Customer service management: What it is, why it’s important, and how to supercharge your team

Get customer service management right to improve employee retention and customer loyalty.

By Whitney Rhodes

Published June 12, 2014
Last updated October 27, 2021

Customer service management is the practice of empowering your support team with the tools, training, and day-to-day support they need to deliver exceptional customer service experiences. It’s arguably the most difficult job out there, even when you’re lucky enough to lead a team of talented professionals.

There will always be challenges, but the lessons, tips, and philosophies in this customer service management guide will help you cultivate agents who are engaged with their work and primed to provide your customers with great service.

Why is customer service management important?

Customer service management affects not only agent performance, but also employee engagement—and in turn, customer satisfaction.

The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021 revealed that good management and a positive workplace culture have a significant impact on agents’ ability to do their jobs well. Nearly 40 percent of agents said the quality of management has the biggest influence on their job performance, while over 50 percent reported a supportive work environment as the No. 1 factor in their effectiveness at work.

What’s more, a joint study by Zendesk and Culture Amp discovered that more engaged customer teams scored about 10 percent higher in customer satisfaction.

So, how do you go about managing a customer service team to improve employee engagement and build customer loyalty?

Motivate your customer service team with rewards and recognition

Reward and recognize

Showing appreciation and acknowledging accomplishments can help ensure the success and positive attitude of your employees.

Every company has a different culture and requires a unique approach. Be sure to customize your rewards and recognition program to reflect the norms and values of the environment you want to create.

As you start to experiment with what works best for your team, we recommend you:

  • Set achievable goals

    You’re most likely already setting feasible daily and weekly customer service goals. Understanding and communicating these baseline goals makes it easier to define what it means to go the extra mile.

    When you put goals in place, your team knows what you expect of them. This allows them to measure their own success, which is critical to reducing stress and improving employee satisfaction.

    It’s important to tell your agents how each goal addresses business needs, too. By connecting individual agent and team goals to company goals, you provide your team with more context on the important role they play within the organization as a whole.

    You’ll also want to map agent goals to specific customer experience KPIs, like customer satisfaction score, average resolution time, and first contact resolution. Then, give your agents access to a customer service software solution and analytics tool like Zendesk. Zendesk not only makes it easy for agents to keep track of customer data and customer feedback, but it also provides visibility into their individual performance.

  • Be selective about who you reward

    When rewards become normalized, employees stop striving for them. Save moments of recognition for when team members go the extra mile.

    To start, set up guidelines for how often you want to recognize your agents. Then make sure, as a manager, that you’re identifying remarkable achievements. Another way to reward your staff is to recognize when they've just finished a tough call or handled a difficult experience well.

    You can also take a page out of Zendesk’s playbook: We give a “Needful Trophy” to our support reps who excel in their work; it’s then up to them to pass the trophy on to the next person who goes above and beyond for a customer. This is a great way to raise the bar by allowing the people doing the hard work to determine what merits deserve praise.

    Using a trophy emoji as a Slack reaction serves a similar purpose. It’s a simple way to show appreciation whenever someone helps a colleague from across the company by providing super-thorough advice or an answer to an obscure question, for example.

  • Employee recognition

  • Encourage your staff to praise each other, too

    As a manager, you’re not the only person who should be calling out good work. Encourage your staff to reward one another when they achieve milestones and do great things.

    At Zendesk, we all use Slack to give each other shout-outs. Sometimes the praise is mentioned within a small group, and sometimes it gets broadcast to the whole company. We’ll use anything—from a local team channel to the global #humblebrag channel—to show support for one another.

    You can even get your customers in on the action. Agent Slack Shoutouts, a Zendesk integration, automatically shares positive customer satisfaction (CSAT) reviews with teams in Slack. This approach uses the customer’s own words to celebrate the agents who work hard to keep them happy or who go above and beyond to solve an issue. It’s a great way to call attention to impressive customer interactions and boost agent morale.

  • Be genuine

    While some people like a little fanfare, others prefer a quiet word of encouragement. So remember: One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to rewards and recognition.

    Your staff will recognize your appreciation as genuine if you take the time to offer praise that appeals to their personalities. For example, an extroverted employee might appreciate public recognition in the form of a special shout-out during a team meeting. A more private person, on the other hand, may find an old-fashioned thank-you note more meaningful.

