Plans, Predictions, Insights, and Opinions From 475 Customer Support Leaders
This survey provides a detailed (and timely) answer to a two-part question:
- What are the issues today’s customer support leaders care about the most?
- How are they designing their customer support strategies as a result?
Data in this report comes from a February 2018 survey of 475 U.S. based customer support managers, directors, VPs, and executives. Aircall conducted this online survey with the assistance of a third-party market research firm. Due to rounding, some percentage totals within the report may not equal 100%.
Table of Contents
- Part I – Objectives & Obstacles
- PartII – Measuring Performance
- Part III – Making Investments
- Part IV – Developing Talent
- Part V – Balancing Channels
- Key Takeaways
About This Survey
Team Leaders | Respondents with the job role of Support Team Manager / Leader.
Directors & Above | Respondents with the job role of Director, VP, or C-level.
Small Teams | Customer support teams with 5 or fewer employees.
Midsize Teams | Customer support teams with 6 – 50 employees.
Large Teams | Customer support teams with more than 50 employees.
CRM/Helpdesk Users | Respondents who use a CRM or Helpdesk software solution (ex. Salesforce, Zendesk, Intercom) to manage support team operations.
Non-Users| Respondents who do not use a CRM or Helpdesk software solution to manage support team operations.
The Best | Respondents who rated their customer support team’s overall performance as “best in the industry”.
The Rest | Respondents who rated their customer support team’s overall performance as “good, but not yet great”, “significant room for improvement”, or “just figuring out the fundamentals”.
Our final survey question asked respondents to consider the following:
“What one change do you believe would have the most positive impact on your organization’s customer support operations in 2018?”
Select responses are quoted verbatim and featured using green block-quotes throughout this post.
Objectives & Obstacles
Which three customer support objectives represent your top priorities for 2018?
Setting customer support strategy is an exercise in prioritization. There are many valid objectives a team can pursue, but there is a finite amount of time, money, and attention available for allocation. Given the chance to choose three options, survey respondents collectively confirmed that their top targets for 2018 will be:
- 1) Reducing total cost of operations
- 2) Delivering consistent experiences across channels
- 3) Increasing customer lifetime value
In fact, only two survey subgroups offered a different list. Team Leaders downgraded each of the overall Top-3 by one position and identified reducing customer wait times as their #1 priority. Meanwhile, The Best prioritized implementing new tools or technologies above all else, followed by reducing customer wait times and increasing customer lifetime value.
The most confident and consistent subgroup, however, was Large Teams. More than half of respondents from this segment listed delivering consistent experiences across channels as their #1 priority — making it the only example of a >50% consensus answer to this question.
These key themes of cost control, customer experience, and technical innovation will continue to play leading roles throughout this report.
Which of the following obstacles do you see as potential threats to the success of your customer support strategy in 2018?
Plotting a path to success wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging a few of the obstacles you might encounter along the way. Overall, survey respondents reported that they are most concerned about the potential threats posed by challenges:
- 1) Controlling costs
- 2) Retaining employees
- 3) Hiring employees
With training employees just missing out on a Top-3 spot, it’s safe to say that budget and talent management are the two primary worries for customer support leaders in 2018.
This notion was further underscored by the lack of variation between survey subgroups. Team Leaders and Large Teams were only slightly more concerned about retaining employees than the average respondent, and Small Teams were (predictably) the segment most focused on controlling costs.
Combining these two themes together, one could say today’s customer support leaders have a mandate to find cost-effective ways of attracting candidates, maximizing talent, and improving morale.
Which of the following customer support metrics does your organization consistently track?
In addition to confirming their broader priorities, we also wanted to know which specific metrics customer support leaders use to measure progress.
Overall, the two most important indicators appear to be Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) and Call Wait Time. Or, put another way, how long does it take to connect with agents and how satisfying are those interactions?
The next-most popular measures of success — average reply time, average handle time, and average resolution time — also focus on operational urgency and efficiency. Meanwhile, more commercial metrics like Customer Churn Rate and Net Promoter Score (NPS) still seem to be lesser priorities for all subgroups aside from Directors & Above.
“Efficiency in all areas.” – Respondent #84
The fact that only two metrics are consistently tracked by more than 25% of customer support leaders suggests analytics is an area in need of improvement. However, the survey data does imply that reporting matures as teams scale.
While Small Teams measure only one metric with a >25% consensus, that figure jumps to three metrics for Midsize Teams and six metrics for Large Teams.
