International Customer Support: How to Build An Awesome Team From People Who’ve Done It

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You have a problem. Your business is growing, and not just locally. Your customers are international, and they need help when you’re asleep. It’s a great problem to have. But it still requires a solution.

You could hire shift workers locally and provide 24/7 support internationally that way. But it’s often more expensive, many of your customers abroad have no chance of being connected to someone who sounds like them, and shift work is hard on workers.

international customer support

Besides, as writer Vinay Sharma put it for the Kayako blog: “The best teams are built upon people’s differences and their strengths. The key is having a diverse group of people with different skills. This helps drive innovation, competition, unrestricted thought, and open-mindedness.”

You need to build a skilled, cohesive, international team of dedicated customer support agents. You need to find the right people from different parts of the globe, train them remotely, and then teach them to work together despite not being face-to-face. Gah!

Luckily, you’re not the first person to face this problem. Here are some tips gleaned from others who’ve done this successfully in the past.

How to hire

Luis Hernandez, VP of Customer Success at Geckoboard found his business growing overseas. “Most noticeably in North America and Australasia. That meant that customers abroad had to wait for the next British business day to get a reply. Support requests piled-up.”

Geckoboard had made a commitment to their customers to respond to every request within 24 hours, but the average first response time was creeping up to over 30 hours. He soon realized, “We needed to do something!”

First step: Hiring. Hernandez recommends We Work Remotely. “At the beginning, we posted job offers there, on our webpage and a few other places. After the first two hires, we posted exclusively there because we were so happy with the results. We have never been short of talented applicants from all over the world.”

Okay, so you’ve got some promising international customer support agent job candidates. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff when you can’t meet the candidate?

Geckoboard gave their job applicants an assignment. First, they have to sign up for a Geckoboard account. So far so good. You’d think an applicant would want to know how the product works anyway. Then, the candidate must create a dashboard and create a widget which contains some HTML. Much better than just putting “HTML” in the skills section of your resume.

Hernandez adds, “Bonus points if you can include a polling and a push custom widget and can add some custom CSS to the dashboard. Don’t forget to include the sharing URL on your application.” And the best part: Geckoboard asks candidates to give them their response to the following customer query: “Hi, Please cancel my account – Ben.”

Hernandez explains why this works so well:

“The candidate challenge has made the hiring process that much easier (and less tedious). It has been particularly helpful in getting to know applicants who are thousands of miles away — something that can be hard to achieve by reviewing CVs, even when hiring locally. A challenge also allows you to see who’s truly interested in and dedicated to the opportunity. Challenges take time, so only those who really want to work with you are going to take the time to complete it.”

Then, once you have the right people in place, you need to onboard them.

How to onboard

“For many companies, onboarding is just the process of giving new people logins and showing them where they can make their coffee,” Sharma wrote for Kayako. Instead, onboarding should be seen as the time when you:

  • Inform the company of the new hires
  • Familiarize the new hires with the work environment and company culture
  • Introduce the new hires to their coworkers
  • Guide new hires through the company’s processes
  • Give new hires access to the documentation they need to do their jobs
  • Ensure new hires are clear on their individual responsibilities and goals
  • Ensure new hires are clear on their team’s responsibilities and goals
  • Ensure new hires are clear on their manager’s responsibilities and goals
  • Establish timeframes for onboarding, goals, and reviews

No big deal.

Add to all that the impediments of distance. Time zone differences make introductions harder and culture divides can make it harder to integrate new hires into the company culture.

Sharma recommends having a team leader or line manager lead the onboarding process and involving the remote recruit’s entire team instead of leaving the job to HR or another department. “Building relationships with team members at this stage is vital, so that remote workers have a support network they can reach out to.”

Next, set clear expectations for what a successful onboard looks like. You should know ahead of time what your new hire should have done by the end and what the manager should have done by the end.

And remember to document, document, document. This gives you something to share with your new team member so that they can refer to it later. It gives you something to amend for your next hire based on what worked well, and not so well. And it makes it much easier to onboard the next new hire.

How to communicate

“Successfully managing a remote team is dependent on exercising empathy and trust with your remote team members,” Hernandez writes. And the first step to building empathy and trust is establishing good communication habits.

When first working with a new remote employee, Sharma suggests using video calls. “Speaking to a person face-to-face, even if it’s on a screen, helps you develop a relationship with them much more quickly as you can see facial expressions and gestures as well as tone of voice,” Sharma writes.

