April 11, 2018

How to Prioritize Your Support Tickets

Solving problems and answering questions for our customers was always a joy - until it became too insurmountable to answer requests in a reasonable time.

After all, "This is fine" was our mantra (and it certainly kept us sane), but we needed a better system.So we sat down and did our homework.What do other companies do to manage their tickets?

The Proof

Super Office quotes a study by Fonolo that 82% of customers say the number one factor to great customer service is having their issues resolved quickly.1

Research by The Rockefeller Corporation found that 82% of customers will leave you and shop elsewhere if they are unhappy with the service you provide or if they feel that you do not care about them.And when customers are unhappy, they will share their experience.According to White House Office of Consumer Affairs, an unhappy customer will tell between 9-15 people about their experience While 13% of unhappy customers will tell more than 20 people.2And research by Nielsen-McKinsey found that a negative post on social media has the same impact on a customers’ decision as five positive social media posts!3

Okay. Great. There's certainly proof here to invest.We knew that putting in the effort of creating and implementing a better ticket prioritization process would be worthwhile, but what exactly were other companies doing? Were there commonalities between each system?

Turns out - very much yes!

We did quite a bit of research and pulled together the actual, real-life strategies that teams are using to prioritize their tickets.

Thanks to a few Zendesk communities and other resources from Jitbit and Helpscout, we found some excellent first-hand accounts.This article organizes these prioritization strategies into categories along with our thoughts on the pros and cons of each.[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="800"]

Emoji rating for All Trails; by Hayden Mills[/caption]

How Winning Teams Prioritize Support Tickets

1. Emotional / Severity Prioritization

This one was a shock even to me because it asks the customer to rate the priority of the bug or ticket based on how they're feeling or on how severe they think the ticket is.

"How severe would you rate this issue?"

"How much of a blocker is this?"

"How are you feeling right now with ZYX company?"

Customers can rate on a scale (or sometimes even with emojis) how severe the ticket is, and agents can then tackle the most severe tickets first and the less severe tickets right after.

Pros: You get an understanding of how some issues make people feel and what people consider to be "severe" or "blocking" in their day-to-day. This can be incredibly useful in the early days of a startup or for less complex products and services.

Cons: If customers only reach out to you because they have a crucial problem (think like banking), you'll probably always have high-priority or negative-sentiment tickets.

It's also much more challenging to understand what's actually the problem and the real level of severity, so many organizations opt to hide the actual level of severity since customers might not like seeing their tickets de-prioritized.

2. First-Come, First-Served

Ah, the simple days! First-come, first-served prioritization is perhaps one of the most common systems for prioritizing tickets. As tickets come in, you handle the oldest ones since they are considered "first" as confirmed by Jess Byrne from HelpScout:

For smaller teams, it’s generally best to help on a first-come, first-served basis.That means tackling the oldest tickets first. On the other hand, picking and choosing is a great way to give customers with tougher problems the attention they deserve and those with simpler problems a faster reply.5

There's a ton of debate on whether or not this is a viable option. From what we've gathered, it completely depends on your business model, your product, and your customers.But if you choose the first-come, first-served model, keeping it simple is key according to Jitbit:

New/ Open tickets need to be answered asap. Respond and let the customer know the case is being handled. Leave it open. In-Progress tickets are already being handled by another rep. No need to jump in here unless it has been re-assigned to you. Instead, focus your attention on the next Open request. Pending/ On-hold ticket status is assigned whenever you’re waiting for a reply or asking for more information. Closed/Solved ticket status is pretty self-explanatory. A solution has already closed the case. Keep moving.

These are just a few basic status examples to model off. A solid support ticket system will allow you to customize the status your team decides to use.6

Pros: Tickets are completed in order, from oldest to newest. Prioritization and management are extremely predictable.

Cons: Are all customers created equal? Probably not. This system means time spent on customers that might not be cost-effective for the business. Plus, your team runs the risk of burning more time on more complex issues because they aren't strategically prioritized ahead of time.Some tickets require a plan for tackling, troubleshooting, and fixing - and you might find yourself scrambling to put fires out before you're actually prepared to.

3. Account-Type Prioritization

A. Plan or Package-Based

Sometimes the best and most cost-effective way to prioritize tickets is through the type of product or plan the customer has. For example, prioritize the tickets of customers who pay for the Enterprise plan over the Free plan.

Here's an example from another Zendesk community member:

IMO, integrating our billing system with Zendesk was critical. Every customer that signs up, upgrades, downgrades, or cancels, we perform an API callback to Zendesk and create or edit the user. We also add them to specific Orgs depending on the aforementioned actions.Consumer - Free Consumer - Premium Consumer - ProThis ensures we always have the most accurate information about our customers.

Also, if someone is not a customer and sends an email to us, we setup a trigger to send them an automated reply and auto-close the ticket. We then created triggers when a customer sends an email or submits a request via the portal. Depending on their Org and which email they send to (,, etc.), we automatically assign to the appropriate Group and Category. I then create views based on Category.For example: New Tickets - Billing New Tickets - Premium/Pro New Tickets - Free Open Tickets - Billing Open Tickets - Premium/Pro Open Tickets - Free I also have  views for management purposes, such as tickets that are unsolved within X days, pending more than X days, etc.8

Tackling tickets by plan is a very common practice - especially among SaaS companies with freemium or free trial models. In fact, this Zapier employee did this exact prioritization strategy according to this HelpScout article:

At Zapier, we try to give tickets from users on our Business, Business Plus, and Infrastructure plans a look before working from the oldest tickets. This is based on the philosophy that if they are paying more, you should give them more attention.9

Pros: You focus on paying customers - which in theory creates an amazing experience for those who pay a premium and in turn can help reduce churn. You'll also be focusing on the most profitable parts of your business - which minimizes burn.