How confident are you in your organization’s ability to accurately measure customer support metrics?
The number of metrics you measure means little if your team can’t trust their accuracy. The good news is 85% of survey respondents are somewhat confident or very confident in the legitimacy of their measurements. There are, however, a few subgroups variations worth noting.
“Improved data analytics.” – Respondent #153
Directors & Above, for example, are 10% more likely than Team Leaders to classify themselves as very confident. This finding suggests the feedback loop between those in the corner offices and those on the front lines might need a bit more maintenance.
But it’s actually another two segments who stand out for their unparalleled confidence. CRM/Helpdesk Users are 92% confident (52% very) in their data accuracy — 14% more than Non-Users. And The Best are 96% confident (70% very) — 15% more than The Rest.
At this point, it’s important to note that 71% of The Best are also CRM/Helpdesk Users. We’ll be revisiting the relationship between these two groups several times throughout the report. And you may already be wondering what comes first: Does CRM/Helpdesk software lead teams to become “the best”, or is the technology naturally preferred by teams who have already achieved that status?
While we can’t determine causation, there are two distinct correlations we do see in the data. The analytical capabilities embedded in modern CRM/Helpdesk software gives customer support teams greater confidence in the accuracy of their metrics. Additionally, that confidence is a consistent trait among the best teams.
How did your total annual customer support budget change from 2017 to 2018?
Now that we know more about where customer support teams are aiming and what they are measuring, it’s time to examine the financial resources they’ll use to fuel their plans. Overall, 36% of respondents are expecting a year-over-year budget increase.
“More money.” – Respondents #52, #96, #281
The Best will be the most active investors of any subgroup, with 56% of their teams welcoming a budget increase. And B2C customer support leaders will also enjoy comparatively big balances. While only 22% of Nonprofit respondents and 33% of B2B respondents reported plans for a budget increase this year, 45% of their B2C counterparts said the same.
To a lesser extent, financial support also proved to be a product of team size. As 38% of Large Teams prepare themselves for an annual budget increase, 37% of Midsize Teams and 32% of Small Teams will do the same.
One thing nearly all customer support leaders are increasing, however, is their ambition. As a result, it seems cost-efficiency will continue to be a dominant theme for the majority of teams.
Which of your customer support budget categories will receive the most funding in 2018?
How you choose to allocate your budget reveals a lot about what you value. This year, the emphasis seems to be on staffing.
Employee training and development was the best-funded budget category by far. And when combined with the category of employee recruitment, we see that 57% of survey respondents are choosing a “people cost” as their top budget priority. This trend held constant across all subgroups as well, with the only significant difference being an increased interest (12% above average) in employee recruitment among The Best.
“Invest in employees first.” – Respondent #177
It’s important to remember, though, that the division between people and technology is not binary in practice. Training employees on how to use a new live chat tool, for example, blurs the line between the two categories. Similarly, investing in state-of-the-art software can be a significant asset for recruiting and retaining talented employees.
And as we’ll see shortly, claiming that customer support teams are not investing in technology would be an incorrect conclusion.
Which of your customer support budget categories will receive more funding in 2018 than they did in 2017?
A growing budget could conceal a company’s mandate to consolidate its software systems. Conversely, a shrinking budget might mask a team doubling its investment in talent acquisition. As a result, we wanted to investigate budget categories from one additional angle.
Employee training and development was confirmed as the budget category customer support leaders are most likely to increase spending on in 2018. And when combined with employee recruitment, we see that 61% of survey respondents will spend more on “people costs” this year.
Technical maintenance and technical innovation, on the other hand, will attract increased investment from 29% and 26% of survey respondents, respectively. That means 55% of customer support leaders will spend more on “tech costs” in 2018 than they did last year.
“Better technology to get us moving forward.” – Respondent #344
So even if only 36% of respondents have the benefit of a bigger total budget, we see that 81% are planning to increase investment in at least one budget category.
Do customer support reps receiving formal training when initially joining your organization?
Even the most capable customer support representatives will need a bit of assistance before they can succeed in a new work environment. Thankfully, four out of five survey respondents said they welcome new hires with a formal training agenda.
CRM/Helpdesk Users appear to be the biggest advocates of onboarding. While only 64% on Non-Users provide initial training, 92% CRM/Helpdesk Users formalize their early employee education. This may, however, be a product of the more complex, technical workflows they need to teach.
