How to Create an Agile Customer Service Team

Agility means a lot of things to different organizations. In the end, it’s the ability to pivot quickly to better serve the customer. If businesses learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that they are not nearly as agile as they hoped. As companies prepare for 2022, improving operational agility is one of the top priorities for scaling businesses. In this session of CX Power Hour, we discuss exactly what it means for customer support teams to be agile and the key areas they must focus on to make their team adaptable and future-proof. 

CX Power Hour is presented by and ArenaCX, pioneers in revolutionizing the future of customer service delivery and resource management. Join us as we hear from leading Customer Success experts and discover key strategies for making your CX efforts a success. Discover the critical technologies and approaches needed to make better, more informed business decisions, improve operational efficiency, improve customer engagement and retention and drive your organization’s operational success.

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Webinar Transcript

Chett Coombs: (00:13)
Hey, everyone. Thanks for joining. We’re going to get started here in just a minute. We’re going to let everyone join the meeting. And so we’re going to wait a couple minutes to allow everyone to join. And then we’ll get started here in a couple minutes. All right, let’s go ahead and get started. Okay. First off, just wanted to say to everyone. Really excited for this webinar. I want to welcome everyone to this episode of CX Power Hour, where we’re going to be talking about what it means to create an agile customer support function, and how you can go about building one.

Chett Coombs: (02:52)
Just a little bit about me. My name’s Chett. I work on the marketing team here at Forethought, and I’ll be moderating this discussion. Before we dive into our discussion, I just want to review a couple housekeeping items. First, we’ll have a Q&A section at the end of the discussion. If you have a specific question, please post it in the chat or in the Q&A section. If it’s relevant to a specific talking point where we’re going through right now, I’ll try to bring it up. If not, we’ll cover it at the end.

Chett Coombs: (03:19)
If it’s directed to a specific panel member, please let us know. And we’ll have them answer that at the end of the discussion. Also, just to let everybody know, this panel discussion is recorded and will be sent to all attendees. I know what it’s like to be on a webinar, hear something amazing and want to jot it down, and then you miss something else. And so I don’t want you to feel like you have to do that. That’s always welcome, but just know that we’ll send this out a couple hours after the webinar.

Chett Coombs: (03:44)
Lastly, I just wanted to put a plug in for our next webinar. We’re going to be discussing how to use customer service as part of your overall business strategy. Oftentimes people have looked at customer service as a cost center and not part of their growth strategy. So we’re going to be breaking that down. We don’t have the exact date, but that’ll be happening in the next couple weeks. So we’ll let when that goes live.

Chett Coombs: (04:05)
Now, before we get into the actual discussion, I want to take a minute to give each panelist a chance to introduce themselves and their company. Just to simplify things, let’s go in alphabetical order. Alan, you bring a lot of experience to the table, running supply chain teams at some pretty big companies like Sony Erickson and Avea. And most recently, leading supply chain and customer experience for Republic Wireless, where you develop the machinery and concepts that has since become ArenaCX.

Chett Coombs: (04:33)
When we talk about scaling an agile customer support team, that’s really what ArenaCX is built to do. Can you tell us more about the concept steps behind ArenaCX? What led you to turn a solution you created for Republic Wireless into its own company?

Alan Pendleton: (04:49)
Sure. Hi, Chett? Hi, John and Deon? Good to interact with you guys today, and everyone in attendance. So thanks a lot for tuning in. So yeah, I’m Alan. I’m the CEO and co-founder ArenaCX. It is correct. ArenaCX was built within the tech innovator Republic Wireless that’s now a part of dish network as the platform that powers their customer service program.

Alan Pendleton: (05:13)
And we did use supply chain and risk management principles to build it. So that’s relevant, I believe, to today’s topic. And after incubating for a couple of years, we spun out as a venture back startup. So today we use technology in our marketplace platform to help companies find, manage, and optimize their outsource business services. And we specialize in agility. A couple of ways that can play out, and we’ll probably get a lot deeper into this as we talk, is that, redundancy and resource tends to bring resiliency, and that leads to agility.

Alan Pendleton: (05:45)
So we help companies make their outsource resources, A, more portable, much easier to transition between resources. And B, managed as a portfolio, where you can dynamically shift and switch to rebalance your incoming traffic amongst the resource pool that you have available. And so these are traditional tried and true supply chain concepts that we are applying to customer service labor resources for companies.

Chett Coombs: (06:14)
Thank you. Deon, I want you to take a minute. But before, Deon, I wanted to introduce you with a little number from my friends, Bruno Mars. Deon, you and I haven’t had a chance to talk since yesterday. Forethought has some exciting news. Do you want to take a minute, introduce yourself, Forethought, and what the announcement was yesterday, and what that means for the future of Forethought and customer experience?

Deon Nicholas: (06:52)
Well, thank you, Chett. I wasn’t prepared to be embarrassed on the call, but I really appreciate that. Hi, everyone? I’m Deon Nicholas. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Forethought. I have the pleasure of working with Chett here. And we build artificially intelligent agents to help businesses improve their customer experience. The news that Chett is talking about is that, yesterday Forbes named us to their $25 next billion startups list, which we are super excited and super humbled about. So very excited to continue to build the future. Thanks, Chett, for throwing that one out there.

Chett Coombs: (07:32)
You bet. I think it’s not just a testament to what we’re doing at Forethought. I think really shows that business as a whole looks at customer service, the whole customer experience as part of the new growth strategy. It used to be just sales and marketing product. But I think through the pandemic, people realize that customer experience is crucial, customer service is crucial. And so I think it’s awesome for us at Forethought to be able to of that, but it also points to the industry as a whole and what all of us on this call are trying to do.

