world. Accordingly, we expect to see more and more companies implementing the service. Plus, live chat itself will likely evolve from text only to include video, as well.
The desire for self-service will likely force companies to put a greater emphasis on customer knowledge portals and support communities, particularly for first-touch support. In addition, chatbots have steadily been on the rise, and we expect to see their continued growth. However, their lack of personal touch makes them less appealing for many B2B customers.
Speaking of a “lack of personal touch,” let’s talk about artificial intelligence. Its potential applications are immense and varied, but we’re already seeing many platforms include elements of AI to assist with particular functions in the call center. While AI won’t replace human support professionals anytime soon, many companies are exploring ways the technology can extend the capabilities and efficiency of today’s agents.
Beyond continually-evolving technologies, what does the future hold for support professionals, especially from a career perspective?
As we noted earlier, more than half of agents view support as a long-term career choice. However, most will also want to move up the career ladder in a way that allows them to build on the skills and interests that drew them to support in the first place.
A typical promotion for support professionals is moving from agent to team lead or supervisor. For many, this advancement comes naturally as they always seemed to be the go-to-person that other agents asked for help. As a team lead or supervisor, they’ll train, manage, and motivate their team. Oftentimes, if an agent can’t fully resolve an issue or they’re dealing with a particularly irate or high-value customer, the supervisor will step in to ensure a smooth resolution.
The next stop for many is manager. This role is more deeply involved with the human resource aspect of customer support. Managers understand what makes a good agent and what to look for in the hiring process. They may have to deal with disciplinary issues, as well as begin molding the next generation of supervisors. In-depth knowledge of the product, the company, and its operations are key to this position.
Those in a technical role may evolve from a CS rep to a support engineer. This position requires a great deal of technical proficiency and often direct integration with the product development team. Depending on the company, a support engineer may be responsible for hardware issues, software support, or both.
Support engineers are pivotal when an outage or widespread technical glitch occurs. They are the conduit between what’s happening on the front lines and the internal teams who will ultimately be responsible for fixing the issue.
It’s worth noting that, while many will choose to remain in support roles, others may gravitate towards customer success. Success is more proactive than reactive and is responsible for outreach and regular communications that deepen the relationship with the customer in an effort to build brand loyalty and reduce churn.
Over the course of a career, depending on the size of a company and its support function, agents may move into director, VP, and even CXO roles.
So what’s a typical day in the life of a customer support professional?
As you can clearly see, there’s nothing typical about it. From multiple tools and internal systems to the omnichannel communication approach that today’s customers prefer (ahem, demand), support is a dynamic field that must continue to evolve to meet both customer and company needs.