I love what I do, I love my coworkers, and I love where I work. I believe these three things are the key ingredients to employee engagement that positively impact business success. I have the privilege of leading a team of 40 support individuals in a flat organizational structure that self-manage, collaborate, and add value across our company. Our customer satisfaction is over 97%, and our staff turnover in 2018 was 8%, with zero turnover as of May 2019. At HDI 2019 Conference & Expo we received the Team Excellence and Best Service and Support Culture Awards. Here’s how we did it.
In 2013, our team was awarded HDI’s Team Excellence award for external support. Shortly after receiving the award my manager said “Support is broken.” I thought, “How can support be broken, we just received a Team Excellence award.” To be fair, he was very complimentary of our team. I just latched onto the word “broken.” As the manager of the support team, my focus is on making things better. So to hear it was broken, I felt responsible.
After I got through a variety of emotions and questions, I was able to reflect and hear what he was trying to tell me. We had an awesome team that was ready for the next level. We needed to build a team of leaders that could take action without having to follow the traditional escalation channel. We needed everyone to feel empowered and encouraged to take action when they had the skills, knowledge, and experience, rather than pass an issue or task to the next group.
At the time, our organizational structure was the traditional hierarchy of six to eight people per team with a dedicated supervisor. It was common to hear comments like, “We are not allowed to do that. Send it to Tier 2” or “That’s outside my job duties.” These negative statements are so powerful and can hinder growth and performance. They also breakdown learning and collaboration because it encourages escalation or “punting” without ownership. We found that individuals put more emphasis on working within their job title rather than adding value to the team.
The mission was set. We needed to reduce the focus on our titles and job responsibilities and build a team of critical thinkers that solve difficult problems, self-manage, and collaborate with others throughout the company.
We needed to build a team of critical thinkers that solve difficult problems, self-manage, and collaborate.
The Discovery Phase
I read many books on team formation, holacracy, and developing leaders. I spoke to other support managers to find out what they are doing. What is working? What did not work? They key lesson I learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. You can’t take an operational handbook from one organization and apply it to yours. What you can do is determine what will work best for your organization based on the goals you want to achieve.
Our team worked together to explore all options and talk about what is important to our success. We thought about what we would do if we were creating a team from scratch. What would we keep? What would we change?
We discovered that we did not treat support as a career. We were treating it as an entry-level position with an expectation that we would get two to three years from people before they moved on. That was an “aha moment” for us.
The Action Plan
We set out to make support a career! We recognized that we had an effective support methodology that was our foundation and most likely helped us to win the HDI Team Excellence award in 2013. Keeping that intact, we intentionally focused on people, not titles. Everyone in support that works with our customers was given the same title, Support Advisor. Tiers were removed, and the salary range was widened to align with our training and software product teams, which was where individuals would leave support in search of advancement within the company.
We identified five key functions and skills that are needed for an effective support organization. When we looked at everyone on our support team we saw people that excelled as a leader (Coach), those who love to make sure information is documented and shared (Scribe), some who were really good at critical thinking and solving complex problems (Technical), others that work really well with our development team to ensure issues are understood and properly prioritized (Marshal), and those with a strong service sense with a natural ability to connect with customers (Advocate).
The goal was to have each of the five different responsibilities to build a well-rounded support team. Everyone was encouraged to think about in which of the five areas they excelled. Teams were designed to facilitate collaboration, engage in joint activities and discussion, help each other, maintain efficiency for case escalation/resolution, and increase knowledge sharing. We formed seven teams based on our most common product areas, and each team had up to six people.
We created a one-year onboarding program to ensure that all new hires understand and embrace our methodology. We also created a mentorship program so every new hire could have a dedicated person to guide them.
We developed a training day called Support Experience for other departments in the company to learn about the support team. Attendees learn how the support team operates, what we do and how we do it and end the day job shadowing with support staff to learn about the tools and processes the team uses. One hundred fifty people have attended the Support Experience, and all future employees will attend as part of their orientation.
This program allowed us to educate the company on our values and purpose within the larger organization. When asked about their perceptions about Campus Support prior to the session, one of the attendees said, “I guess I thought it was a lower level position, but it seems like it is extremely challenging and the team works closely together and has fun.”
Gina shared her team’s transformation at HDI 2019 Conference & Expo.
The Key Takeaways
Kevin Costner was right. In the movie Field of Dreams he said, “If you build it, they will come!” Our referral rate for our new hires is 40%. Our company recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. The average tenure of the support team is 5 years. Some have been here as long as 15 years. In an industry where the average tenure is only 18 months and burnout is prevalent, our high retention rate reinforces that our changes are working.
Leadership is not a title. It is influence that inspires and motivates others to take action. Encourage everyone one your team to be a leader. You do not have to be a manager to be a leader. If you are a manager, be sure your leadership skills are in tip-top shape because most people do not want to be managed, they want to be led.
Be specific and intentional about the skills and behaviors that are needed on your team. Your culture is a by-product of your support strategy. A key ingredient to an autonomous team is having people that are able to self-manage and focus on adding value to every situation. Jim Collins said it best in the book Good to Great. “Get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”
It has been a labor of love these past six years. I am delighted to say that we are a team of critical thinkers that solve difficult problems, self-manage, and collaborate with others throughout the company. Support is a career!
Gina Montague has more than 25 years of leadership and customer service experience and has been part of the support industry for almost 20 years. Gina is passionate about staff development, process improvement, and creating positive customer experiences. She is the Support Services Manager for Infinite Campus, a student information system (SIS) for K-12 education. In 2019, under Gina’s leadership, the Campus Support team won HDI’s Team Excellence and Best Service and Support Culture Awards. Gina presents at national conferences and other industry events on a variety of topics related to world-class support. Follow Gina on Twitter @GinaMontague.