Chett Coombs: (08:05)
Lastly, John, so we met the other day. And this is my fault. I didn’t do my LinkedIn stalking in advance since then. Looking at your experience, I didn’t realize you’d been at Microsoft for 17 years, Salesforce or five years, all running customer support teams. That’s a really neat thing. It’s just exciting to have you on the call to learn from you. Now you’re at Zendesk, which in my opinion is one of the pioneers of the modern day digital customer support experience.

Chett Coombs: (08:37)
Take a minute to introduce yourself, your background. And for those may not know Zendesk, hopefully most people do, what Zendesk is doing to help customer support teams.

John Kearney: (08:47)
Honestly, I appreciate being a part of this panel and group. And as you said, my experience and background has been completely in customer service and support, whether I started out as a technical support engineer, and then moved into leadership over the years, understanding the Microsoft model, the Salesforce model, and now the Zendesk model. And so for Zendesk, it’s really continuing to enhance the platform and our staff to be able to scale with what customers need, and be completely flexible and extensible on how we get there. So I’m excited about my journey at Zendesk. I’ve only been here for about five weeks.

Chett Coombs: (09:32)
Awesome. Well, I’m sure in those five weeks, the team teams are loving having you there. So you have an extensive experience running teams on Microsoft. I mean, that speaks for itself. Microsoft literally touches every computer we use. And so you probably have come across a lot of different teams that are being agile, and a lot of them that just simply weren’t. And so we’re going to talk more about that.

Chett Coombs: (09:56)
So we’re going to talk about a couple different topics throughout this discussion. First, I want to talk about just what it means to be agile. I think this has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years. The idea of agile principles has been mass adopted across software departments and other departments. You hear about Scrum and Scrum Master, using Kanban, all of these different keywords or topics follow agile principles.

Chett Coombs: (10:22)
The other day I was watching a video from a Zendesk executive. He was talking about agile. And he says, “Agility is just getting crap done, but it’s also getting the right crap done and doing it well.” And that’s a pretty simple definition. And one that, for me, resonates a lot. But on the other end, agility is a lot more complicated than that. Aaron De Smet. I don’t know if I pronounce that right. He’s a principal organizational design specialist, McKinsey.

Chett Coombs: (10:49)
He defines agility as the ability of an organization to renew itself, to adapt, change quickly and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous and turbulent environment. So a lot more descriptive there than just getting crap done. I think both of those are right. But Alan, I’d love for you to dive into this. When you think about customer service as a function, how would you define agility based on what we’ve discussed already? What does that look like in customer more service?

Alan Pendleton: (11:19)
Sure. I may not be as quite as sophisticated in the definition as the McKinsey one. I’ll try to go just a bit north of getting crap done. And somewhere in between the two, we’ll zero in on something. But in a background, contextual definition, agility is just how quickly a company can adjust to ever changing business conditions. And we know, it’s well known in other disciplines. You’ve already brought up agile development and software engineering, rapid releases, iteration based on feedback about the product.

Alan Pendleton: (11:52)
I think that’s what a lot of folks mean when they say agility. But I also want to bring in a complimentary definition, which is very mature in supply chain, which I mentioned earlier. Same concept, but here it’s about how quickly a company can adjust manufacturing capacity and output, up or down, based on demand signals from customers. So how do we apply that to customer service?

Alan Pendleton: (12:18)
One way is to think of a demand unit in customer service as a ticket, or a chat, or a call. The demand unit is not the head count. The demand unit is the work output that needs to be performed. When you think of it that way, now you can start asking yourself how quickly can my company adjust my customer support capacity and output potential in response to ticket demand, or interaction demand signals coming in, in the support network.

Alan Pendleton: (12:47)
There’s many ways to achieve this and there’s KPIs to track this that can be adopted from other disciplines. But that what I wanted to put on the table for discussion today is, it’s more than just being small bite size chunks that you can iterate and react to. There can be some discipline around it by interpreting the workload and the flow of interactions through the network as the demand unit that then can align your resources against.

Chett Coombs: (13:13)
Yeah. I love that. Oftentimes we talk about, just like you said, headcount, how do we become more agile. But the reality is it’s the output. We don’t look at customer support in terms of how many people do we have, but how many people can we support? What is our output? Any thoughts there, Deon or John, before we move on to the next question?

Deon Nicholas: (13:33)
Yeah, I agree with that definition of agility. And it reminds me of… There’s this book by Andy Grove, High Output Management, and talks about managing and running businesses the same way you think about manufacturing. And so the ability to break up the unit of work, and think about that in terms of the customer demand and then apt accordingly, I think that’s where it all starts.

Chett Coombs: (13:59)
Awesome. I was talking with a university professors just a couple months ago about agile principles and methodologies. And he’s like, “So many organizations right now, they talk about being agile, but the only thing they’ve changed in their organization is the actual vocabulary they use to describe their efforts.” The reality is, they’re just as rigid in following the same long term growth plans and strategies. And they’re not agile at all. They’re spending long term contracts, are going out and creating five year plans trying to follow those, but they use agile concepts or… Sorry, agile vocabulary. So then they say, “We’re an agile team.”

Chett Coombs: (14:40)
Deon and John, both of you, when you think about an agile organization, we’ve all worked in agile organizations, we’ve worked in rigid organizations. What characteristics do you see when you see an agile organization? What does it look like from the outside looking in, so that people that may think that they’re an agile organization, they can look at and say, “Hey, I don’t check any of these boxes.” Maybe I’m really not as agile as I think. Deon, when you think of an agile organization, what does that look like?

Deon Nicholas: (15:15)
One thing that’s helpful for me is, when I think about what’s the opposite of an agile organization, this particularly is true in product development, is particularly true in customer success and customer support. Most of the time in a non agile organization, you follow some form of a waterfall process. Your requirements are set at the beginning. That gets passed through to, call it the leaders. Then that gets passed through to the managers, which gets passed through to the actual frontline agents or workers.

