How to Navigate the Customer Support Career Path

Jayaram Bhat | December 7, 2018

Metal ladder points toward the sky

At Squelch, we believe customer support professionals are heroes. But even superheroes can learn new tricks. That’s why we want to serve as a helpful resource to CS professionals of all levels as they fly along their path of career advancement.

Read on to learn more about:

  • Existing attitudes regarding CS career advancement
  • How support professionals typically get started in the field
  • Leader vs. Guru career tracks
  • Steps you can take to help propel you further up the CS ladder

Existing Attitudes on CS Career Advancement

In order to learn more about the opinions and experiences of support professionals, we went straight to the source. In conjunction with Dimensional Research, we conducted a survey of more than 300 CS agents on a wide range of subjects, including the support career path.

(Download your free copy of the full report on “Investigating the Customer Support Persona.”)

The survey revealed that nearly all support professionals (94 percent) have given at least some thought to their career, with just 23 percent viewing support as a temporary stop on their path.

In contrast, more than half (53 percent) see support as a long-term career choice, with that figure growing to 57 percent for more advanced agents tackling the trickiest customer issues and 60 percent for CS managers.

Getting Started in Customer Support

As the study above demonstrates, the majority of CS professionals view support as their career path for the long haul. But where do they begin?

Approximately two-thirds of those surveyed began their support journey early in their career, with 30 percent joining the field as their first “real” job and another 37 percent within a few years of starting work.

For many, the journey begins with an entry-level position as a customer support representative (CSR), handling the most straightforward customer issues. But staying in this position for too long could be detrimental.

“Customer service reps are up there with teachers and first responders and social workers in terms of occupational burnout, due to all the emotional labor we expend,” writes Help Scout. “But the opposite of burnout is engagement, and the best predictor of engagement is making progress on meaningful work … That’s why it’s critical to set aside time to think about what growth and progress look like for you.”

CS Career Path: Leader vs. Guru

A key question to consider when it comes to professional growth in customer support is whether you’re more motivated by leading people or specializing in a particular domain. As customer support manager at Hootsuite, Nicole Winstone perfectly captured both paths by establishing two tracks for her team:

  • Leadership: Managing and mentoring people
  • Guru: Exploring and expanding a depth of knowledge

People Management

If you’re passionate about people, have deep empathy, and possess strong mentorship and delegation skills, “leadership” is probably the best ladder for you to climb. From CSR or customer support specialist, the next rung is customer support supervisor.

“As a supervisor, you’ll help train new customer service reps, step in when a customer service rep is having trouble answering a customer’s questions, and help your team reach its goals,” describes CareerBuilder.

Once you’ve achieved success as a supervisor, the next step up the ladder is customer support manager. “Managers have a tougher job than supervisors,” continues CareerBuilder. “They have to keep an eye on a team of customer service reps, and they may have to deal with disciplinary issues. They may also play a key role in developing a company’s customer service policy.”

From manager, the only direction to go is up, climbing higher and higher until you claim the title of Chief Customer Officer (CCO). According to the Chief Customer Officer Council, the CCO is “an executive that provides the comprehensive and authoritative view of the customer and creates corporate and customer strategy at the highest levels of the company to maximize customer acquisition, retention, and profitability.”

“The role of the Chief Customer Officer (CCO) is relatively new, but growing in popularity,” explains Hubspot. In 2014, 22 percent of Fortune 100 companies and 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies had CCOs — figures that have only increased in the intervening years.

Domain Expertise

If managing people isn’t your jam, you might want to instead consider the guru customer support track, which focuses on exploring and expanding a depth of knowledge. The guru track requires complex problem-solving skills, the development of domain expertise, and a desire to dive deep into data.

If you follow this path, you’ll almost certainly find that becoming a data-driven professional will not only boost your career but also benefit the entire support department.

“For support teams to advocate for the resources they need, have a respected seat at the table, and contribute to the health of a business, they need to communicate in terms other teams understand,” writes Help Scout. “Much of the time, those terms equate to data and finances.”

Similar to the leadership track, the first rung on the guru ladder is typically customer support representative. But from there, instead of transitioning to a supervisor role, agents typically begin specializing in a particular product or service line. For example, the next step for a CSR at a SaaS company might be technical support specialist, a higher-level agent who steps in to troubleshoot more complex issues that a general CSR is unable to resolve.

If the agent continues developing her technical expertise, she might next rise to customer support engineer. As described by Hubspot, CS engineers “typically have a background in IT and can handle an array of computer problems,” enabling them to serve as the highest point of escalation for technical issues faced by customers.

Given the guru’s focus on product rather than people, the top rung of the ladder would likely be a product-oriented role, such as Chief Product Officer (CPO) rather than Chief Customer Officer.

“The CPO has a thorough understanding of customer desires and behaviors because they spend a lot of time with them and the people internally who serve them (e.g., sales and support teams),” explains Aha! “They represent the customer internally, communicating learning through research and analysis, sharing insights with internal partners such as marketing and sales leaders, and encouraging the product team to talk directly with customers.”

How to Advance in Your Customer Support Career

Figuring out your preferred track (i.e. leadership vs. guru) is a crucial step in your journey toward career advancement. But what else can you do to promote your professional growth?

Before starting any concerted efforts to climb the ladder, it’s vital that you achieve a state of excellence in your current position. Complete all tasks thoroughly yet efficiently, strive to maintain a positive attitude, and be sure to keep the customer’s needs front and center.

After you’ve established yourself as a star in your current role, it’s time to talk with your direct supervisor about your desire for advancement. Don’t expect to receive a promotion overnight. Instead, think of this conversation as the beginning of an ongoing dialogue regarding future career opportunities.

Once your supervisor understands what direction you’re hoping to take, ask her to keep you in mind for assignments that will help you learn new skills or deepen your knowledge in relevant areas. Remember that the clearer you are about what type of position you’re seeking next, the more helpful she can be.

You might also want to ask your supervisor for recommendations of other employees at your company who can serve as a useful resource. For example, if you’re a general CSR hoping to become a technical support specialist, it would be ideal to conduct a learning session with an existing technical support specialist who can give you an insider’s perspective on the what the job is really like.

Finally, don’t forget to seek out opportunities outside of your company. I’m not suggesting you should be interviewing all over town, but it’s important to join professional associations, attend industry events, and network with fellow CS workers beyond your organization to ensure your growth is not limited.

Good Luck!

I wish you the very best as you fly along the path of career advancement. And remember, whether you’re a CSR, technical support specialist, CPO, or CCO, you can always count on Squelch to be your super-helpful sidekick!