Building an Onboarding and Training Program in Customer Support


There are so many different ways to onboard new employees with a training program. It can be hard to know which way to start, especially if it’s your first time.

You need to consider what kind of culture you are trying to foster, what priorities you want your team to have, and make a plan to preemptively correct problems and questions before they’ve even come up. It’s like trying to read the future without knowing what happened in the past!

To help you build your own customer support training program, I’ve collected some key insights from managers at other SaaS and tech-industry companies to help make sure you’re getting it right from the get-go.

3 Principles of a good customer support training program

Consider the three below as entry points as you get more detail in creating a training program that works:

  1. Set up documentation
  2. Collaborate with your team
  3. Don’t let training fade out

1. Set up documentation

Good docs right from the start

As a customer support professional, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of good documentation. The same goes for your employees! Make sure you are setting up an environment that lets people learn in a way that makes the most sense for them and allows them to find answers to any of the common questions that they might have. Companies like TeamSnap and Kayako (as well as Trello ourselves) use Trello boards for training and onboarding.

Your training can include HR boards (which would have information such as how vacation works for your company, and what your health benefits look like); a Support Onboarding board (which includes information about how the support team works, what tools your team will need access to, and any important foundational principles they will need to learn), and an overarching Support Planning board which functions as your team’s home base.

Jenn Southan, Director of Customer Support at TeamSnap says “not only does [this] allow the new employee to see everything that’s coming, it also allows them to work autonomously with checklists and other information for what they need to get set up.”

Continue updating docs

Your internal documentation should never go stale. You know how you cringe when a customer emails in about an out-of-date screenshot? You should feel the same way about the things your employees use to learn, too. Implement a tool that notifies you when a document hasn’t been updated in a few months, and be sure to create a culture of over-documenting for your team.

That way, your internal customers (AKA your employees) will never provide the wrong answer mistakenly, and they will feel empowered to keep learning about the nuances of your product. Similarly, as they create internal resources, they will also expand their skills to be even better at writing docs for the outside world.

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Provide role clarity

One of the key things to document that often gets overlooked in the first round of training is: what can an employee expect of their role in the months (and maybe even years!) to come? Jason Schleifer, Head of Creator Success at Nimble Collective, includes a 3-month checklist in the onboarding documentation for his new employees. Along with showing the person what they can expect from the next few months of training, it “focuses on clarity in the role and how customer success fits into the company and how to find empowerment [in the role].”

At Trello, we do this by creating checklists of the employee’s role responsibilities over the first three months. We also share a list of the questions to consider before the first, second and third-month status check-ins that we hold on top of our weekly one-on-ones. This gives the employee a framework to understand where they are going, but also to see how their performance is stacking up to our expectations.

Kayako does something similar. They have mapped out an internal career ladder and listed the  set of specific responsibilities that they expect from each role. Along with an expectation of traits, skills, and behaviours of the people who fill that role. All to make it possible to move between roles move between roles.

2. Involve all of your team

Set up a good mentor program

In Kayako’s Advanced Guide to Customer Service Training they write “One-to-one training is vital for new employees. Ensure they don’t sit in a room isolated and bemused by the software before them. They’ll end up resenting the company, when all they needed was a mentor.”

Mentors serve as an excellent sounding board and buddy for people within the first few days of their employment. It also helps to set up people are lifelong peers and supporters. So, pick your mentors carefully.

Mentors should be people who have a solid knowledge on the product itself, exceptional patience (even for a support person), and a drive to see others succeed. While they don’t need to have an interest in management, many of the skills of mentorship do lend themselves to that career path.

At Trello, we set up an in-depth schedule between the new employee and the mentor over the course of the first week, after which they are left to create a schedule that works for the two of them best. Usually, we have the same few employees work as mentors each time we have new team members onboarding.

Develop your other non-new members

Having new employees come aboard the team gives you an excuse to provide opportunities for other, non-new members of the team. For example, think if there are any people who were too new last time you hired, but now might be a great fit for mentorship. Similarly, with your hands full with onboarding and management, maybe there’s something that you usually do that you could pass off to someone else?

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Chances are, if it’s something that you really love to do or are really excited about, one of your employees is equally (if not more so!) excited about it. They deserve the chance and you, as their manager, should give that to them.

Make an effort to connect remote teams in person

No matter who you talk to, we all agree that it’s important that the people from remote teams meet close to the start of their employment. At Trello, we fly in the new employees, and a few of our older team members to one of our office locations during their first week. Alison Groves of Highrise disagrees, though. At Highrise, they usually wait until the third or fourth week to “let the person get settled in a bit, pick up some basics. More nuanced questions will arise in later weeks, and those are better discussed in person.”

Depending on what kind of product you are training the people on—and if your team is remote—you can tailor your own onboarding schedule to modify when your team actually meets in-person.

3. Don’t give up after the first 3 months

Employees in stale roles get frustrated

If you stop giving your employees opportunities for training and leveling up after their first three months, they will get bored. As Kayako says in the The Advanced Guide to Customer Service Training, “your team will experience a building frustration about carrying out the same tasks with the usual customers each day.”

You wouldn’t teach a child to read and then never give them a book again, would you? Then don’t do the same to your employees. Continue to give them opportunities to grow and learn and shift their roles in ways outside of the inbox.

At Trello and Kayako, we do this by implementing OKRs. Every quarter, we have a new set of projects that people can work on that will push their limits to grow professionally and personally. Because of this, we have an average CSAT in the 90th percentile, and an average turnover rate of one person every two years.

Have a training/education budget

If you have a formalized training and education budget, people are much more likely to take advantage of it. Encourage your employees to go to conferences, pick up books on support, or do secondary trainings in hard skills like Javascript or learning a second language. Having a budget shows them that, not only do you think it’s important, but you think that it’s important enough that they shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket or use their own time.

At Trello, along with a generous training and education budget, we also do something that we call Out of the Queue (OOTQ) time. What this means is every person on the support team has a mandatory chunk of their time spent out of the queue working on OKR projects or personal development. The amount of time normally adds up to about 20% of their 40-hour weeks, thus leading some companies to call it 20% Time.

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Implement growth processes

Similar to the point above about making sure that your new employees know what is expected of them in their first three months, create processes so that your support team employees know what growth looks like.

One of the leading reasons for dissatisfaction in their role that I’ve heard from support people is feeling like the only path that they could take to grow was management. This is never the case, so make sure you let your people know where the opportunities for growth are and work with them to understand which would be the best fit for their personality and skills.

Don’t forget to give (and take) feedback

Always be offering consistent positive and constructive feedback to your employees. This is especially critical in the first three months of a new hire.

As a new employee, they are determining their comfort zone and where they fit within the team. By offering insights to them in the form of feedback, you help to shape where they see themselves and where they focus their attention. It also lets them figure out it, conversely, maybe your company isn’t a great fit for them. It’s better to learn as much about each other as possible before the first three months is up. Along with offering, always ask for it, too.

A culture of feedback is a culture of growth, and your team will continuously strive to be better if you let them know where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

A training program is just the start of your growth-driven culture

A training program does not end in the first week or the first three months. Create a culture of learning and growth throughout your team, and you will see exponential improvements in how your whole team approaches customer support and success.

Keep an open mind about opportunities and letting your team flex into areas that might seem strange at first. Allow them to share their learnings with the team as a whole through updated, in-depth documentation and watch as your whole support strategy shifts and becomes even more elevated.

Allow for clear communication (both verbally, in person or over video, and written in documentation) to help keep everyone on the same page and allow people to find information asynchronously. Mostly, encourage curiosity and out of the box thinking, and it will end up supporting and benefiting your whole team.

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