Deon Nicholas: (15:46)
And this can be true for any process, whether you’re developing a product or adapting to customers support needs. And so, flipping that, the most important thing in order to be agile when you’re looking from the outside in is, where do the demands come from? Where do the requirements come from? Is it coming from some centralized source, or is it distributed down to, what I like to call the nodes, or the leaves, or the people actually doing the work.

Deon Nicholas: (16:12)
And so you start to see a lot more things like knowledge centered support, for example, in the support world, where your agents are not only responding to questions, but they’re actually the ones updating the knowledge bases, updating the articles, and then giving that back to leaders. And so there are things like that, that you can actually start to see across many different process that actually give you the signs that you’re an agile organization.

John Kearney: (16:37)
And I’ll just add that when I think of agility from a customer service standpoint, being agile versus a more rigid one, it’s creating a competitive advantage where you can quickly adjust to the market changes, what customers are moving towards, and how quickly your organization can address those needs, and provides a competitive advantage for companies that think that way and move that way.

John Kearney: (17:07)
Obviously, there’s challenges to that. But the more that you can provide a listening system from the staff closely to what customers are experiencing, and then providing that listening feedback up into the organization from a product standpoint, then now the whole company’s gearing its approach to meet that customer demand, and be flexible and extensible to grow in the future in scale, as well.

Chett Coombs: (17:36)
I think to both of what you guys were saying reminded me of my time in my last organization. Deon, you’re going to shake your head. I don’t think you realized this. But the last organization, I actually ran our customer support team. We are a really small company, 10 employees. We had three… Three of them were customer support. So I ran marketing and operations, and we had three customer support reps. And one of the things we talked about is, “How do we go from being reactive to proactive?” How can we go from not just responding, but actually looking at our strategy in the future, taking data that we have and actually producing the types of knowledge based articles, specifically is what we discussed so that we don’t have to spend so much time being reactive.

Chett Coombs: (18:17)
And then, John, I loved what you said there. I think COVID was a good pulse check for everybody. I have an agile team. What happened during COVID? Were you fighting fires all the time? So many industries when you talk about demand, the increases or decreases in customer support demand. Some companies… We had a customer in the Edtech space. And they just saw a huge increase in demand. Or other companies, they had a huge drop and decrease in demand.

Chett Coombs: (18:50)
And so if you struggled during COVID and are still struggling, then chances are, there’s some agile principles we can apply there. John, 17 years at Microsoft, nearly five in Salesforce, I’m sure you saw varying levels of agile versus rigid teams. How would you describe the difference between managing those two different types of teams? What are the pain points you have in managing your agile or a rigid team? And what was that relief or that biggest trial you had that was taken off your plate when you had a truly agile team?

John Kearney: (19:23)
I think the difference is the ability to move quickly to changing what’s going on from a customer standpoint. So you have feedback coming in. You know that there’s changes that could be made to the product to better improve the customer experience, and yet in previous models and how everything has evolved to more the digital age, and being responsive, and everything’s moving much quicker now, even as I look at the past, that if you’re not agile, it’s going to impede your progress.

John Kearney: (19:57)
And some of the companies that were not agile back in the day, may not be around today, simply because they couldn’t adjust quickly. So, for me, it’s really about continuing to get your voice heard, make the right changes, and manage through that so that you provide that justification. A lot of times in my experience, the more rigid type of organizations, you had to prove it out in the numbers, the data and the cost.

John Kearney: (20:24)
If you could prove it out and show, “Hey, if we could make this change, and reduce the cost, and provide a better experience for customers.” It took a lot work, but that was the best approach to overcome some of the inertia in a rigid environment. In an agile environment, everybody’s looking for that, they want that information, they want that feedback. So it’s more of a collaboration than it is a siloed approach. So that’s been my experience.

Chett Coombs: (20:52)
Awesome. One of the things we’re going to talk about in the future is those processes. We’re going to talk about three pillars of creating an agile team. One of them is really understanding the processes that are needed there. So we’re going to talk about that in the future here shortly. Alan, before we get into that, I wanted to ask you a couple questions about your thoughts on different size organizations. You’ve seen this play out at larger organizations like Sony Erickson and Republic Wireless. And now you’re at a small organization in ArenaCX, right? You guys are a startup like us.

Chett Coombs: (21:24)
Smaller companies just are typically more agile by nature. You just have to be… It’s really hard to have a centralized organization where everyone is following specific processes when everyone’s wearing a lot of hats. What does agility look like at different company sizes?

Alan Pendleton: (21:42)
I mean, that’s a good question. I think as a mindset it’s similar. The principles apply regardless of size, but it’s our ability to make use of those principles. And there’s probably more than what I’ll share. I’ll just drop a couple highlights on here. So one, a company size may determine the levers you have available to pull. And so one example, it’s a powerful lever to have baked in redundancy.

Alan Pendleton: (22:06)
And so, for example, if you have the volume and support demand to support multiple outsource providers and construct a portfolio, then your agility is increased because you’re tapping into the strengths of multiple best of breed partners. And if one goes down, you shift to another. Small players may not have the volume to more than one. And so they have to adapt and have different levers available to them.

Alan Pendleton: (22:33)
So I think it’s important to develop a playbook that’s right for each individual company and the levers that are practical for that size. So, in addition to the levers available to pull, the others… I would say the coordination required. And this is something, Chett, you were getting at. In a smaller company everyone’s wearing multiple hats, they’re naturally collaborative because they have no other choice. The planning cycles of early stage companies may be in weeks instead of months, and quarters, and years.