The Best also confirmed their intentions to invest in employee development, with 90% saying their new reps receive formal training. (Only 74% of The Rest responded similarly.)
Finally, commitment to employee onboarding also correlates strongly with team size. Small Teams, Midsize Teams, and Large Teams provide initial training at rates of 68%, 80%, and 86%, respectively. But in defense of smaller teams, they tend to have fewer complex systems or established protocols to pass on to new hires (and fewer free moments to do it).
Do those customer support reps receive any formal training beyond initial onboarding?
Everything an effective customer support representative needs to know can’t be neatly compressed into one two-day workshop. Employee development has to be a continuous process.
Seven out of 10 survey respondents agree with this sentiment, offering formal training that lasts beyond initial onboarding. And despite the 8% drop-off from the previous question, it still represents a solid majority.
“Have training around once a month with new goals each time.” – Respondent #326
The Best and CRM/Helpdesk Users led the way once again, providing continuous training at rates of 88% and 85%, respectively. And team size continues to be an important indicator. While 76% of Large Teams offered ongoing education, that figure slipped to 74% for Midsize Teams and 58% for Small Teams.
The more surprising set of findings was associated with business models. Sixty-four percent of Nonprofit organizations and 69% of B2C businesses formalize training beyond onboarding — slightly less than the average respondent. B2B companies, on the other hand, are ahead of the curve at 76%.
Which type of training do you believe is most effective for customer support reps?
Most every customer support leader agrees that onboarding is good and ongoing training is better. But what’s the most effective method for delivering employee education? The consensus there isn’t so clear.
Live workshops, whether presented by industry experts or internal staff, were the preferred choice for 50% of survey respondents. And considering the emotional and nuanced nature of customer support, it makes sense that traditional in-person instruction is still in fashion.
B2C businesses, CRM/Helpdesk Users, Large Teams, and Directors & Above are the subgroups most partial to live workshops from industry experts. The Best took their interest in outside advice a step further, though, ranking both live and online expert workshops above all in-house alternatives.
“Experts brought in from OUTSIDE our organization to advise.” – Respondent #99
Nonprofit organizations, Small Teams, and Team Leaders, on the other hand, are more enthusiastic about shadowing more experienced team members. These preferences may be a product of limited budgets, but the personalized attention and team collaboration made possible by paired learning certainly has its benefits.
Specific tactics aside, the existence and persistence of formal training plans will continue to be critical success factors. With 72% of customer support leaders employing remoted, outsourced, and/or seasonal agents, today’s increasingly diverse teams need consistent and coherent guidance now more than ever.
Which of the following customer support channels does your organization currently offer?
Digital innovation has significantly expanded the potential avenues for customer communication in recent years, but we wanted to know which channels companies are actually offering.
Phone and email remain the primary pillars of customer support for most companies. They were the only two channels offered by more than 40% of survey respondents.
Social media, live web chat, and text messaging are firmly in the next-most popular tier of technologies. But mobile apps, automated chatbots, and even some self-service channels still appear to be in the early days of their adoption curves.
Not surprisingly, team size and technical sophistication were the strongest predictors of channel variety. While Small Teams only reported >10% adoption on four channels, Midsize Teams and Large Teams had >10% adoption on nine and 10 channels, respectively. CRM/Helpdesk Users and The Best seem to have similarly diverse channel mixes. Both of those segments listed 10 channels above 10% adoption and six channels above 25% adoption.
These findings suggest companies naturally add more support channels as they grow — and that those using CRM/Helpdesk software likely have greater confidence in their ability to manage multichannel communications. Because, as our earlier findings on respondent priorities imply, most customer support leaders would not be interested in increasing channel quantity if it came at the expense of customer experience quality.
Which of the following customer support channels does your organization plan to offer for the first time in 2018?
After gathering a snapshot of what teams are offering today, we wanted to know what they have planned for tomorrow. For 74% of survey respondents, the answer is adding (at least) one new support channel before the end of 2018.
Not all subgroups were equally ambitious, however. CRM/Helpdesk Users (87%) were the strongest advocates for channel expansion, followed closely by The Best (83%). But the most interesting discrepancies centered on team size and job role.
The fact that only 61% of Small Teams plan to add channels is almost certainly a side-effect of their limited resources. However, the revelation that 84% of Medium Teams and 68% of Large Teams responded similarly suggests there is a plateau point at which growing teams suddenly become content with their offerings.
The other notable variation was between Team Leaders (64%) and Directors & Above (83%). This gap could signal competing priorities or ineffective communication between colleagues.
