Managing a successful customer service team: Tips from a farmer, part one
In addition to my role as Olark’s Director of Customer Service, I am a farmer — well, more of a smallholder, and a fledgling one at that. When I’m not in meetings or talking to customers, I can usually be found in a padded boiler suit, up to my ears in muck and surrounded by animals and vegetables.
I’ve been running a market garden and keeping hens and ducks for 4 years. Last autumn, I acquired 20 sheep and 2 pigs (the pigs are on loan for the winter). Growing veg and caring for livestock in a windy Scottish climate is challenging even when the weather is reasonably good, never mind when it is truly bad.
But for all that I often complain about the trials of farming, the truth is that I wouldn’t have it any other way. My two jobs complement one another nicely, and running a farm has taught me a lot about what it takes to lead a successful service team — so much, in fact, that when I sat down to write one blog post on the topic, it quickly turned into a series.
In today’s post, I’ll cover what farming has taught me about working smarter, not harder as a leader and manager. I’ll follow up in the coming weeks with tips for prioritisation, learning, and coping with crises and letdowns.
Let’s suit up and get to it, shall we?
Invest in efficiency
Leading customer service at Olark is a full-time job, which means I don’t have a lot of time for farm work, especially in the winter when days are short. To stave off chaos (weeds! dead plants! sickly critters!) I’ve had to set up a system of tools and processes to maximize my efficiency.
It usually takes some upfront investment to get those tools in place. For example, I might spend a weekend building paths around my vegetable beds, or lay out some extra cash to purchase hoses for every corner of my property. But once things are set up, I can keep the whole operation running smoothly with minimal effort. That’s more than worth the initial cost in the long run.
The same principle applies to the tools that your service team uses to communicate with customers, manage projects, and share information with the rest of your organization. Yes, it takes time to evaluate software options and get everyone on board with standardized workflows. But one of your most important roles as a leader is to remove obstacles that are preventing your team from doing their best work — and in customer service, a suboptimal tool or process can quickly become a monster obstacle. When your team is chugging smoothly along, without any time wasted in maintaining suboptimal systems or digging for information in a messy archive, you’ll be glad you put in the effort.
If you’d like to learn more about how our team selects tools (and about how we managed a big tool upgrade) check out our post on How we migrated 500K customer cases to HelpScout.
Squash small problems on the spot
About a week ago, I thought I heard a rat in my outhouse. I decided I’d deal with it later...and then I never quite got round to it. Then, just today, I discovered that my outhouse is home to a what appears to be an extended family of rats, including second cousins and fourth cousins twice removed.
One rat I can deal with fairly confidently on my own, but a rat family reunion is another story. I’m probably going to have to call in some kind of extermination service, and needless to say, I’m kicking myself for not addressing that one rat before he invited his siblings, parents, and so on.
I’ve learned this lesson over and over in farming, but it’s also striking how often it comes up in my role as a customer service manager. For example, I’m realizing that it rarely pays to wait for the “right moment” to give constructive feedback; as long as I feel ready to deliver comments in a kind and clear manner, I don’t allow a problem to go unaddressed one nanosecond longer than necessary. That applies to bugs and other product issues, too — if something seems wonky, I want my team to look into it right away, rather than wait until our whole system is down and everyone’s negatively affected.
As both a customer service manager and a farmer, I have a mountain of information to process and to-dos to keep track of. Did I prep for that meeting? Actually, when is that meeting? I should check in with Barbara on the thing...and the other thing. Did I feed all the animals? Should I have thirty-one hens or thirty-two — has one gone missing? Drat.
It is often said that the biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we will remember something. In my experience, that saying is one hundred percent correct. Actually, I’d paraphrase it a bit to say that we are always more organised than we think we need to be, and yet never as organised as is actually necessary — so a bit of over-correction is in order.
In the last few years, I’ve been forced to acknowledge that I will never remember everything, period, much less remember anything in the right order or at the right time, without a fairly rigid system. So, I write lists. I also make notes, colour code everything, rely heavily on Alexa and Google Assistant, and repeat “a place for everything, and everything in its place” as a mantra.
You likely have, or will develop, your own system. The important takeaway is to choose something and stick to it, even when it feels a bit ridiculous (yes, that task that will take all of thirty seconds really does need to go on your to-do list). That way, you’re not wasting time trying to remember what you have and haven’t dealt with, and your team knows they can count on you to to be on time, prepped, and ready to support them when things get a bit crazy.
Now, has anyone seen the sheep?
Next time: Prioritisation