Alan Pendleton: (23:02)
The bigger the company is, the longer the planning cycle, the more hierarchy, the more approval levels, communication protocols, and rigidity is going to just naturally set in as an organization becomes more complex. So I think it’s a lot harder for a bigger company. This is where you need committed leadership. It doesn’t come naturally. It requires planning. It requires a relentless pursuit of agility to intentionally bake it in.

Alan Pendleton: (23:31)
One of the things I like about Forethought so much is the name of your company. So every team I’ve ever led, when we list our values, I’ve always imposed Forethought as one of those. And I don’t think that is magic, I don’t think it’s a gift. Forethought is earned through being prepared, using data to look ahead. And so if you can see something coming down the road, or a slow motion train wreck happening, why are we waiting for the train to crash before we do something about it?

Alan Pendleton: (24:00)
You should see it coming if you’re paying attention. And so, I think bigger companies need to do that in a much more coordinated way, and therefore it’s more difficult. And companies start agile and grow out of it. And you have to fight against that, if you want to be agile.

Chett Coombs: (24:17)
Yeah. I think oftentimes that while process is a vital part of being agile, sometimes people process their way into being really rigid. They build really structured processes, multiple layers of approvals. Large organizations are especially prone to this. And by design, they’re not agile. And I like what you said about how agility really has to be organizational wide. It has to be part of your strategy.

Chett Coombs: (24:42)
It’s really hard for departments to be agile in a silo while specifically customer service when marketing, or sales, or development, or whatever is really rigid. Agility really happens as an organizational strategy. So I love that. Before moving into our next topic, John, Deon, anything you wanted to add there?

Deon Nicholas: (25:08)
I’ll just add a couple things as I think about the differences, and size, and how that relates to agility. I think it depends on a few factors, including the cost of change, the risk of change, and the speed of change. How quickly can you move? What factors are at play, and what strategically can you invest in to make that change? Obviously the larger the company, the greater the resources, but there’s still the accountability. And the smaller the company, obviously the limited resources in terms of how do you best put those investments forward to be able to move where you need to go.

Deon Nicholas: (25:47)
So obviously, there’s different factors considered for both. Some people think a smaller team, “Hey, we can move really quickly.” But, again, I think Alan’s thoughts around having Forethought and strategy and thinking strategically is key to this success in a smaller organization.

Chett Coombs: (26:05)
You just teed up my next question and perfectly, so thank you. One thing, when you think about agility, one thing people often ignore is your ability to actually be agile with cash flow and contract flexibility. Deon now and as small business owners, you guys, this probably hits home more for you than maybe other customer service leaders. But at the same time, John, managing a large company like Zendesk, you obviously have contracts and cash problems just like everybody else.

Chett Coombs: (26:38)
So when you’re scaling a business and you’re trying to grow teams, what do you look at when you’re considering those? Because oftentimes people are signing multi-year contracts from partners or suppliers. But at the same time, you need to be agile. And signing five, 10 year contracts obviously is not very common, but people still do it, sign longer contracts. How do you look at those in regards to showing up your resources, making sure have you have them there are available to you, but yet also making sure you have the cash flow and the flexibility that you need. Alan, do you want to lead that one off?

Alan Pendleton: (27:12)
Sure. Yeah, there’s a lot of angles to take on that. So I’ll maybe start with this one to say, customer support agility and that cash flow of flexibility. If you’re thinking about running a headcount based support operation, you are locking in for a period of time to theoretically fixed capacity. So if you have 100 agents on the floor, you can do the work that 100 agents can do right now. That’s your theoretical capacity.

Alan Pendleton: (27:45)
You also have a fixed cost associated with that. That’s the supply sided equation. Demand side is, customers don’t know how many agents you have. They don’t care. They’re going to open tickets as long as your channels are going to let them come in. So the demand line is all over the place, whereas the supply line is fixed. So at any given and in time, you either have too much capacity.

Alan Pendleton: (28:07)
In that case, you feel like maybe you’re overspending, you’re over invested, or you have to make up work for people to do. Or flip side, you don’t have enough to support it. You’re late on customer responses. Now you’re disappointing customers because you’re under capacity. And so solving for that problem through, is difficult when your contracts are long term with fixed head count with minimum floors and lead times to change.

Alan Pendleton: (28:35)
And that’s native to the whole outsourcing industry. And so that’s not something I would expect many companies to have aggressively solved for, but it is possible to do that. And so we did just that at Republic Wireless, and that’s the foundation for ArenaCX, is creating that portability and adjust the ability for supply to be dynamically adjusted to demand. And that directly affects cash flow. So you pay for what you need when you need it, and not vice versa. So that’s one response of probably many other possible ways to take that question.

Chett Coombs: (29:14)
Deon, John, any other insight you want to provide there?

Deon Nicholas: (29:19)
Yeah, the thing that comes to mind for me is that it also depends on what stage of company you’re in. If you’re in a, call it hyper growth rate, where things are constantly changing, then you want to be in a state where you’re just slightly understaffed at all times, but you’re growing as you go. And you’ll never have a shortage of work to do so to speak. But then there’s a world where you are in a more, either flatter environment or something like that, when the most important thing is just customer quality.

Deon Nicholas: (29:54)
The most important thing is to make sure that you’re hitting your SLAs. You probably have more resources to boot. And so, it’s okay to be slightly higher on the supply side than on the demand side to give that quality customer experience. And so, I was just thinking about the idea that when is it better to be over-resourced, or under-resourced. And it’s highly a function of what environment you’re in and choose your own destiny, so to speak.

Chett Coombs: (30:21)
Love that. So let’s transition to our next topic, which is about what it takes to create an agile team. We’ve talked a lot about what an agile team looks like. When you think about operational agility and customer service function, I want to focus specifically on three major components. I’ve alluded to the these earlier. And so those are people process and technology. We’re going to dive deep into some of these today. Actually a member of ArenaCX’s team wrote a great article on this. It’s on your guys’… On their blog post.