“The ability to reach out to customers in more technically advanced and convenient ways.” – Respondent #99
There’s also the matter of which channel(s) to choose when expanding your mix. And perhaps the most surprising finding of all was that one in four respondents plan to add the phone for the first time in 2018. But then again, maybe more of today’s web-first businesses are launching their support operations from a base of email and live web chat.
How confident are you in your organization’s ability to accurately track customer conversations across multiple support channels?
One of the most difficult questions today’s customer support leaders wrestle with is how to strike the balance between convenience and quality. They want to make their teams as accessible to customers as possible, but they can’t afford to let their service standards slip along the way.
Channel offerings are a prime example of this dilemma. Customers want the flexibility to interact with a company through multiple channels. But unless that company can tie all those separate threads into one cohesive conversation, the customer will inevitably find themselves repeating and correcting key info.
“More direct access to customers’ concerns from in-field employees.” – Respondent #206
At the moment, more than 80% of survey respondents say they are confident in their organization’s ability to track conversations across multiple channels. However, only 39% claim to be very confident.
The Best (94%) and CRM/Helpdesk Users (92%) are most confident — and their leadership here serves as a strong endorsement for the value of software as a centralizing force. But findings related to team size suggest that the solution may not be as simple as purchasing new technology.
Large Teams were actually less confident than Midsize Teams when it comes to tracking multichannel conversation (81% vs. 86%). One potential explanation could be that channel strategies grow more complex and confusing at scale. Whatever the rationale, though, the data points back to the notion that Large Teams are uniquely focused on their ability to deliver a consistent customer experience.
For general inquiries, which support channel would be your customers’ top preference?
Modern companies ultimately offer multiple support channels because they know customers’ communication preferences are context-dependent. What feels logical in one scenario might feel inconvenient in another. As a baseline for comparison, though, we initially wanted to examine the channel preferences associated with general inquiries.
A little more than two-thirds of respondents believe their customers would prefer email or phone in a standard support scenario. B2C companies, Nonprofit organizations, Team Leaders, Small Teams, and Large Teams were each slightly stronger advocates for the phone, while all remaining survey subgroups ranked email #1.
This relative consensus reinforces that conclusion that phone and email are still the two dominant support channels — one for instant communication and the other for intermittent.
For urgent inquiries, which support channel would be your customers’ top preference?
General inquiries are worth exploring in theory, but they rarely appear in practice. Almost every support conversation comes with the implication (or literal confirmation) that the customer believes their inquiry is urgent. As a result, this is the most important context for teams to consider.
Nearly two-thirds of support leaders agree that phone is the channel of choice when customers want speedy resolutions. This ranking held constant across all subgroups, with Team Leaders (73%) and B2C companies (68%) most united in their opinion.
These findings are not especially surprising considering the phone’s unique ability to offer immediacy and personal accountability. In fact, many times customers turn to the phone as a means of escalating issues that could not be solved in a separate channel.
The data is, however, a valuable reminder that customer support leaders need to configure their phone systems and strategies in a way that consistently delivers the rapid responses customers crave.
What Have We Learned?
People Are Still Your Competitive Advantage
The robotic revolution is still (at least) a few years away for most customer support teams. High-touch, human channels like phone, email, and social media remain the primary stages where satisfaction is won or lost. We’re already seeing best-in-class companies double down on employee recruitment and continuous development. And as unconventional staffing strategies grow in popularity (and necessity), coherent training strategies and effective collaboration tools will only become more important.
One Customer Conversation, Continued Over Multiple Support Channels
Three-quarters of customer support leaders plan to add a new channel to their strategies this year. Customers will certainly appreciate this flexibility, but they will not accept operational growing pains as an excuse for frustrating experiences. As a result, managers must find solutions for centralizing customer intelligence and providing agents with easy access to conversational context.
It’s Time to Change the Conversation Around Customer Support
The perception inside most companies is that customer support is inevitably a cost center. This stubborn attitude has no doubt forced many managers to prioritize efficiency above all else. But with ample evidence emerging to suggest customer experience is now the most influential business metric, customer support leaders have a critical opportunity to reposition their profession in the eyes of their colleagues.
So as you consider the specific details uncovered by this survey, stay cognizant of the broader conversation identified by Respondent #438:
“I believe customer support is a value center rather than a cost center, but at the moment, we’re not especially valued in general…A paradigm shift would be the best possible thing.”