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How to build a support team from the ground up

For a couple reasons, building a support team is pretty hard. It’s hard because there are no shortcuts to finding and training the right person. There are a lot more mediocre and poor support advocates out there than there are excellent ones. And the excellent ones are probably pretty happy where they are.

It’s also hard on an emotional level. This company is your baby. Your customers are precious to you. Talking to customers, and fixing their problems, means a lot to you. Building a support team can feel like letting go of that. That’s hard.

It’s a good problem to have, however. Because you can’t be everywhere at once. As much as founders would like to do all the support (and engineering, and product planning and … you get it) it’s simply not possible. If things go the way you’d like, you’re probably going to be hiring a support advocate someday. Maybe a whole team.

Better do it right.

How to know when to start building a support team

Before we get to what it takes to build a support team, let’s first answer a pretty basic question: should you build a support team? Hiring too fast can be just as bad as hiring too slow. Handing off support too early can trigger a chain of problems throughout your whole company. It’s an important question to answer.

Consider this cautionary tale from Josh at Baremetrics. While looking for his first customer support person, Josh’s wife offered to help out temporarily. Thankfully, her stepping in made something clear: there wasn’t enough need for a full time support hire.

He learned a valuable lesson.

Make sure there’s a real, substantial need before you even start the process. It should be absolutely, unquestionably clear for at least a couple of months before you start hiring.

You’re doing it yourself, right?

Chuck this over to the Captain Obvious column if you will, but a lot of founders actually screw this up. They’re not doing support themselves.

Maybe there’s some use case or industry where this makes sense. I can’t think of one.

Starting a company means doing a little bit of everything yourself, then growing and hiring people better than you in each area. This includes support. If you’re doing this, you’ve got a pretty good pulse already on what your support needs are.

You’re feeling the pinch

You shouldn’t just think there’s a need for a support team, you should really be feeling it. You gotta feel the pinch. Here are a few flags that might indicate it’s time to consider building a support team.

Get to know the pinch. Learn to love it. If it’s not there, maybe think again about hiring.

If you do decide to hire, make sure you can afford it. If you want to dive into the details on support pay and benefits, check out this podcast from the folks at Support Ops.

How to recruit and interview

Support might be one of the hardest roles you’ll hire for. Some of the world’s best support advocates are uncelebrated, flying under the radar. Some of the worst might talk their way into the front door if you’re not careful.

Go where the candidates are

Even if you know you won’t be making a support hire for a year or more, now’s the time to meet people in the community. You might not meet the person you hire one day (you might) but you’ll start building a network of friends who can recommend people down the road. And they’re not coming to you, so you have to go to them.

Here are a few things you can do to start making these connections:

The interview and vetting process

So you’ve networked, you’ve met a bunch of (seemingly) great candidates. How do you figure out if they’re the real deal?

Ask the right questions

Easier said than done. But check out this excellent guide from Zendesk.

A few sample questions:

Dig for details. Dig for details. Then dig some more.

A big mistake interviewers make is moving on to the next question after a candidate gives a flat answer. The best question in the world won’t help you if you don’t learn the real answer. You often have to press for more.

It’s critical that you really dig in for details. Ask followup questions, ask for clarification, ask for specific examples. How did they handle troubling tickets? What are specific examples of solutions they implemented? What proactive steps did they take to improve the support flow at the organization? Now isn’t the time for generalizations. Go for the gritty details.

Bring them in for a test run

It’s great to see someone in action, if you can. Bring them in for a day to work beside you going through some tickets. This gives you a front row seat to how they think and how they work through a problem. Don’t worry about how fast they cruise through tickets or whether they know the ins and outs of your billing system. You have to account for a learning curve. The point of this exercise is to see how they think.

Give them a chance to get to know your team

If they do come in for a quick trial run, don’t miss the opportunity to feel out their soft skills and culture fit. Let them meet the team and go out to lunch. Schedule some down time to let others on your team get to know them a bit.

Take them to dinner or coffee and notice how they interact with the wait staff. Are they kind? Engaging? Rude? Someone with genuine empathy and people skills doesn’t just flip them on during work hours. It’s part of who they are.

How to set them up for success

We’ve written before about how bad employee onboarding can seriously undermine your entire organization’s potential.

There’s simply no better time to get people the tools and support they need than the first few weeks before and after their first day.

Closing thoughts

Building a proper support team, when the time is right, will keep you sane, will make your company successful and make you successful. It won’t be easy. But when the time is right, it might be the most important hire you make.

This post was originally published on the Statuspage blog in 2016.