There are lots of video chat apps to choose from. Skype and Hangouts are obvious, low-cost, very popular choices. Facetime is a great tool for Mac-only shops. Other options include:

All else equal, it certainly makes sense to use the tools you’re already using.

So for example if you offer live chat, and your live chat software does video chat, you may want to just use that. Same if your CRM or help desk software offer video chat functionality.

Larger companies or companies which also need to run remote meetings with clients and customers may want to invest in web conferencing software or meeting software.

Just be sure whatever you use allows group video chat and works on mobile. There’s no use learning a new system that doesn’t meet all your needs.

As previously discussed, Facebook Messenger is making a play to incentivize brands to use it for customer service. It offers one-to-one video chat for free, but until it offers group video chat it’s not going to be what you need.

After the onboarding process, collaboration will move to mostly group text chats. “Remote workers should be able to easily communicate with anyone in the business almost as easily as if they were in the office, or they will spend time trying to get in touch,” Sharma warns. “Messaging or collaboration apps are essential for remote workers to be able to communicate seamlessly with coworkers.”

Facebook Messenger and Hangouts can work for group chats, but for remote teams the popular choice seems to be Slack.

Ramit Sethi, New York Times best-selling author and founder of GrowthLab and I Will Teach You To Be Rich, made the decision early on to forego setting up an office. “A personal philosophy of mine is flexibility,” he wrote in a recent email. “I like to go to the gym at 4 in the afternoon. Or catch up with friends in town over coffee – without having to take a half day off.

I wanted the same flexibility for my employees.”

So how did he grow I Will Teach You To Be Rich “from a dorm-room blog into a multimillion-dollar online business with over 30,000 paying customers around the world?”

For one thing, he used Slack to drastically cut his team’s internal email volume.

“A simple question sometimes used to turn into a string of emails that was forwarded to 12 different people. And there was still no clear answer after all that. Not the best way to communicate!”

We set up different channels for teams – like sales and tech. And we also have a general one where anyone can shout out a question and get a response from whoever knows the answer.

Here’s an example of a simple question that doesn’t need to flood everyone’s inbox:

FVRmDEY

“If I wasn’t around to answer it, someone else would’ve been all over it.”

How to collaborate

Communication established, you still need tools for storing information, codifying, and automating your processes. Collaboration tools are an absolute must for most any team, but especially for a remote team. It’s a huge waste of time to constantly ping people about a project’s next steps. Not to mention how much mental space it takes up to keep track who’s holding the ball in your head.

Ramit Sethi likes to use Trello for project management. “For example, with blog posts on GrowthLab, I can see if they’re being drafted, ready for approval, or approved with a quick glance,” Sethi wrote.

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“As tasks get done, the cards are moved over. So I might look at a Trello board a day later and see that a project went from unassigned to assigned. It’s a great way for me to stay in the loop without being overbearing.”

In the Support Driven Slack, jacobpgn recommends success teams use Trello to keep track of which customers are being onboarded, need nurturing, and need the odd contact for maintenance, etc. He wrote that it’s great for teams that need to keep track of 5-10 customers per month. “It gets scary at high volume though!” In addition, you can’t use Trello to enforce any particular workflow.

Keep in mind that for that volume a spreadsheet can also suffice. “I’ve just used a spreadsheet in the past for the first 100 or so [customers],” sarahleeyoga wrote. “:speak_no_evil: Now we use Totango, but we’re onboarding a few hundred a month.”

Camilleacey recommended Clubhouse. “It’s not expressly for customer onboarding but it’s a bit more structured than Trello.”

Sharma recommends using central repositories for storing documentation such as Google Docs or Github. We at Capterra use Trello for our content marketing editorial calendar and Google Drive for our drafts. Both do become unwieldy at high volumes, and for that reason we are shopping for content marketing software.

As a general rule of thumb, the greater the volume, the greater the likelihood you’ll get a positive ROI from a dedicated tool.

Conclusion

And so what’s been the result of these best practices? A year and a half after Hernandez began his push for international support, “We can proudly say that the result is a first response time of just over 1 business hour.”

For Sethi, his systems help him and his team “stay focused on our big wins.”

Have you built or scaled an international support team? What piece of advice would you give? Let me know in the comments.

Looking for Customer Service software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Customer Service software solutions.

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Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is a former Capterra analyst.

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