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How Zendesk and GoCardless place customer support at the heart of their international expansion strategies

If you’re big enough – or growing fast enough – to be developing your international business strategy, eventually you’re going to bump up against a complex challenge: how do you look after clients cross-border?

Opening satellite offices is expensive. Sales people – usually the first to touch down in a new country – get excited by doing deals, not handling service calls. Scaling the support function is like everything else in a growing business: you have to somehow work your limited resources smart enough to exceed expectations.

So we might as well build a customer support function that both makes customers happy and powers the business forward. Here are the key characteristics of the customer support function that growth businesses should aim for:

1. STRATEGIC: Douglas Hanna is Senior Director, Operations at Zendesk, the world’s leading customer-support-as-a-service system. He says “Organisations are now seeing support as a strategic business function. Businesses thrive on loyalty and recurring revenues; and consumers talk to each other and make referrals or warn customers off bad experiences. Support is central to that experience. So instead of measuring support performance in call times or inbound volume, they’re measuring true business impact: loyalty, prevention of churn and growth”.

2. MULTI-CHANNEL: Next, says Hanna, “We’re seeing a lot of focus on being able to deliver experiences on channels that make sense for the customer, from native mobile apps and web experiences to bots and traditional phone. They expect to interact on their own terms. They’re happy flipping between channels in their personal lives, so they want to do so when dealing with businesses, too”. Dimension Data’s annual call center survey bears this out, with the universality of phone support clearly slipping annually:

annual call center survey
© Dimension Data, Quoted by IBM’s call center optimization report

Customer Experience strategist and author of ‘Delivering Effective Social Customer Service’, Martin Hill-Wilson adds, “And as consumers, we’re really good at triaging the type of discussion we want to have – we’ll swap channels based on the situation. People instinctively know when they want the independence of 24/7 self-serve, but they also know – when a situation has complexity or is emotionally charged – when they want to talk to a real person”.

3. NON-LINEAR: Hanna says, “The old model was to hire a bunch of people in a boiler-room and answer X calls per day. Efficiency meant more calls. Instead, we’re thinking: how can we use self-serve, bots, automations, videos and feedback content to drive a more efficient customer experience. In a call center fifteen years ago, 95% of the employee base was customer facing, answering phones every day. Now with Zendesk’s customers, up to one third of the customer service department are not customer facing. They’re working on self-serve documents, training, even developers working on integrations. The result is lots more scale. So a Customer Support team is no longer just people on phones.”

Making the jump to growth

That doesn’t mean there’s a blueprint for a multinational support function. Says Hanna, “New channels and new languages are inevitably an operational burden, but if you don’t do a good job, all your customers across all your channels will suffer. So work out what your customers want and need, and cater to those demands: ‘where is my courier?’ is a question which needs a real-time answer; whereas ‘what is your returns address?’ can be handled at more relaxed pace. Do a few things better for the customer, rather than trying to do everything.”

Nicola Anderson is VP, Marketing for Direct Debit payments provider, GoCardless. Their payments solution supports over 30,000 businesses across multiple markets from small startups to large multi-national corporations. She has seen the complexity of growth first-hand, and offers some advice on the practicalities.

The key consideration is: are you keeping your support team at the HQ, or are you opening local offices?”, she says.

If you’re staying in your home market and you recruit speakers of your target languages, even local speakers can sound too naturalised, because they have lived in your home market for too long. Language is always a bigger job than you’d expect: there’s the website, emails, phone scripts, help centres and live chat to consider. You need to ensure that that you can fully support all of these in a consistent manner. A bad translation is worse than no translation and depending on your market and audience you may want to consider keeping it in English until you can fully commit.

Language is always a bigger job than you’d expect: there’s the website, emails, phone scripts, help centres and live chat to consider. You need to ensure that you can fully support all of these in a consistent manner.”