Chett Coombs: (30:56)
So after this call, if you want to dig deeper into that, there’s a great article on ArenaCX’s website after this call. So when we talk about people, this includes who we hire, whether that’s internal headcount, whether it’s external resources. When we do it, how do we forecast for that? Alan, we’ll have you talk about that. When we look at process, this is the end to end value chain activities. What are the different things we’re mapping out on the whiteboard and putting into place? What are the metrics we’re using to measure those results.

Chett Coombs: (31:25)
And then lastly, technology. It’s very important that we get the right people and the resources, the redundancies on the bus. And then the process mapped out to make sure that we understand what the customer journey is, how are we impacting them throughout it, making sure that we’re adding to their overall customer satisfaction. But without the right tools, the technology, it’s really hard to do that.

Chett Coombs: (31:52)
So the technology is there to augment and implement and support those first two pillars. And so those are the three things I want to talk about really for the rest of our time here. Alan, regarding people, ArenaCX, that’s what you guys do. You guys are a marketplace for outsourced labor, where you guys are focused on the people side of agility. You’ve spoke to that already to a point. What are your thoughts on how… And I guess the important parts that organizations need to consider when they’re looking at agility from the people’s perspective. When is it important to hire internally? When are you looking at bringing outsourced support? How do you forecast for that? And what are the different elements that people need to consider?

Alan Pendleton: (32:38)
Great question. We are a marketplace of outsourced service providers. Got 50 plus BPOs in the marketplace, all handpicked, vetted, curated, terrific companies. So the question is how do you know when to hire internally versus outsourced, and how to plan for that? So most people who aren’t doing it, don’t think they’re ready. I haven’t met someone who’s not doing it who says, “I am ready right now.” So there’s always a feeling of risk, a feeling of uncertainty associated with it.

Alan Pendleton: (33:14)
And so I think if there’s a business reason to do it, it’s never too early to get started. But what’s important is to de-risk it and be careful to do it strategically. So find an entry into it that’s in a lower risk category of support, or business, or a small share, and then let it grow as the outsource competency is demonstrated.

Alan Pendleton: (33:39)
So that’s the way our algorithms work in Arena, for example, is you can start small. And if that BPO proves itself relative to others in the network, then it can earn more share and grow into it. And so I would say starting safely is a smart way to do it, and grow only [inaudible 00:34:00] achieve competency. But don’t think that you’re too immature as a business to do it.

Alan Pendleton: (34:06)
Most companies start before their training is fully documented, before they have the robust infrastructure that they might want. And oftentimes, it’s the outsource service provider that can be utilized as deliverer of best practices in the first place. So instead of thinking of them as a staffing agency for you, that’s doing everything according to your dictates, think of them as a true partner that wants to sit on the same side of the table with you, roll up the sleeves together, and collectively solve problems.

Alan Pendleton: (34:36)
And these companies do business with dozens of other companies, and can bring ideas to the table as well. And that’s what they specialize in. Can benefit from that along the way. As far as planning for it, there’s a lot of factors involved. So your demand growth matters. The volatility of your demand would matter. Timing it, you probably wouldn’t want to outsource the day before pretty new product launch, or a very volatile period in terms of demand uncertainty.

Alan Pendleton: (35:13)
And so start when it’s a smart time in your product and customer life cycle, or a company life cycle, as you mature. And have an exit plan. It’s possible to make a false start. And I’ve met some companies who would say, “I’ll never do that again.” They did an RFP, they picked one company, put all their eggs in one basket, and got burned because the PowerPoint was so good, they were persuaded by it. And then they learned it wasn’t the right fit.

Alan Pendleton: (35:42)
And so there are literally thousands of outsource providers. Finding the right fit when does, in fact, matter. And being resilient and agile to be able to adapt if you realize you’ve made a misstep, rather than giving up on outsourcing, using agility as part of your outsourcing strategy matters as well. So I think I’ve said a mouthful there. I’ll turn it back over to the crowd.

Chett Coombs: (36:07)
I appreciate that. John, I’d love your insight here. With your time at Microsoft, Salesforce, how did you go about knowing when to hire, scale your teams, whether that be internally… What were the processes you went through? Because I love what Alan said. Most people don’t think they’re ready. But when you’re ready, it’s probably too late. Because when you need people today, it’s really too late. You haven’t had that “Forethought” as we talked about earlier. You want to make sure you are ahead of the game, that you’re playing offense instead of defense. What’s your experience there?

John Kearney: (36:43)
There’s a few things I think about when we talk about people. If we’re looking at outsourcing or offshoring, it’s strategic to your labor mix. So part of that is just understanding what portion of our business can we offshore at potentially a lower cost labor market that will save us money, but help us scale. That’s one part. And I do agree with Alan, we should consider them strategic partners. And they should work with us just as close as we would our own staff. But also realize the redundancy there.

John Kearney: (37:20)
So if you do have a site that goes down and you’re offshored at different portion of the globe, then you’ve got resources there available to help out, even if you have a business outage in a different part of the country or globe. The other piece that I think about is being able to scale at cost. When I think about staffing, philosophically, I think a lot of companies would say, “Hey, we’re in a tiered approach.” We hire in entry level at tier one, then we move to tier two, and then tier three.

John Kearney: (37:49)
The problem is, with a tiered approach, you have all that inertia to overcome, to resolve customer issues. So it creates a backlog that slows things down, and negative impacts customer experience. So over the past years, whether it’s Salesforce and Zendesk is already in this model, is to move to a swarming type of approach where you hire in the resources they’re able to scale with the complexity of your product. So you don’t think about this tiered approach. You think about what skill sets I’m going to need to be able to grow with the complexity of the product, and then hire accordingly, but you use a swarming model to say, “If you can’t solve it, where are the resources to help you solve it?” And then we all come together to work that model and reduce that inertia that it takes for customers, so they have a better experience and provides greater throughput and efficiency outside of the tiered model.