Cons: Can tend to alienate the customers with free plans or smaller packages based on their pricing tier - especially if paid plans (or premium plans) always take priority.A great example is Google Analytics. For 90% of GA's users, the product is free - so if there's an issue, GA de-prioritizes them in order to focus on the 10% that do pay for the tool.In retrospect, Google invested a lot of time in creating self-service troubleshooting and knowledge base articles to decrease the number of support tickets they get.

B. SLA or Contract-Based

"SLA" is an acronym for service-level agreement - usually a part of some larger contract signed by the customer and the organization.It defines the level of support engagement when the customer needs help with the product or service they've purchased.

SLAs come in all shapes and sizes, but can dictate anything from maximum response time, to an incoming ticket or email, to assigning a specific support agent (i.e. "We promise to respond to Company B within 4 hours. Company B's designated support agent is Sven").SLAs can also take the form of "tiers" - i.e. Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 SLA where each tier has some predefined set of service.

No matter the type of SLA, some organizations choose to prioritize based on their customer's level of service - and sometimes even on if that SLA was an added cost or included in the overall quote of the contract.Here's how one Zendesk community member puts it:

Automation rules can also be set to notify administrators when SLAs or internal response schedules have been violated.For example: When ticket hasn’t been updated for 1 hour AND has priority “Critical” AND comes from Company ABC, send XYZ email alert to admin/technician the company is assigned to: This type of automation gets support tickets in front of the right people, at the right time, increasing the chances of a fast resolution.4

Pros: Depending on the nature and complexity of your product / service, this could be an extremely clear way to manage tickets. I've seen this in incredibly complex and customized SaaS products and also consulting firms where the number of clients is a smaller, more manageable pool.

Cons: This can get a little messy if you have hundreds, thousands, and millions of customers - especially if not every single one of them has an SLA.You'll also need to find a way to make sure your support team can quickly identify which tier or SLA the customer is on if and when they submit a ticket so they know how to handle it properly. Integrations between CRM and your ticket management system will be crucial here.

C. VIP Status

Not that they do, but Trello could easily prioritize support by people they consider VIP - or in this case, "Gold".[/caption]In the same vein as the SLA option along with a stark comparison to first-come, first-served, designating VIP status to certain customers can be another way to prioritize tickets as we found in the Zendesk community.There's a subset of customers whom take first priority over all others, and then for non-VIP customers, you manage some secondary way (typically first-come, first-served).


Step 1. Tag Users and Organizations with VIP or any other designation that sets them apart from the rest.

Step 2. Use triggers to search incoming tickets for keywords in order to add tags and/or set ticket fields, forms, groups, agents, etc.

Step 3. Utilize tags and/or ticket fields to sort tickets into actionable groupings (views). We have views for VIP, Emergency, Password Reset, and then Everything Else.

Step 4. Prioritize the views and tickets within them. Most important views go at the top. Most important tickets should be at the top of their respective view.

Step 5. Let the agents loose. Let them know to attack the tickets top to bottom. Topmost view, topmost ticket first. When that view is empty move on to the next. It's like a game to get each view to zero every day!7

Pros: Another very crystal-clear way to prioritize tickets and handle customer requests while also making your most important customers feel extra special. Tickets are ordered and prioritized accordingly.

Cons: Can easily alienate non-VIP customers if they're aware of the VIP status. You'll also need to make sure you can tag customers appropriately with VIP status as part of your support operations function.This also begs to have an extra prioritization layer for non-VIP customers - how do you prioritize them after you sift out the VIPs?

4. Skill-Based aka "Triaging"

This one we learned from HelpScout. "Triaging" your ticket queue means you assign tickets based on an agent's skill-level or knowledge-level with the particular issue.

Some teams purposely hire support members who are strong in one area.These teams also often triage tickets to their teammates. Sometimes the manager will assign tickets to those with relevant strengths and other times, triage will be a rotating role on the support team.Each week, one person could be responsible for keeping an eye on the queue and volume per teammate and assign tickets accordingly.10

Typically you'll divide your teams by the skillset or knowledge base - for example, "hardware support", "network support", "password support", and so on as is the case below—further validated by a Zendesk community member:

We give our end users the ability to select their issue category using Ticket Forms.  Our end users log in via our SSO authentication where they are able to select their issue category.  Our help center is internal only.  We have the following ticket forms setup:Hardware SupportApplication SupportNetwork SupportPrinter\Copier SupportPassword SupportTelephone SupportOther11

From there, you can identify key skills by team member and assign tickets regarding those specific issues based on keywords, queries, and more. And if triaging isn't for you, there's always this option:

If triaging doesn’t work for your team, tagging tickets by subject matter and having teammates pick and choose subjects relevant to their skill sets is an alternative.12

Combos Are Best

If there's one thing that's certain, a combination of these prioritization strategies is the common thread among all successful support teams. Few teams use exactly one and only one strategy - especially as the business grows and the team has to support more customers.So when designing or revamping your prioritization strategy, consider starting out simple and layering on one or more of these as you grow, expand, and continue crushing those queues.

Ticket Prioritization Backed by AI

What if you could prioritize, match, and manage your queue with the power of machine learning directly from your favorite help desk system?Imagine being able to get the bird's eye view of your support tickets, one-to-one emails with your customers, and even customer Slack channels - all in one place and more.That's the power of Veamly.Click here to request your free account.


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