customer service upward feedback

5 Things Support Reps Wish They Could Tell Their Managers

Dania McDermottLast updated on January 2, 2024
6 min

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What makes us shy away from sharing feedback with our bosses?

Do we avoid it because we fear it will fall on deaf ears? Or is it because we worry it will make us seem unhappy in our roles?

According to HBR, it’s a bit of both. In a study of nearly 200 individuals from all levels and functions within a company, half of the respondents said it was not “safe to speak up.”

Most often, what feels safe is keeping quiet—not just about problems, but about ideas and suggestions that could probably help the business.

This focus on self-preservation is common among customer service and call center teams where turnover is high and agents seem replaceable.

To help you identify what your reps may not feel comfortable sharing, here are 5 things they wish they could tell you:

1. I’m drowning

Picture it: A call center, 2020. Two of your best agents work the first shift of the day. When they clock in at 8 am, they begin wading through last night’s backlog. Throughout this, they’re also taking calls.

By the time other agents start to trickle in, they’ve already handled more than a dozen tickets. By mid-afternoon, they’re exhausted.

Sensing an uneven workload, they decide to pull agent activity reports. Between the two of them, they realize they’re handling more than half of the daily load.

Instead of bringing this data to their manager, however, they wonder why no one else is looking at the report—and they commiserate about how unfair it is whenever they get the chance.

Unfortunately, this is a true story (and not an uncommon one). When inbound call or ticket volume disproportionately affects select agents, burn out and resentment can set in fast.

To get ahead of the problem:

  • Know your busy periods and expected volume and schedule staff accordingly

  • Allow agents to focus on a single channel at a time when it’s busy

  • Report on agent activity regularly to ensure everyone’s doing their fair share

  • Keep an eye on the floor and encourage anyone who seems stressed to take a break

2. I have goals outside of support

One of the hardest things for someone in customer service to share with their boss is the desire to work on more than just tickets.

Whether that means contributing to the support team in a non-customer facing way (e.g. producing how-to videos) or finding opportunities to work with other teams, it’s not surprising that agents are reluctant to broach the topic.

If handled incorrectly, it can make them seem too self-interested—the opposite of a team player.

After all, you hired them to do a specific job and their focus should be on mastering the intricacies of that job.

But what happens once they have mastered it? What if there’s a greater benefit to solving a range of business problems as opposed to occupying the same perspective each day?

When employees feel there’s no room for growth within their current role or company, they will inevitably leap to another one—even if their mobility is equally limited in their next role.

To get ahead of the problem:

  • Get to know your existing team’s individual interests and career goals

  • Optimize your hiring process to identify individuals’ interests before they join the team

  • Find and provide opportunities to give motivated agents the chance to do more, within the team and cross-functionally

3. I hate doing X

Most jobs come with their own set of cumbersome tasks, but customer service roles may take the cake.

Whether they’re pasting various sources of information into a bug reporting platform, or trying to find internal how-to documentation to complete a task, agents frequently spread themselves across several systems to achieve things that should be easy.

Everyone secretly hates these time-sucking activities, but they rarely step forward with feedback. According to HBR, their apprehension stems from fear and untested assumptions, with many people withholding input for two reasons:

  • They believe their boss feels a sense of ownership of the project, process, or issue in question, and would resent suggestions implying a need for change

  • They believe sharing constructive feedback in front of their boss’ boss (and other senior leaders) would make their immediate manager feel betrayed or embarrassed

If you’re a savvy manager, you already know upward feedback isn’t always a direct evaluation of your performance as a boss. If you’re a human being, you also know how easy it is to cling to inefficient processes under the “right” conditions.

If you can bear both truths in mind, it’ll be much easier to remain open to new and different approaches to everyday problems.

To get ahead of the problem:

  • Open any discussion with “We’re looking for ways to make things better…”

  • Send an anonymous feedback survey to gauge feelings on specific processes and protocol (and include open-ended questions)

  • Use one-on-one meetings to elicit agents’ thoughts in a private and personal setting

  • Open the floor in a group meeting—once you’re in solution mode, the more minds the better

4. I need more training

Picture it: A fast-growing startup, 2020. Three new support reps start on the same day. There isn’t much time for training because a constant stream of emails requires their manager’s immediate attention.

One of the reps used the company’s product at his last gig and is able to find his way with minimal help. The other two do their best, but inevitably ask their boss how to handle various issues on a near-daily basis.

The frequent back-and-forth creates tension. Neither rep wants to keep customers waiting, but they also don’t want to compromise their experience with silly guesses. Their manager recommends responding right away—even if it’s just to say “We’re looking into it!”

Their reliance on their boss to provide “the answers” helps both agents ease into a state of mediocrity, with neither pushing their product knowledge beyond what’s necessary.

After many months, their lack of training breeds resistance to handling complicated tickets, almost ensuring customers with the most complex questions wait the longest for a meaningful response.

When a business fails to scale its support team in tandem with customer growth, long-term investments like proper training take a back seat to short-term needs like tickets.

The last thing you should encourage among agents is customer or issue avoidance. You need agents to feel empowered to tackle whatever challenges come their way, and that empowerment comes through knowledge.

To get ahead of the problem:

  • Pull tickets and review call recordings to get a sense of where agents are less fluent or require additional help

  • Ask agents directly (via survey and in-person) which product areas they believe they could use additional training on

  • Rebuild your training and onboarding programs to address these gaps in more explicit and measurable ways

  • Request post-onboarding and real-time feedback from new employees; consider crafting a review process to evaluate the effectiveness of new hire training

5. I want to know how my work matters

Workplace recognition is usually stressed at the individual level, but organizational recognition is equally important.

Sales teams get props for meeting or exceeding quota, marketing earns praise when campaigns convert, and depending on who you ask, engineers enjoy status merely for existing.

In support, agent contributions are often not recognized or dismissed altogether. At many well-intentioned companies, there is little talk of how customer service helps the business to succeed.

As a customer service manager, your agents need you to fight for their visibility and reputation. They need you to acknowledge them as valuable resources with a wealth of insights—and they need you to help them communicate this to the rest of the org.

To get ahead of the problem:

  • Speak to senior management about defining customer service success at the organizational level; work together to align agents with company-wide goals

  • Ask senior management to consider quarterly bonuses based either on meeting customer satisfaction or retention goals (or other SLAs)

  • Find ways to involve customer service team members in relevant decision making

Putting it together

Now you know what agents might be sitting on, the next step is figuring out what to do about it. We’d recommend starting at the top—and the research suggests the same.

The University of Virginia found that an organization’s hierarchy (and the perception around it) plays a major role in employee willingness to share feedback. HBR echoes similar findings, arguing that company culture is more important than removing barriers or setting up a suggestion box.

“Making employees feel safe enough to contribute fully requires deep cultural change that alters how they understand the likely costs (personal and immediate) versus benefits (organizational and future) of speaking up.”

If your company can exhibit the same qualities expected of agents—empathy and active listening—a culture of openness should follow.

Published on February 19, 2020.

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