3 Things I Learned about Managing Customer Support by Being Insane about Christmas


So, I’m a little bit of a Christmas nut. To be honest, I’m pretty sure this is how I come across for most of December:

christmas gif
Among my favorite parts of the holiday season is the excuse to buy presents. My shopping efforts rely on a methodology that I’ve been slowly perfecting over the years. The O’Brien Technique combines rigorous list-making with a well-defined timeline and repeatable processes. (I told you, I lose my mind a little.)

This year, amidst the frenzy of Christmas shopping and end-of-year work deadlines, I had an epiphany. I realized the techniques I use for optimal gift acquisition are the same techniques we should all be using to master our customer support processes.

In this post, I’ll share my holiday support epiphany, boiling it down to three tips that you can use to make your customer support (and your holiday shopping) efficient and easy to manage.

Keep your information centralized

The cornerstone of my gift-buying methodology is keeping a Master Shopping List. No random scraps of paper, stored hither and thither. No. I have a project on Todoist that I maintain meticulously.

I use labels to keep track of who the present is for. Sub-projects for where it will come from (online? a brick-and-mortar shop? DIY?). Reminders will tell me if it’s time-sensitive or needs to happen in stages. If it doesn’t exist on The List, it doesn’t exist at all.

The biggest benefit of keeping a single, comprehensive source of information is that I never have to worry that I’m overlooking something. The List is the final word. The List knows all.

In support, we need to be able to say the same thing for our documentation, both internal and external. Data integrity (the boring, buttoned-up term for this phenomenon) helps us maximize the usefulness of the content we produce.

For our internal resources, this means being diligent about documenting our standard operating procedures. On-boarding checklists, training materials, style guides, project workflows—all of these should live in a central repository that’s easy for your team to navigate.

For external content—that is, our self-service—a strict information architecture is key. Define a short list of content types you’re going to host, and standardize the organization and tone of each.

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Whether internal or external, though, the best thing we can think about (and the thing that makes The List so effective every December) is the Single Source of Truth (SSOT) principle.

Like data integrity, this is another concept we’re borrowing from the world of data management. SSOT is all about having every piece of information live in one place.

Let’s say you have instructions in your internal wiki about how to log feature requests that come in from customers.

If you’re using SSOT, then the wiki is the only place, anywhere, that you’ll see instructions for that. Same goes for self-service. Instructions for activating a user account? One KB article. Would it be useful somewhere else? Too bad. Only replicate it if you can do it with code. You don’t want to have to maintain two copies of the same info.

Maintaining comprehensive, SSOT content for your support team and your customers means that whenever anyone has a question, you know just where to find the answer.

Schedule time to work on your goals

One of the easiest holiday traps to fall into is just figuring that you’ll get around to your shopping when you have the time. Incorrect! That’s how you end up getting people gift cards and scented candles!

The second point in my Christmas shopping manifesto is to schedule dedicated shopping days. And the trick to making the most of those days is to find a balance between advance planning and on-the-spot whimsy.

Let’s say it’s early December, and I’ve slated my first shopping excursion of the season.

By the time I head for the shops, I’ve written up an itinerary that covers the places I need to hit, the order I should visit them in, and any specific gifts I already know I need. But in addition to that, I’ll also have a couple of other browse-worthy shops on the list plus some unstructured time penciled in.

This might seem out of character, but I actually think it’s important not to overplan. (Really, I do!) Leave room for the serendipitous and spontaneous.

Just as amassing the perfect assortment of gifts doesn’t happen overnight, achieving your customer support goals also relies on scheduling time to review and refine them. Not only that, but finding that structure/flexibility balance is equally critical to meaningful goal-setting.

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You (and every member of your support team) should have a set of clearly articulated goals. These big picture aspirations provide a valuable framework that your day-to-day work fits into.

But in order to make progress on your goals, you have to spend time with them. Block off time to revisit your goals at regular intervals. Look at what you’ve done to move toward each of your goals, and then decide what the next steps are going to be.

Set a timeframe for when you want to be done and a metric for how you’ll know when you are. All good right? That’s the planning part.

The other part, though, is the serendipity. Look at any projects you’ve been working hard on that don’t fit into one of your stated goals. Chances are, if you’re spending time on it, it’s because it holds some kind of meaning for you.

If the project has value to the company and it has value to you, then don’t discard it. Adjust your goals to encompass it.

The point is, whether you’re building the perfect shopping itinerary or booking a couple of hours to get meta about your support goals, make sure you go into it with both framework and flexibility in mind.

Listen for and capture input with repeatable processes

The final prong of my tactical gift-procurement strategy is constant vigilance! All year round, I’ve got an eye out for gift-spiration.

Sister mentions that she has a new favorite comic book writer? Window display shows off a jacket clearly destined for my bestie? Favorite blog features the perfect local products for my coworkers? All of that is valuable intel that needs to be filed away.

Being on constant Gift Watch can use up a lot of bandwidth, though, if you’re not careful. I’ve found the secret to success here is to put the process on autopilot.

Every time a gift idea comes across my radar I do the exact same thing: I create a new task on Todoist. No frills—at this stage I don’t bother with labels or reminders or even assigning it to a project.

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Later, again at regular intervals, I’ll go through the backlog and file everything into its appropriate spot on The List. In the moment, though, I don’t even think about it. Moving from ‘Have gift idea’ to ‘Create task in Todoist’ has become an involuntary reflex.

The same kind of habits can be used to simplify the process of capturing, storing, and responding to customer input. Every day, your team is interacting with your customers, and every day, those customers are providing insights that you could use to serve them better.

But with that much raw information, you need to establish simple, repeatable processes for harnessing it.

It might be as simple as taking advantage of the tags you use for your support tickets. Schedule a monthly report with any tags that have had more than x number of tickets come in. Those are the topics to focus on in your next round of self-service edits.

You could also establish a standard process for capturing input from new advocates. Often we find that fresh eyes catch issues with our processes easier than the advocates who have been using them for years. A newbie might not be in a position to change things in their first couple months, but we capture their suggestions and save them all in a list so we can revisit it when their onboarding is complete.

Capturing ideas this way ensures we always have a backlog of small improvements to make.

Keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll be surprised how many useful insights are just floating around, waiting for you to turn them into a top-rated KB article or the perfect parcel to sneak under the tree.

Practice on your Christmas shopping

As I head out this week to pick up the last few items on The List, I’ll be thinking about some of the ways I can apply my Christmas (let’s call it) efficiency to some of our support projects in 2016. I hope these tips will inspire you to do the same!New call-to-action

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