For years, our hiring strategy for the HubSpot customer support team was simple. When support reps were overwhelmed with the volume of work, we'd hire another one. Simple, right?
This simple growth model worked to get our team to about 25 people. We had funding, an accelerating sales team and customer count, and awesome technology. Our startup hopes and dreams were coming true.
And at least for me, I never even saw the growth storm coming. I was "managing hyper-growth" day-to-day in support, making sure the team was happy and ensuring customers were served quickly -- all part of a customer success manager's regular duties.
The storm was a combination of rapidly accelerating customer acquisition plus the launch of a totally new platform, and it nearly destroyed HubSpot in 2013. As we signed up customers at an ever-faster rate and rewrote the platform at the same time, every one of our simplistic hiring models broke with violent speed.
Within one week of the growth storm hitting, support was completely overwhelmed by volume. Our ticket wait time went from "basically none" to "just call us; don't bother submitting a ticket this week." Within one month, customer churn tripled.
In general, users were furious, the customer team was shattered and out of control, and the entire company was scrambling. And me? I had just taken over the support team at HubSpot.
It took us four months to recover. Professionally, these were the longest days of my career.
How to Scale Customer Support
But how did we go so quickly from growth dreams coming true to a four-month customer support nightmare?
Spooky how fast things fall apart when they're broken, right? Even spookier is that, in retrospect, it was 100% avoidable. We needed to define how we scale before our system broke, not after.
We could've managed the pace of customer acquisition and platform rewrite smoothly if only we had understood the input and model behind our support team and planned for it all. But, we didn't, and we got crushed.
If you're in the early or mid-stage of your growth, this is the right time for you to understand how to scale support so you don't end up like me in 2013. You want to have your model and understanding locked in, so when your sales and marketing teams start hitting their stride in the growth stage of your business, or you rewrite your whole platform (or both), you're ready -- and you'll avoid churn, angry customers, and a sad tale of scale.
Who to Hire for Customer Support?
One question that business owners ask is, "who should I be hiring for my customer support team?" Customer support teams often consist of employees with different backgrounds, each providing their own unique skill set to the team. But, while their specializations may differ, there are some common characteristics that most customer support employees share.
If you work in customer support, then your job is to solve problems for customers. It's a reactionary role where employees are suddenly tasked with new challenges at a moment's notice. And, you can't avoid the problem or transfer it to someone else. You're responsible for finding a solution one way or another.
Successful support reps are excellent problem-solvers. Even if they don't know the immediate solution to a roadblock, they know how to research the issue and eventually overcome it. As a support rep, you may not know the answer to the customer's problem, but you need to know how to use your resources to find it.
Since customer support is a reactionary function, the best support reps are flexible and can adapt to roadblocks on the fly. Even if two customers are experiencing the same glitch, an adaptable support rep knows these two cases aren't exactly the same. Each customer has their own specific needs that your reps have to account for. Reps who are adaptable can recognize these needs and shift their troubleshooting methods to align with the customer.
Customer support can be frustrating. After all, your job is to look for answers that may not even exist -- not to mention, appeasing a customer who's waiting intently for a solution. Customer support reps need to be tenacious and determined to overcome roadblocks. If they're easily put off by failure, they'll struggle to find creative solutions for customers who need fast results.
Now that you understand what to look for in your customer support team, you'll need to know the roles that each person will be playing. So, let's take a look at the next section to review the three primary customer support positions that you should be hiring for your team.
What to Hire for a Customer Support Team?
1. Customer Support Rep
The most fundamental role in a customer support team is the customer support rep. These employees are on your front lines, fielding phone calls and speaking directly with customers. They're the ones who identify and report major problems to your management and product development teams.
2. Customer Support Manager
The customer support manager oversees the entire, or part of, the customer support team. These employees ensure the support team is meeting both customer demands and the organization's short- and long-term goals. They do this by managing employee scheduling, handling escalated cases, and motivating reps to meet daily metrics. A major part of this role is being involved with the hiring process and bringing on new support reps who will best fit the team.
3. Customer Support Specialist
A customer support specialist is a member of the support team who has expertise in a specific area of the product or business. When customer problems can't be solved by the frontline rep, specialists are looped in to resolve the issue. These employees act as a useful reference for frontline support reps who are either just starting out or dealing with an extremely complex customer roadblock.