Support your team, especially during busy times

Stay cool

There are going to be times when you don’t have enough customer service staff to meet demand. Sometimes, it's due to the typical sick days, holiday seasons, and new product releases that are a part of normal operations. Other times, it's because of more unusual circumstances (and the pandemic has certainly brought plenty of those).

To cope, it’s best to devise a customer service management strategy for days when your support team is struggling to keep up with the number of tickets. Here’s what can help in those special situations:

  • Be upfront with your team

    The first thing to do is let your team know that you’re short-staffed. Keep them engaged by explaining why you’re behind instead of just asking them to work more. If the extra workload is going to extend past one day, it’s best to schedule additional hours and set clear expectations regarding how much more time people will work.

    This is a great time to make sure you’re using your rewards and recognition strategies to help keep your team motivated through long hours.

  • Give your team permission to triage their work

    Cancel all your meetings and postpone any nonessential activities—ask your staff to do the same so they can focus on the high-priority task at hand.

    You should also evaluate the day’s work: Are there any tickets that your team doesn’t need to answer right away? If so, save them for a day when you’re not understaffed. Are there any simple tickets that someone from a different department can answer? If so, see if that person can help. If your company is customer-focused, most—if not all—of the employees should have some basic training on how to respond to simple support tickets.

  • Reduce the pressure on your agents with customer self-service

    Customer self-service empowers customers to take care of their own questions and needs, allowing your call center agents to focus on more complicated customer interactions. Aside from increasing agent efficiency, self-service can also cut down costs and improve the overall experience for customers.

    When Stanley Black & Decker added Zendesk’s self-service web tool and updated its help center content, the company’s customer satisfaction rate jumped to 90 percent. The web tool in particular increased sales by 500 percent over the previous year.

    Customers prefer to help themselves, so leverage knowledge-base content as well as intelligent automation and routing, like interactive voice response (IVR) technology and AI-powered chatbots. These types of self-service options will help reduce the number of requests your agents handle on a daily basis.

    Zendesk’s help center software makes it easy for agents to update and contribute to self-service content, helping customers find more accurate answers—faster.

Define responsibilities for your customer service team

Remain connected

Amid a global pandemic, many customer service teams have been forced to go entirely virtual. Managing a distributed customer service team comes with its perks—as well as a few challenges.

Distributed teams can provide prompt support to international customers if they’re spread across multiple time zones and regions. Remote employees also tend to enjoy the flexibility of work-from-home life. If they feel good at work, they’re likely to deliver service that leaves customers happy, too.

On the other hand, leading a team when you’re not in the same physical location is different than what most customer service managers are used to. The same is true for customer service representatives. Your team may feel lonely or distracted and even struggle with time management.

If you’re supervising a distributed customer service team, keep agents connected and accountable by doing the following:

  • Set clear expectations for working hours

    Decide whether you need an on-call schedule, and figure out how to structure it to cover periods of high traffic. Give your agents flexibility where you can—one of the benefits of remote work is that it gives your employees the ability to work during their most productive hours instead of strictly from nine to five.

  • Meet on the regular

    A consistent meeting cadence sets expectations for agents and helps them feel connected, giving them that “face-to-face” time they might miss from not working in an office. It also gives managers regular visibility into agent workflows and progress. So, you might want to set daily morning stand-up meetings or midday check-ins, for example.

  • Experiment with communication tools and channels

    Don’t hold tight to the tools you used in your in-office work environment if they don’t make sense anymore. Instead, experiment with new communication and customer service software, and figure out the right combination of email, phone, and video conferencing that works for your distributed team.

    If you’re using Slack, create designated channels for your team. Some can be for different work functions, but others can be for fun. You might have a #watercoolerconversations channel, for instance, where remote team members can shoot the breeze.

    Slack is also useful for surfacing timely or important customer information. With the Slack-Zendesk integration, teams don’t need to jump between tools to get the latest on their support tickets. Instead, Zendesk drops customizable real-time ticket notifications into Slack channels to give customer service teams better visibility into what’s happening with their most important accounts. Agents can also create and manage tickets directly from Slack.

    Slack-Zendesk integration

    Overcommunication is critical for remote teams. Outside of an office environment, you have to work twice as hard to broadcast information and create camaraderie. Connect as often as you can through multiple channels—share reminders, work updates, and the occasional casual conversation starter. Above all else, model this frequent, proactive communication style so your support agents feel like it’s the norm.