John Kearney: (38:46)
So there’s a lotto that. But I feel like what are the skillsets you’re going to need to hire for the future? And look at that as your next wave of staff to bring in so that they can scale with the complexity of the product, if that makes sense.

Chett Coombs: (39:03)
Yeah, I love that. This goes along with one of the questions that we just got asked from one of the audience members. Roy asked what is a better choice, outsourced or your own customer service group? And I think the answer today is very different than it probably was three years ago. We were just talking the other day with Amanda, a member of the ArenaCX team, about what’s being called the great resignation. And you have industries across… I mean, really, all industries are having this problem where they’re struggling to find the right type of talent that the need for the organization.

Chett Coombs: (39:41)
And so, I want you guys to answer this question. But my guess is, in regards to Roy, it really depends on your circumstances. But one of the things that you need to consider is, can I actually find the talent internally right now? Do I have the ability to find that right now? And so doesn’t make sense to have the redundancy of having an outsource partner while I try to build my core team. Love anyone’s thoughts. Deon, Alan, John, I mean, how would you guys answer this question from Roy?

Alan Pendleton: (40:12)
I’ll jump in, but I’ll be quick to save time for others. But I would say, should you in source or outsource? The answer is yes. Redundancy matters. And you want overlapping resource pools because you never know, will a computer system go down? Will there be a bad weather event in a certain area? Will a resource pool have some other wave of sickness? Anything that could result in call outs or downtime. And so you want to have a diversified resource pool. I think that matters a lot.

Alan Pendleton: (40:46)
And I also believe that external hires add a great amount of leverage into your program, they tend to be able to hire a little faster, scale up and down a little faster, and they bring best of breed solutions to you that are… Their whole business model is, “I’m focused on delivering good customer service results for you. And if I fail to do that, you’ll find someone else.” So this is what they live and breathe. And if you treat them as a partner and give them a little flexibility to be themselves, they’ll more often than not, step up if you have the right kind of business partner.

Chett Coombs: (41:23)
Awesome. Thank you. Let’s move into process. John, when you think about process, white boarding, what really happens when it comes to our customer service model? What are the value chain activities? What are the metrics or KPIs, the SLAs? How do you go about if you are a customer service leader? Now you have extensive experience. But let’s say you go back to when you’re five years in, what do you know now that you wish you would’ve applied then when it comes to creating the critical processes your team needs to have an agile team?

John Kearney: (42:03)
I think there’s probably a lot of different thoughts across the board depending on the model that you’re in. For me, it’s focused on time to resolution. So the quicker you can resolve an issue, and I think we all see this in the customer service world, the more satisfied the customer is. So if you can resolve an issue within the same day or on the same contact, the customer satisfaction rate’s going to go high. It’s really around managing the tail.

John Kearney: (42:33)
So how do we get to those issues that are long running, and what can we do from a process standpoint to bring the resources to bear, to either, one, resolve those issues where we don’t have the knowledge, the right tools, the right information, maybe it’s enablement from the engineering team, to help us get the right training that we need, or the right enablement, or skills, or resources that we need to help resolve those issues, but reduce the number of those significantly so that we’re only sending the bug issues and the most critical issues to engineering to resolve, because those are valuable resources as well. But resolving those issues…

John Kearney: (43:13)
Also, I would say there is a large portion of customers that want to resolve issues on their own. They don’t want to have to contact support. So the more vibrant you can make your knowledge, how customers interact with what you’re providing from a help approach that they can resolve on their own, the better off you’re going to be. Because that then create an issue a customer can self help and resolve. And it’s not a case that they have to wait for a response from support.

John Kearney: (43:43)
And the last thing I would say about all of that is being proactive, thinking down the road. So the best issue that a customer encounters is the one that never happened. So how can you get out in front of the types of things that customers may experience, especially in a cloud based model and world, that you can help resolve so that a customer never has to contact support, whatsoever. So there’s that aspect as well. So I think there’s a lot of different things. But if I would tell myself that five, 10 years ago, I think the progress of some of the support organizations I’ve worked in would’ve been much more advanced.

Chett Coombs: (44:19)
I love that. Also, I think you said earlier in the conversation, you talked about listening to your customer? Tying that back to what you just said, in the end, I just want an answer. I don’t care if I’m talking to someone live over the phone, if I’m chatting with someone, or if I just go and I find it on my own. In the end, that’s what I want. And so I love that you… There’s so many different KPIs that customer support teams manage, and you focused on the one is, time to resolution. How long is it taking me to have my issue revolved? So, I love that. Anything anyone else wanted to add there when it comes to the process part of this discussion?

Alan Pendleton: (45:01)
Yeah. I just wanted to jump in. So definitely agree with everything John just said there. And when I think about it, I do think about it in terms of three things, which is the first response time to resolution. And then that overall customer happiness and customer satisfaction. And so I love that idea of focusing on what are your key metrics and then every… Whether it’s quarterly cadence, monthly cadence, how do you get really lean and agile in moving the needle on that? And then that can be through hiring, through tools, through more process. But having that north star of what the customer cares about is always really important.

Chett Coombs: (45:42)
Yeah, love that. Deon, I want to move into the technology side of things. For a second, I want to tee this up with my experience as a customer service manager. We had really good people. We had Colton Brennan and Sylvia on our team. Just a little bit of backstory. Colton had been with us since the beginning of the company, and saw us evolve from being a one product company to three different software products, serving three different industries, and really knew everything about the products.