Between these three roles, your support team should be able to handle most of your customers' requests. However, if you don't have enough reps, you'll struggle to keep up with customer demand. In the next section, let's discuss how you should hire for your support team and what you can do to hire the perfect number of reps.
How Should You Hire for Your Customer Support Team?
How to Build a Hiring Model for Your Customer Support Team
Your hiring model doesn't need to be complicated. In fact, simpler models tend to be more nimble. The model below alone should be enough to get you through your growth stage smoothly (and as you hit the scale-up stage, you'll probably want a little more nuance):
Let's talk through each of these data inputs -- how to build them up, and some additional considerations to keep in mind when starting your calculations.
1. Incident Rate = Total Monthly Tickets/Customer Count
Incident rate is a simple ratio that helps you understand, "If my sales team is planning to add 50 new customers this month, my team is going to get X new tickets/month in perpetuity as a result."
There are two scenarios in which you may want to add additional nuance to your incident rate model:
If you have customer segments with wide variations in behavior:
For example, if you have a freemium product that has a very low support load, you'll need to have two incident rates and customer-add line items (e.g. 0.05 tickets/month/customer on freemium vs. 1.00 on another product).
If you have front-loaded support demand to your customer experience:
For example, new customers have a radically higher incident rate than existing customers (for example, if new customers have five tickets/month/customer in the first month, then that dips to one ticket per month).
If these two points don't strike you as familiar when you think about how your business works, omit them and keep it simple.
2. Customer Count
You may also want to consider:
- What is your net customer count growth rate (i.e. adds minus churns)?
- How predictable/steady is that growth (i.e how good is your sales and retention forecasting?)
Again, be careful about unnecessarily complicating your first real model. These are just things you'll want to start thinking about as it makes sense for you and your business to have more predictability around this model.
3. Total Monthly Tickets
Hopefully, you have a central system in place that is managing your customer support queue! But even for companies that do, they often have some "extra" support work lying around.
For example, legacy customers might still email your founder directly when they have a problem, or maybe there's an old support email that gets occasional use and one of your support reps manages it on the side.
Part of modeling your growth is to not have any more "on the side" work. This is a good time to do a quick check and make sure you know all of your ticket streams (even better if you can consolidate them), and get this count right.
4. Tickets/Rep/Month = The Number of Tickets the Average Support Rep Can Handle
This is a universally reachable bar that every person you hire can hit. So how do you determine this number? Take a look at historical reporting, and be conservative.
If people tend to do 300 tickets in a month, take that down 20% or so to 250. Keep in mind that rep working time comes with "shrinkage" -- hours lost to meetings, breaks, training, knowledge base article-writing, etc. Assuming 20% shrinkage time is a good approach in your first model; you want to keep things loose enough to function smoothly.
As time goes on and your team becomes more sophisticated, you'll want to sharpen your model around performance and shrinkage. The "average rep" may not ever exist, and it's probably not realistic to expect every new hire will be trained for three months and then turn into your new top performer. Plan accordingly.
Customer Support Team Hiring Formula
Total Support Reps Needed =
Total Monthly Tickets / (Tickets/Reps/Month)
Simpleath right? But, one issue: what to do about that fractional rep? When do I tick over and add the next hire vs. stretch the team? My advice is to always advocate strongly for hiring ahead of your model.
Have a model that demands 6.23 people? You should be pounding the table with your CFO to hire a seventh rep. Customer support teams with high stress and high turnover almost always have a leader who isn't advocating for hiring ahead of the model -- and the small incremental expense will be worth it to your team experience and customer experience.
The above is a strong warning to fast growth companies: Get a hiring model, and keep that model simple. If you're lucky, you'll get a perfect storm of growth as your start-up scales up, and if you're prepared in support, your customers and your team will weather it well.
Not sure how to get started on your customer support team hiring model? Check out the section below for a free sample you can implement with your company.
Customer Support Team Hiring Model [Sample]
As we mentioned above, your customer support hiring model doesn't need to complex. In fact, your first model should be simple and easily edited for updates. Since you could experience significant growth at any moment, you don't want to spend time building a intricate hiring model. You may find later that you need to completely revamp it and will have wasted time programming in irrelevant information.
Instead, you can use this sample model as your first hiring model for customer support. This excel sheet will automatically generate incident rate and number of reps needed, based on the information you provide. Since the model is simple and flexible, you can efficiently add more categories to it as you continue to grow and develop as a business. You can find a link to our free customer support team hiring model here.
A version of this blog post originally appeared on Sales Hacker.