Managing a successful customer service team: How to prioritize like a farmer

This is the second post in Rhoda’s Tips from a Farmer series. Read her first post on working smarter, not harder.

When you’re running a small farm, any number of things are continually clamoring for attention. Fences refuse to stay up, animals refuse to stay in pens, seeds refuse to germinate, and caterpillars refuse to stop eating any seeds that do germinate. And those are just the urgent matters; there are a whole host of things that “should” be done hovering around the periphery.

Running a customer service team is quite similar. Tools refuse to function predictably, bugs refuse to die, and the inboxes — both our team’s ticket system and my overflowing personal folders — refuse to stay empty.

So, between farming and customer service, I’ve had to develop some pretty effective prioritization methods just to stay afloat. My top recommendations for both farmers and managers are the same: look at the big picture...but always check for small leaks.

The big picture: Making peace with the never-ending to-do list

I used to fixate on getting to the bottom my to do list, in both life and work. But when I started working with nature, the weather, and animals, I realised that the list would never actually end. As I’m tending to one thing, something else is always blowing over, escaping, or dying off.

Never being finished drives me a bit crackers, but it’s also helped me evolve my approach to prioritisation. Rather than starting at the top of my the list and working straight down, I stop to think about what really needs to be done, and when. I consider how important dates, like lambing, should affect my priorities (yes, I really do need to put a roof on the lambing shed this week, and fixing the tractor will just have to wait).

I also try to use my energy efficiently. When and how I prioritise tasks can have a big impact on how long they’ll take and how successfully I’ll be able to complete them. Even if I feel like I “ought to” prioritise a bit of gardening just because it’s been on my list for weeks, I know it will go faster and better if I wait for a day with decent weather. Planting lettuce in a downpour and 60 miles-per-hour wind just didn’t end so well the last time.

Learning how to prioritise my farm life has also given me new insight into how I prioritise my team’s projects. I’m no longer on a quest to complete my to-do list in its entirety — which is good, because things have to flex around product outages, tricky customer issues, and requests from other parts of the organization.

As a service manager, just like in my farming life, I try to stay focused on what needs to be done today. Training a new team member, or fixing an email workflow, might be the customer service equivalent of putting a roof on the lambing shed. I also stop to think about whether my team is working efficiently, and about whether our projects are contributing to larger organizational goals. If not, it might be time to reevaluate what we’re prioritising, or even to remove some things from the to-do list entirely.

The little things: Closing all the gates

Once I’ve decided what’s most important from a big-picture standpoint, I like to do a gut-check for any small things that might derail my well-laid plans.

For example, the pens I use to hold, medicate, and sort sheep are falling to bits. It didn’t seem that important, until I realised that to get the sheep into the lambing shed, I will need to use the pens. And if the pens have gaps in them…well, that’s not going to work. So perhaps it’s important after all.

Farmers can be so focused on rounding animals up, checking for strays, and herding them along, that we completely fail to notice the open gate (or the gaping hole) at the other end of the pen. There is nothing more frustrating than spending time getting animals into the right places, only to see them wander merrily off through a gate you didn’t check or a gap you never got around to patching.

As a service manager, whenever I’m starting a project or planing a new process, I remind myself to “check the gates”. What small factor could be easily overlooked, but undo all my effort? Will our tools actually support the wonderful strategy I’m about to propose? Are we collecting the data we’ll need to determine whether an experiment worked?

Prioritisation in two questions

If you read all of the above, bravo! But if I lost you somewhere around “lambing shed”, never fear. I’ll boil everything down into two questions that I ask myself when prioritising:

  1. Given the external conditions and the time I have today, which tasks can I complete to make the biggest possible contribution to our long-term, big-picture goals?
  2. Is there anything that might derail those tasks, that I need to take care of first?

Note that there’s nothing in either of the above questions about what’s written at the top of the to-do list, or what’s been on the list the longest. It’s all about prioritizing for goals rather than being a slave to checkmarks.

That’s all for now...tune in next week, when I’ll talk about swallowing my pride and asking “silly” questions.

Next time: Help is your friend


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Rhoda Meek

Read more posts by Rhoda Meek

Rhoda Meek is Director of Customer Service, aka Customer Service Warrior, at Olark. Rhoda lives in Tiree, Scotland, and when she's not helping customers, you can find her fishing and growing vegetables in her backyard.