Building a Better Support Team

Building a Better Support Team

Mason has made his share of mistakes when creating a support team. Here's what he has learned in the process and how he tried to fix it.

One of the more interesting tasks I’ve had this year is building a support team for WPMU DEV. At the beginning of 2011 we hired two support reps to work alongside myself, handling the various support inquiries that came through. We were growing and I needed the help!

DEV has always functioned from a place of the independent freelancer; you can work on your own time, at your own place, and to a large degree all by yourself. So we hired two incredibly gifted people, showed them the support forums and off we went.

Flash forward to the beginning of 2012 and we had lost both of them. While there are many reasons why a person would leave a company or be let go, I took a big part of the responsibility on myself:  I now had an exactly 0% success rate in hiring. These guys were hand-picked by myself and James (CEO at WPMU DEV) and now we were back at square one. On starting again, I knew things had to be different.

In December of last year we hired one new rep, then in January another. This was followed by four others in March. Here’s a few of the things we did wrong the first time around and how we’ve changed things this time.

Create measurable metrics for success

Last year we had no way to track anything. Seriously. Adding basic statuses to our threads such as “open” and “resolved” was the most obvious item we implemented but now we even take things quite a bit further: we track how many new posts and threads are created by members and staff. We know how many per hour, day, week, month and year. This helps us spot trends, know when things are likely to be most hectic and when we need our support crew to be on deck.

This also means that we know just about how many posts per team member need to be made by each team member in order to keep up with customer demand. This is hugely beneficial. How can anyone expect to be successful if they don’t know what success looks like?  The answer is that they can’t. Our supporters know on average how many posts they should be responding to. This benchmark, while imperfect, really has made a huge difference for the team.

Immediate and consistent feedback

Sure, you can have numeric values as a measure of success, but providing support isn’t the same as painting by numbers. We have a very specific tone we want to convey with support at WPMU DEV. With our new hires, I read through almost every thread they wrote over the first month or two. I provided detailed feedback on individual threads pointing out all the things I really liked and the times I thought something should have been addressed differently.

This allowed me to model the type of support we wanted and make sure everyone was on board. It’s a tricky balance and also I’m quite certain that I don’t always handle things in the best way; just because something’s not done exactly the way I’d do it doesn’t make it incorrect. The goal is allow individual personalities to come through while still providing a consistent experience for the members.

Additionally, we started allowing members to provide feedback by marking whether or not they felt they had been helped on each thread. This is tracked and the support reps can see both their average percentage and how that compares to the team average (our current average across the entire team is 94.9% for August). This method of feedback is important to members (they get to express how they feel about the level of support) but most of the members on the team also keep close tabs on how they’re doing. When they get a negative response, they are quick to check it out and see if there’s anything they could have done better.

Supporters are communicators

I mean, really, all support staff does is communicate. A good supporter has a strong desire to see other people succeed and needs to maintain a positive attitude even when things aren’t so positive (hint: if someone’s on a support forum, it’s probably because something isn’t going just right). Being social creatures means there’s a great benefit to providing outlets to communicate with each other. In 2011, we had no real “team” atmosphere within the support staff. We communicated a bit on IM or twitter, but only when one of us was stuck on a particular item and needed an extra set of eyes.

This year, we started group meetups. Since the team is all over the world, we have 2 different meetings based on time zones. We started with group Skype chats but have since moved on to Google Hangouts. Quite simply, these are freaking awesome. We talk shop for a bit, but there’s plenty of time to share life and be more than a little silly. Video makes a big difference as well: it really helps you feel connected to the people on your team and also stops folks from multi-tasking (previously a couple of my reps would continue providing support – even while we were on the call). While I’ve never met any of them in real life, I still feel like I have because I see them on a weekly basis.

Lead by example

One of my primary goals in leading the team is to always have its best interest at heart. I support the support staff, so to speak. There are times when members get out of line, upset, and even shockingly rude. Particularly when someone is new to support this can be difficult to handle. I made it clear early on that that sort of behavior is not tolerated. If someone has to come in and lay down the law or be the bad guy, the whole team knows that I will jump in and take action immediately and decisively. Yes, they are all capable of handling a verbally abusive customer and do it with amazing poise, but they do so at their own choice. They know I’m just an IM or email a way and will take action on their behalf.

I also support the team by continuing to take on real customer support requests myself. I don’t work “above” the rest of the team but rather, as much as possible, right alongside them. I get stuck on tricky member problems myself and turn to them as a second set of eyes. Working together on problems and verifying results on multiple test installs has proven to be a really fantastic form of team building.

You have to want it

Finally and perhaps most obviously, you have to want to be part of a support team. Last year we didn’t believe it was necessary and didn’t concern ourselves with it. This year we know better. We need an entire team for us to be successful at WPMU DEV and that means taking the initiative to create what could be a very isolated work environment and turn it into a community, team-oriented experience. If you’re not genuinely invested in seeing the team succeed, your crew will know this. Being “pro-teamwork” will lead to a happier, more productive staff, that’s willing to go the extra mile and stick around for longer.

Have you built an online team of folks that have never met in real life? How do you handle your team?  What mistakes have you made?


  1. says

    At Copyblogger, we have a couple of Skype chat rooms running all day where out support staff is in contact as long as we’re online. :)

    With different department, sometimes we do have overlap, so it helps when users & customers get lost. Knowing what everyone else is up to during the day is great too, especially if there’s a sudden influx of posts. ;)

    If someone needs special handling or we need a hand, have a question another mod can answer, we’re all connected to help each other out.

    • Mason James says

      I think if I had a group chat going all the time while working I’d never get a darn thing done… but I’m super easily distracted :)

      Agree with ya that kind of collaborative atmosphere is super helpful in terms of overall success. Especially when all of your members decide that 2:30pm on a Tuesday is when they should post a new request. ;)

  2. says

    I think we had the same problem in the first year of Mecus. We were only two people, but our company was a mess. The success of being here four years after and growing was our ticketing system, which we developed in our first year. Our key to success is an internal system (WP-based, of course) that lets you know what you are doing, and allows you to automate some of your daily work. Of course, as you said, you need to lead by example and use it too. It was a really difficult thing for us. When you are only two and work in the same room, thinking in have an order for your work seems nonsense. You have GMail and you can make a search! After some failed projects because of our work system, we learned to take our time to order everything, work in documentation, etc.

    Finally, the success with clients came with P2. With an internal plugin to tweak it and allow the users to interact via email, P2 is the perfect tool to communicate with clients :). We use a MultiSite with a general read-only Q&A for all clients, and a single P2 per client and/or project. In this P2 is always everything about their projects, schedules, issues, etc. Everything ordered, traceable, and almost up to date :)

    • Mason James says

      Exactly. Track all the things! Internal systems will make or break you. I’m learning that all over the place these days :)

      Great notes about using P2. We use for internal communication as well (also slightly modified). I know several companies out there that use P2 in some form or fashion and it’s always a bit different and often surprising. Would be a cool idea for a post someday…

      Thanks for sharing!

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