The new era of customer support - opinion

Customer support as an industry has had to modernize and adapt – thus ushering in a new era, one in which I’m proud to play a role

 ANTAL LEIB (photo credit: Simon Cohen)
(photo credit: Simon Cohen)

Customer support is essential to the health and growth of a company – full stop. For the better part of a decade, I’ve worked with leading, client-centric Israeli companies that have put customer support at the core of their business ethos.

These companies aim to empower their customer support teams to provide the best service possible to their clients. In the context of established companies like those, customer support comes down to efficiently organized processes and workflows to optimize their first response and average resolution times.

But customer support is more than that; department directors need to focus on more than just processes and tools. Though necessary, customer support generally suffers from an identity crisis, or rather a disconnect between its outward perception, true definition and overall importance within the corporate structure.

As a result of these broad discrepancies, customer support as an industry has had to modernize and adapt – thus ushering in a new era, one in which I’m proud to play a role.

How customer support is perceived

It’s no secret that customer support has a rather negative public perception, especially in Israel and particularly in the B2C space. Long wait times, robotic agents, insufficient resolution capabilities and generally unfriendly vibes are some of the stereotypes that I have experienced, especially outside of the hi-tech industry.

Within organizations, especially those focused on B2B, the perception of customer support has a couple of extra wrinkles. First off, many find it easy to confuse customer support with customer success. Before anything else, I will take a moment to differentiate between the two:

  • Customer success exists as an extension of the sales process, whose agents continue to interface with clients long after contracts have been signed.
  • Customer support offers a more traditional, resolution-centric experience, which corporate clients approach when they run into more technical issues. In that regard, customers seek a dedicated agent to solve an immediate need, one which may interrupt business operations, rather than a point person who oversees the relationship more generally.

Internally, the differing perception between customer support and customer success may seem straightforward, yet is anything but. Customer support, even on the B2B side, has a long-standing perception of being a team of robots that receive and respond to support tickets, while customer success is the one seen to be assisting clients.

Despite its complexities, the cause of this reputational difference could come down to nomenclature, or rather, the department’s name. After all, success sounds more appealing than support. Support indicates a pain point or an obstacle to overcome, while success sounds like money in the bank.

Though this difference could very well hold true for old-school customer support teams, it leaves out several essential elements relevant to teams adhering to a more modern standard.

One such essential element is customer support’s ability to resolve issues directly, as agents often have familiarity with the product that other client-facing departments may lack. Moreover, even when customer support discovers an insurmountable problem, they’re able to interface directly with Product and R&D to find (or develop) resolutions.

Given customer support’s ability to work in tandem with so many other departments, its agents tend to possess expert-level knowledge of the product, allowing them to provide the highest level of value to their clients.

Defining modern customer support

This new era of customer support seeks to undo many preconceived notions regarding the management and direction of customer support. More specifically, it aims to modernize the field through stricter definitions of responsibility.

Nowhere is this more evident than in regards to agent tiers, which break down into two categories:

  • The first support tier comprises agents who possess broad customer support and resolution knowledge. The first-tier agent position is typically considered an entry-level position and represents the beginning of the customer support career path. These agents are otherwise known as “junior customer support agents.”
  • The second tier, or “senior customer support agents,” allows individuals with specialized experience, perhaps in engineering or finance, to assist clients experiencing complex issues. Agents who rise to the second tier have a more detailed understanding of the product and dive deeper into problem-solving strategies.

This junior-senior dichotomy allows for a more targeted allocation of knowledge, especially regarding senior agents. Junior agents can address more general concerns, while tier-two agents can address more critical matters.

Altogether, the tier system speaks to a more significant trend in the customer support field: going beyond the job description. Support and problem solving are one thing, but successful agents go above and beyond, particularly when it comes to their motivations.

Second-tier agents are indicative of this in that they’re highly trained individuals who desire to learn the product and interface with other departments, including product, R&D and customer success. As a result, customer support has evolved from an operational silo to an essential part of the business.

The importance of customer support

Given the modernized direction that customer support is heading, the importance of the department is only increasing. When I joined PayEm as director of customer support, the team was essentially nonexistent, and its functions merged with customer success. That meant onboarding and customer satisfaction could flourish while minimizing client-facing product and tech assistance.

From such a starting point, the company provided me with the opportunity to set up a department from scratch. By separating customer support from success, both teams were able to focus on their strengths. For support, this meant working with clients who were already using the platform, while success could orient toward more prospective and recent customers.

Such a separation has enabled us to span from Israel to the United States and establish processes and norms that will permit scalability for the foreseeable future. Moreover, though the company was based in Israel and the Israeli hi-tech market, I had to orient plans for customer support toward the US market from the start.

The prospect of that future is exciting for several reasons. First and foremost, it will provide the opportunity to take the concept of second-tier agents to the next level. Eventually, I want customer support to comprise of true subject-matter experts who can provide assistance with precision, down to specific fields, products and features.

Furthermore, on the back end, I would like to transition to an improved ticketing system, one which will enable more comprehensive analytic insights and customer data collection. Altogether, these advancements will result in a genuinely optimized, targeted and cross-functional department.

More to the point, no department can be truly successful unless it integrates with the greater ecosystem of the company at large. For instance, if sales cannot work with marketing, efficiency and synergy will be left on the table.

In the same vein, when customer support works alone, sans cross-departmental efforts, the aforementioned negative perceptions begin to arise. When developing my own department, I found it was essential to build collaborative processes from the get-go rather than when they became necessary.

With cross-departmental collaboration more possible than ever before, customer support departments can make more significant differences for their clients. In turn, this boosts the department’s importance, along with its profile in the eyes of relevant stakeholders, who in turn authorize the department’s continued growth. It’s a positive feedback loop at its most ideal and only serves to speed customer support’s evolution into its new era.

Antal Lieb is the director of customer support at PayEm.