Chett Coombs: (46:13)
He was doing everything from product demonstration, to tier one support, up to technical bugging and everything like that. As we started to scale, we hired more people. And we thought that, “We’ll just duplicate Colton.” What happened is, we created the process as we… I literally looked at time to response, how long was it taking us to get to a customer? And then we were looking at average response time, but we still weren’t making a difference.

Chett Coombs: (46:42)
And part of it was that I didn’t have the technology necessary to enable our new support teams. I’m not going to tell you what tools we were using, because all three of you would probably look less of me, just because I definitely don’t want to go into that. But the reality is, Colton had something that we couldn’t teach the other agents. And that was tribal knowledge. He knew the customers. He had been on the phone with thousands of customers over the course of seven years, and we couldn’t pass that on, and we didn’t have the tools to help that.

Chett Coombs: (47:19)
Deon, when you talk about tools, wrapping all this together, hiring the right people, outsourcing, doing it internally, having the processes value, change activity, what do you look at when it comes to tools? How do you decide what you automate, what you keep as human to human interaction? How do you go about looking at tools and putting the right pieces in place?

Deon Nicholas: (47:40)
So there are two things that I think about when it comes to tools. So first and foremost… And a lot of people ask the question, “Hey, what do you look at from an automation perspective?” The way I like to start the conversation is from a human perspective. This is both your customers, your end users, as well as your agents. So for example, what is the work that your agents are doing that they probably don’t need to be doing, and that they could spend more time working with customers, focusing on being empathetic, rather than say, for example, triaging, classifying, tagging tickets or things like that.

Deon Nicholas: (48:18)
And so there are going to be a ton of inefficiencies in the process, and it usually starts by asking people where are they spending most of their time, or for example, on the customer side, what’s preventing them from getting their issue solved. So the first thing I would say is always start thinking about people. And then the second is more of a mindset. One of the jokes, for example, in a finance function is that the majority of finance teams run out of Excel, out of Spreadsheets. And there’s tons of great technology that can enable a finance team to move more quickly.

Deon Nicholas: (48:51)
And so I always like to ask myself, “Where am I operating out of Excel?” Whether that’s literally or figuratively. As we talked about the natural status quo, the natural progression for most companies, is actually an inefficient one. Most teams, unless you are very deliberate about looking for ways to create efficiency, you’re going to default to inefficiency. And so you end up finding these giant companies that are running their support, probably literally in Spreadsheets. Don’t have the right CRM set up, don’t have CRM support, don’t have analytics, or things like that.

Deon Nicholas: (49:25)
And so I think just remembering those two principles, that you have to be very, very active in order to create these efficiencies. And then where do you find them is by starting by looking at the people, and where they’re spending their time, and where they could be leveraged more. And you often find a ton of these things. And I mentioned a couple, so triaging, analytics, things like that. But we can definitely dive into a lot more.

John Kearney: (49:46)
Plus one, Deon. I totally agree with him, totally.

Deon Nicholas: (49:49)
Thanks, John.

Chett Coombs: (49:52)
Okay. So we’re coming up on time. I just posed a question to see if anyone on the panel or any of the guests that are here listening, if you have a question, please let us know. We’re going to close up here in a couple minutes. And so, one thing that I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to do in these last couple minutes is, first off, when you think about agility, I would like each of you to give me your, “If I could give any organization, whether they’re small, medium, large enterprises, here’s what I would do.”

Chett Coombs: (50:29)
John, let’s just have you talk about, “If I’m managing a small customer service team…” Zendesk, you guys serve such a wide range of customers. Teams of one to two agents, two large enterprises with hundreds of agents, right? But if you could focus on the one or two tips that you would give a small organization, “This is how you need… This is the thing you need to focus on tomorrow.” Alan, if you could look at that next size, not necessarily a small team, but some mid-level company. When you think about what they should be doing, what they should be looking at, what should they look at going to implement tomorrow? And, Deon, larger enter enterprises.

Chett Coombs: (51:13)
Specifically, I’m thinking about some of the recent customers, like Acorns, Instacart, some of the things that your team has done recently. You have a lot of experience with larger enterprises, helping them become more agile. And so, if you could each take two or three minutes. But then also, tell the audience how they can go learn about your organizations as well. What are the one or two things you would do for that market? And then if they feel like they want to go learn more, how do they find out about your organization?

John Kearney: (51:45)
Great. I’ll jump right in. So for a smaller business, thinking about how they can be agile, what should they be thinking about? One is, don’t blow the ocean. Start small, get your strategic wins, make sure your customers are happy, and think about where you’re heading next from a product standpoint and a company standpoint. As the company brand grows and you get more and more customers, are you prepared for that next round of hiring, and what skills are you going to need to focus on? So I would look at that, start small, focus on the key strategies in terms of where you’re heading, and then look at how you’re staffing to meet the complexity of the product and growth moving forward.

Chett Coombs: (52:37)
Perfect. Alan, you want to go next?

Alan Pendleton: (52:39)
Sure. John, I didn’t know if you wanted to layer in, how to get in touch with Zendesk [inaudible 00:52:45].

Chett Coombs: (52:44)
Yeah, that’s true.

John Kearney: (52:46)
Sorry. And obviously, you can look me up on LinkedIn as well, if you have any specific questions after this. Feel free to just connect with me on LinkedIn, John Kearney, Zendesk vice president for customer advocacy.

Alan Pendleton: (53:03)
All right. I’ll jump in. So for a midsize company, all right. A couple of things, I would say. You’ve built something now, you’re growing. You have something to protect. So it’s not persistence… Mere existence and persistence is not what it’s all about anymore. So I would start in your planning, think about the black swan, think about the outlier. You have something to protect. You have assets that you don’t want to bet the farm on if some, if you have a serious risk event, so you want to think about resiliency.

