July 10, 2018

How to establish the support department when you’re the first hire

Alright. So you're excited.

You just accepted the the customer support role and you're super pumped to start learning the new product or service, getting to know customers, and solving some problems.

There's perhaps just one tiny huge detail that might be causing you some stress: you're the first hire in the support department.

No one else except you.

We've definitely been there before.

In the SaaS or startup industry, you're essentially what we'd call a "hero role": someone who comes in as the first department hire who can either whip up any existing systems and processes into shape, or build it completely from scratch.

Whether you're a first-time head of support or a seasoned support professional tasked with building out a department, this post is for you.

1. Stop panicking

First thing's first: stop panicking.If you're hyperventilating right now and freaking out, just take a deep breath so you can start thinking clearly (read: strategically).

It will feel natural to immediately start responding to support tickets and talking to customers before you've really had a chance to onboard yourself.



And if you were already managing support solo before being asked to grow the department, then taking a pause to view the department from a bird's eye view will be a tremendous help.

"When you're in a hero role for support, the first challenge is to stop panicking. You have to remind yourself that you're not operating a nuclear power plant. It's definitely important to keep a cool head," according to Sven Maschek, Head of Global Support and Operations for Hull.

2. Analyze the current state of support

If you're brand new to the role or if you're already a veteran in your company, you'll still need to take a step back and really look at the support function as a whole.There's a few questions that come to mind:

  • How is support currently being managed?
  • Who is the primary point of contact when responding to customers?
  • What is the current volume of support requests?
  • What platform are they currently being managed in?

And then finally:

  • Where does the company want to be in 1 - 2 years?
  • How about 5 years?

Based on your current state of support and where the company wants to be in the next 2 years, you'll be able to fill in the gaps between current and future states.

3. Use the support vision as your guiding light

Not all support philosophies are created equal.We all want to be "customer first", but embodying that is an entirely different story.

Based on your company culture, mission, and values, what does the support function need to embody to represent that?

If the support team doesn't have core values or a defined vision, you might want to take the time to develop one.

A mission statement for the support team might seem kind of hokey, but in tough times, it will center and realign your team back to what matters: the customer and what you represent to the customer.

Conversely, a mission statement will also rally the team when you fulfill that mission statement and serve as a reminder for constant growth and embodiment of that mission.

4. Operationalize wisely

In the startup world, you're constantly analyzing the processes and activities that scale, and don't scale.

On the one hand, you don't really have to worry about what scales simply because there's no way to prepare for the twists and turns your company will experience on the journey.

And on the other, there's definitely situations that should just globally be avoided.

Because you're the first hire, you'll need to figure out the best balance between managing and scaling your output and giving certain projects (and customers) your undivided attention.

"It's always the first gut instinct for the hero support role to immediately start building knowledge bases and jump into supporting customers," says Thomas Bass, an experienced customer success and support manager who's served in his fair share of startups and enterprise companies.

"But I'd argue there's only value in building that infrastructure if there's truly a need to operationalize it in the first place. I recommend heads of support start with a churn cohort analysis. It's the only way to know where to put your time when building the department."

I say all of this to say: operationalize wisely.After analyzing the current state of support and determining where you need to go, you'll be able to identify the gaps and the metrics that would indicate a success.Some examples include:

  • Decreasing the time to respond
  • Improving customer NPS
  • Working with customer success on reducing churn rates
  • Working with sales, marketing, and customer success on better retention strategies and targeting
  • Decreasing the number of open tickets

5. Solve one problem at a time

It's going to feel like the world is on fire until you're able to scale the team and delegate.

But splitting your attention between priorities is probably one of the worst things you can do.

Don't fall into the trap of feeling like you need to move mountains all at once.

Start with one project and knock it out before moving on to the next.

“The support hero role really puts your problem-solving and prioritization skills to the test,” says Lindsay Trinkle, Head of Customer Success at Landing Lion.

“It’s important to clearly define the problems you are trying to solve and sort them by importance and urgency so you can keep your head on straight and actually move the needle in building out a strong support department.”

6. Find the tools that support your strategy

We're big believers in implementing the tools that help you scale yourself and your team.

But we also believe it needs to support your support strategy. "Find the tools to support you in your strategy. The last thing you want to do is [put] everything in something that isn’t manageable," says Sven.

"Don’t change your support philosophy just because of a tool. Make the tool work for you.”

7. Get internal buy-in

It's important for support to have a seat at the table - especially in the early stages.

Support and customer success are crucial parts of the business, and when the company works hard to acquire customers that either aren't profitable or end up churning, this in turn impacts the growth of the company.

When building your department from ground zero, don't forget the importance of building rapport with other department leaders and getting internal buy-in from your peers.

As the business makes decisions regarding customers and money moves, support needs to be represented in some kind of way (aka you).When other department leaders (i.e. product, marketing, and sales) need key insights into how customers are using the platform, the problems they have, and big wins you have, support should be there to provide that information.

Never forget that support is part of the growth function.“Support heroes have the daunting task of becoming the company’s true customer experts while also putting out fires and solving pressing customer problems,” says Lindsay.

“Be sure to not get too caught up in the problems themselves and forget to invest time in developing empathy for the customer, gathering data to validate your assumptions about customer desires, and getting really familiar with the entire customer experience. These aspects of the support hero role are crucial to the company’s growth”.

Having that kind of voice internally is important, and once lost, is very hard to regain.