Of course, it’s operationally easier in most cases to remain in the home market for as long as possible. But when you do extend to in-country offices, you need to make your team feel included and fully supported. Ensuring you have the right tech set up so they can dial in to company all hands and weekly meetings is essential. It’s unproductive to treat new markets as outposts. Many SaaS businesses enforce a rule that local employees spend some time at HQ (and vice-versa), because not only does it help them to feel connected, it also means they bring the company culture and knowledge back with them.

It’s also worth having a global playbook for Support that outlines best practice for that discipline and how it can be used in other markets, with the flexibility to be sensitive to local needs.

Recruit the best for a new power-career

Either home market teams will have to support customers with other languages and cultures, or in-country teams will have to start largely from scratch. However you handle it, your customer team are going to have to be a cut above the average during a phase of global expansion strategy. Recruiting the best makes sense – and in any case, the “minimum wage drone” CSA deserves to be consigned to the past. There is a raft of characteristics of great Support recruits – and the language barrier is completely immaterial to them all.

Michael Heppell is the International Sunday Times No.1 best-selling author of “5 Star Service”. He says “It seems obvious that you should just find people who love people. But that’s hard when most people are motivated at least to some degree by money. Instead, start with what makes a great CSA: I think it’s an enabler, a person who likes fixing things. Then train them to be great with other people and, or the processes you need followed. For a fixer, the satisfaction comes from sorting something out. And as we see customers solve the more easy issues for themselves, it’s the bigger problems – ones that can’t be solved by an automated channel – that will end up on a non-automated channel with a CSA: a super fixer!

Zendesk’s Hanna agrees: “It’s the right mix of attitude and aptitude for your business. There’s a great book, ‘Setting the Table’ by Danny Meyer, which talks about hiring 51% for attitude and 49% for aptitude; and while highly technical businesses may need a little more aptitude, it’s going to be a mix of both.”

Heppell continues: “And don’t worry about channels, because whilst the phone might be your oldest channel, going forward it’s just the median. In the next 12 months, as AI tools become mainstream, the idea of being restricted to one channel will in any case become out of date. Modern agents will be trained to tackle multiple channels well.”

Hill-Wilson also favours a blend of aptitude and attitude; or as he puts it, “it’s not just outcomes but how you get there”. However, traditional call centers have not always balanced these priorities. “Call centers typically run an induction before onboarding of up to 6 weeks”, he says, “but in those 6 weeks, 80% or more of it is Systems related. Only a small amount is soft skills. Nobody’s taught listening or empathy.

And this can get worse in practice. Those native skills of intuition and empathy will be destroyed in a traditional call centre culture, because the classic management mindset is for a command-and-control culture rather than a bottom-up culture”.

Instead, to get results for customers, they must be empowered to make a difference. Says Heppell, “However an issue is escalated, and on whatever channel, your support people must be allowed to spend the appropriate time and money to resolve an issue, and know exactly how to interpret the company values on which they’re basing that decision. They need to have the budget, the time and the confidence to fix things. One out of three isn’t enough.”

Command-and-control has been around for decades, which is bizarre; because empowerment is a win-win. As well as giving customers the outcome they want, it also gives CSAs job satisfaction and so reduces the churn endemic in the customer support industry.

The reason for the change is that there’s a virtuous circle in the profession. Companies realise that training new staff is expensive. They see also that Support is now a key part of the Customer Experience. And they see that Support execs are also the company talent of the future. “It’s worth hiring the best”, says Hanna.

Customer Support leaders are thinking like Product leaders. They know how to build and maintain teams and execute projects. Those leaders then hire CSAs who are also well positioned to move into relationship roles like Customer Success. At Zendesk, we just promoted someone from Support into Product Management – bringing with them plenty of customer empathy, product knowledge, and an understanding of the business and customer need. Strategic businesses see Support as a source of talent”.

There are still some agonisingly drab call centers across the globe; but at last you can genuinely hire on the promise of a career. “There’s always churn risk, especially with smart, driven people; maybe fresh out of school”, says Hanna, “but if there are growth opportunities for them, and your business is growing too, they get ramped up really quickly”.

[Ed: and now a word from our sponsors…]

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