Customer service team roles, defined

As a customer service manager, it's important to balance the needs of your customers and your business by staffing the right roles at the right times.

  • Triage: A triage assigns incoming tickets to groups. This is typically a supervisory position, but making it a peer-to-peer position rotates the responsibility. This means everyone who takes on this role has an understanding of what it’s like to work on tickets, and everyone who is working in the trenches understands what it means to assign tickets to the rest of the team.
  • Phone coordinator: A phone coordinator manages the phone queue and is responsible for getting other advocates on the phones when things get busy. When there are no calls, the phone coordinator works on tickets.
  • Phones: The person in this position handles all customer issues via phone.
  • Ticket tank: This team member drills deeper into tickets that will likely take longer than usual due to their complex nature.
  • Live chat/message/social media: The agent in this role engages with customers via chat, message, or social media.

It’s also important to come up with some kind of prioritization system for those roles. That way, when things get really busy, you can start to temporarily pull people from the less-critical roles until the workload levels out.

Virtual events

See how top companies are creating great customer experiences

At Zendesk, we host a conversational webcast series called “CX Moments.” Tune in for 30-minute Zoom sessions to hear how industry leaders at companies like Slack and Etsy deal with CX challenges and triumphs. Each virtual meeting ends with a Q&A session.

So far, “CX Moments” has explored team topics like transitioning to remote workforces and educating customers and employees about race, allyship, and solidarity. Through these seminars, we try to reinforce that we’re all in this together—through good times and bad.

Learn more about CX Moments

Along with organizing professional events, many managers can also use Zoom to host internal team-building activities, such as virtual lunches, celebrations, and happy hours. Find out what type of get-together appeals the most to your customer service team. Don’t be afraid to get creative—virtual talent contests and interactive games can be offbeat and fun.

Keep things fresh with rotating roles

Rotating roles

Imagine answering customer calls all day, every day—it would get boring after a while, right? Rotating roles keeps things interesting by giving customer service agents the opportunity to get a break from work that can become monotonous. It also gives agents a chance to practice working in an omnichannel environment, gain context across the organization, grow their skills, and further their careers.

Leverage opportunities to help other teams

Customer service isn’t limited to the customer service department—there are additional roles your agents can do that will benefit the entire business. Here are four examples of functions your support team can fill to help out their colleagues on other teams and gain insights into how different departments work:

  • Customer training: Agents can help customers get the most out of your company’s product or service. After all, there’s no better resource to train your customers than the people who spend all day supporting them.
  • Employee training: Your team can teach colleagues the ins and outs of a new product or channel. They can also share tips on how to be more effective at helping customers.
  • Subject matter expert: Agents can participate in product meetings and offer feedback; this is a great way for product teams to get insight from people who regularly use the product. Since customer service agents are in constant contact with customers, this also gives them the opportunity to truly be the voice of the customer.
  • Knowledge manager: Build out your self-service options by having support agents write blog posts, knowledge-base articles, and guides so customers can find the help they need on their own.

Having agents help other teams is a good way to leverage their knowledge of the customer and the product. It can also make them feel more connected to the company’s broader purpose.

Organize your customer service team into pods

Customer service pod

For certain companies—particularly those with large customer service teams—it makes sense to organize departments into pods. Within each pod, you have team members working as a cohesive unit to achieve the same goal: making customers happy. Every team member has a specific task, such as engagement or troubleshooting, and there is typically a team leader. The pod style can be helpful for improving customer satisfaction and personal relationships.

Get more visibility and time for your managers

Pods make it easier for managers to gain visibility into what’s happening with their agents in less time. Instead of scheduling one-on-one meetings with each agent under your supervision, for example, you can schedule weekly meetings with the team leaders in each of your pods.

The pod structure allows team leaders to be responsible for their pods’ daily activities, freeing up customer service managers for developing strategies and making improvements.

Cultivate future customer service managers

Another important benefit of the pod structure is that it becomes fertile ground for growing future managers. Team leaders get a chance to show their own managerial abilities.

When considering a team leader’s potential, ask yourself:

  1. What is their managerial style? Is it consistent with the overall philosophy of our organization? If it’s a match, they might be a good manager candidate.
  2. Are they someone others naturally turn to with questions and problems? If so, this might indicate a natural ability to lead and a strong understanding of the product or service.