Alan Pendleton: (53:32)
But it’s also time… As you’re scaling, you’re growing, it’s time to start thinking about knowledge base. You want to start capturing that tribal knowledge and baking it into something. I’m a big fan of the method Deon alluded to earlier of democratizing that and letting your agent pool play a significant role in capturing knowledge and documenting that.

Alan Pendleton: (53:52)
And then it’s also the information architecture that goes alongside of your knowledge base. But these two steps, when you’re mid-size, set you up for that future state, where you can lay really sophisticated AI and powerful tools on top of it. It’s much harder to do before you have a knowledge base. It’s not impossible. But I would recommend if you haven’t done that in your mid-size company, protect your assets with resiliency planning, get your knowledge base going, think about your information architecture.

Alan Pendleton: (54:24)
So if you have a lot of different systems, use the same nomenclature throughout, so you can match databases together from disparate sources and stuff. Think about your outsourcing and scaling strategy. It may be time for you to mature into that, where you need diversification now, you need the ability to scale up and down as needed. And then how to learn more about Arena, you can check us out at Anyone’s welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn or send an email to just [email protected]

Chett Coombs: (54:57)
Thank you. Love that. You talked about information architecture and knowledge base. Just wanted to throw out a big plug for the last webinar. A couple weeks ago we did a webinar around the discussion of human plus machine, the future of customer service. And really delve deep into the discussion of information architecture and knowledge base, and really having the data there.

Chett Coombs: (55:19)
And so for anybody on this call, if you want to learn more about that, we have an hour long webinar where we dug deep into that just a couple weeks ago. And so if you haven’t seen that, reach out to ArenaCX or Forethought, we can make sure you get a copy of that. Deon, do you want to go next?

Deon Nicholas: (55:35)
Yeah, for sure. So we talked about small companies, medium size companies. When you start to become a very large scale company, that’s when things get very, very interesting, particularly around scale. So it somewhat depends on your growth curve. Are you still in a convex up, or a linear, or a convex down curve, so to speak? But that changes the frame of the problems. But the way to attack those problems is always the same. So at some point you’re going to start crossing that 20, 50, 100 agent mark. You’re going to start crossing that 1,000 tickets per or week mark. And that’s when you start looking at creating these efficiencies, when you start looking at tools. Obviously here at Forethought we provide AI technology.

Deon Nicholas: (56:18)
That’s usually the time where you’re going to want to start looking into things like artificial intelligence, or other systems, for example, conversational interfaces, things like that, and starting to get better analytics. Because you’re going to stop knowing what you don’t know. And so you’re going to want to start implementing and instrumenting your systems, so that you can continue to either, continue that scale or that upward trajectory. Or if you’re in the other curves, start to reduce costs, which is what you start to look at when you’re pre IPO or post IPO company.

Deon Nicholas: (56:48)
So again, the problems will be different depending on what company you are, whether you’re high growth, unicorn, et cetera. But this is usually the time when you should start thinking about driving efficiencies, bringing in automation, bringing in technology, and either increasing leverage or increasing efficiency. And then how to get in touch. Feel free to email me at Deon, D-E-O-N,, or go to our website, to request a demo. I’m also available on LinkedIn, so don’t hesitate to shoot me a LinkedIn invite. Add a note, and I’m pretty responsive.

Chett Coombs: (57:26)
Awesome. Perfect. We just had a question come in, if you guys don’t mind [inaudible 00:57:29] if someone wants to answer this. I think it’s a good question. How can you keep your customer service team motivated when you do training regarding their performance? Me personally, my motivation usually revolves around food, specifically tacos. But this is not my area of expertise. And my guess is, you guys have a lot better answer than I do. So would one of you guys like to answer that?

John Kearney: (57:54)
Yeah, I can quickly answer and then give folks time as well. I say inspire them to understand their charter, what they’re there for. And it’s really to help customers resolve issues so that they can leverage your products and services to increase their business and revenue. So be inspiring, help them understand the end. It’s not just closing a ticket. It’s really helping a customer grow market share, realize the revenue, targets and growth, and things of that nature. So that’s the approach I take.

Chett Coombs: (58:28)
Love it. I think customer service agents, they don’t get as much love as they need and deserve. Customer service really is… That’s the biggest billboard for your company. And so making sure they understand that, that they are, oftentimes, the first interaction and the most common interaction they have with the company. So they make a big impact in regards to overall customer satisfaction, and the customers wanting to come back.

Chett Coombs: (58:52)
I was having a conversation with, actually, my previous company, where we talked about customer satisfaction. And the main reason I go to a specific restaurant is not the food, but the way that I’m treated as a customer. And I think that can be set across all organizations. So I think having them understand that, that they play a massive role in the customer success, goes a long way.

Chett Coombs: (59:17)
So I want to appreciate or say thanks, first of all, John, Alan and Deon for taking the time. You guys are all super busy CEOs and VP of Zendesk. And so, being able to come here and meet with myself and everybody in our audience, thank you so much. I also appreciate everyone who came to take an hour of the day to listen to the discussion. And if you have any questions after this, I will put a slide up that shows everybody’s contact information.

Chett Coombs: (59:50)
We have Ty Yelich from Zendesk. He is our point of contact there. If you have sales related questions, we have his information up here. If you want to speak with John directly, as he said, John Kearney on LinkedIn. You can feel free to reach out to him. So thank you so much. This will be the end of this webinar discussion. And we look forward to seeing you all in the next one.

Deon Nicholas: (01:00:14)
Thanks, Chett you.

John Kearney: (01:00:15)
Thank you.

Alan Pendleton: (01:00:15)
Thanks everyone.

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