It’s a good idea to always be on the lookout for individuals within your own team who might have the potential to move into new positions. That way, when the team grows, you already have some people in mind to fill leadership roles.

Make room for mistakes

Coaching team members

No matter what you do, mistakes are going to happen. While you should empower your team, you should also make sure they’re communicating with you when they’re making decisions. This will allow you to monitor and, when necessary, correct team members’ choices.

When you notice a mistake, quickly coach the person on what they’ve done wrong, but don’t take power away as a punitive action for not making the right call. Treating these situations like learning opportunities will further empower employees and help ensure they don’t repeat the error.

For example, here's how to handle two common scenarios:

  1. Escalated tickets

    A customer may get angry because their ticket was escalated to another department and they haven’t received an update for a week.

    An unempowered support agent will have to get permission to track down the current owner of the ticket, bogging down managers in the nitty-gritty details of the issue. But agents who are empowered can go directly to the current owner of the ticket—be it a product manager, an engineer, or a sales rep. When this happens, the support agent acts as the voice of the customer to make sure their issue gets resolved.

  2. Requests for credit

    Sometimes, a customer doesn’t receive the service or product they expect, and they ask for credit.

    Empower your agents to approve credits. You may want to set limits on the amount, but it’s typically better to let your team make the call. Just like any other decision your advocates make, if you don’t agree with it, you can quickly coach them on how to handle it next time.

    You can also measure credit decisions to spot trends for agents who don’t provide enough latitude with customers as well as agents who provide too much.

Embrace transparency as a customer service leader

Transparent communication

Transparency within your support team—from executive management to the front lines—is paramount to your success.

Clear, open communication helps to set expectations and gets things done. The larger your organization, the more important—and challenging—achieving transparency becomes. Here are a few ideas for improving communication across your organization.

  • Be present as a customer service leader

    It’s not enough to silently manage from afar, making decisions and letting them trickle down while feedback—good or bad—slowly bubbles back up.

    If your leadership team is making decisions that affect everyone, carve out some time to get feedback from people at all levels of the organization before making a decision. Be sure to leverage weekly one-on-one meetings to ensure information is flowing.

    In leadership meetings, be clear with your managers about the information that needs to be shared, feedback that should be received, and expected turnaround time. Information must move quickly up and down the organization so that decisions aren’t delayed.

    As a general rule, it’s important to spend time with your front line, shadowing them and getting input about their work. This level of visibility helps customer service leaders make educated suggestions for change.

  • Agree on the meeting agendas

    Send out a list of proposed topics, including the amount of time you’ve budgeted for each one, in advance of meetings. Adjust the agenda based on feedback or priority, and send a finalized version beforehand so that everyone is prepared to use the scheduled time efficiently.

    It sounds like a lot of work, but over time, an agenda becomes a living document that helps your team stay on track and make steady progress.

  • Explain the reasoning behind decisions

    Getting input before making a decision doesn’t determine the outcome—it influences it. So afterward, it’s equally important to explain why a decision was made, whether or not you’ve applied your team’s feedback. Explaining your decision-making process helps get agents on the same page and makes them feel heard.

  • Request 360-degree feedback

    If you’re responsible for managing and evaluating others, then you also have to be open to hearing feedback about yourself. Ask for 360-degree feedback—input from your support team, colleagues, and superiors—while also completing your own self-evaluation.

    See what your coworkers identify as your strengths and weaknesses, and note how their assessment compares to your own. Find out what you can do better, then act on it. The last thing you want is for your agents to feel like they’ve taken time to share their feedback, only to see that you haven’t made any improvements or adjustments.

Bolster your customer service management strategy with the right tools

Customer service is difficult. You can make it a million times easier by empowering your support team with the right tools.

Look for a solution that sets your customer service agents up for success. Zendesk, for example, offers an agent workspace that displays the most important customer data and context when agents need it most. It also helps agents track their progress on key metrics and easily collaborate across teams.

Better yet, Zendesk uses intelligent routing to send customers to the agent best equipped to answer their questions. Zendesk even helps teams establish critical self-service content, so agents are only helping customers with more nuanced issues that require live support. These features can not only improve employee engagement and retention, but also build customer loyalty.

Set your team up for success

Build a strong team with good customer service management software