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So you can’t hire a support team. What’s a startup to do?

In the early days of your startup, chances are you won't have the budget to field a dedicated customer service team—those initial hires will have to wear multiple hats, including conducting customer research, running demos for potential clients, and even handling some quality assurance tasks.

That said, it's not too early to start planning for a team that focuses solely on customer service, and the decisions you make now will lay the groundwork for a team that will be able to scale as your product gains traction.

Think about what makes a customer service team—or any team, really—work. It comes down to three essential elements: people, process, and technology. If you make thoughtful choices in each of these areas, you will build a flexible and resilient organization that will earn customer loyalty.

Don’t skimp on staffing

Be prepared to put real resources into your team, and that means paying salaries that will attract strong candidates and minimize turnover. Your ideal hire will be empathetic, possess solid technical and communication skills, and show an eagerness to learn and grow. The best candidates will be utility players with a wide range of skills and enthusiasm for turning support interactions into opportunities to build customer loyalty (and even sell new products). Be sure to give these new hires paths to promotion and opportunities for self-improvement.

For team leaders, managers, and directors, you'll need people who have strong interpersonal skills and solid project management knowledge. They should be able to manage a large group of employees and while having a deep understanding not only of the product, but the company's long-range goals. The latter part is critical, because the highest-performing support teams collaborate closely with product, sales, marketing, and other parts of the organization. Choose the kind of managers who realize that mentoring junior employees will create the company's next wave of leaders.

The best candidates will be utility players with a wide range of skills and enthusiasm for turning support interactions into opportunities to build customer loyalty.

Set up your teams to work from anywhere

Customer service software should allow your agents to work anywhere—at home, on the road, or even in a traditional office. That flexibility can help you hire great candidates from a larger pool of talent while reducing the amount of office space you'll need to rent.

Consider organizing your team into tiers based on issue complexity and employee skills. For example, tier one could consist of the easiest issues to resolve (such as billing questions) and will be staffed by the least experienced team members. Each successive level will handle increasingly complex issues that require the most experienced and knowledgeable employees.

You'll also want to think about appointing a lead administrator who will focus on improving workflows and troubleshooting technical issues so your agents can stay focused on helping customers.

As you settle on how you'll organize and manage your support team, don't forget to clearly define roles, the reporting structure and escalation paths, and performance expectations.

Accept that an email inbox won’t cut it

Investments in your people and process will grind to a halt if you don't have the right tools to make serving your customers easy and effective. You’ll need to select a support solution that will provide a unified view of your support process.

Sharing an email inbox might seem like an acceptable option at first, but you’ll soon run into serious logistical problems, and you’ll have virtually no ability to track metrics.

Perhaps the most important factor in using and selecting support software is that you choose one that enables you to connect all of your contact channels into a single view. Determine how your customers will contact you—email, phone, social media, chat, and so on—and set yourself up to handle those interactions in the same place. If you have the resources to offer live support, set clear operational hours and a workflow to ensure there are no gaps in coverage.

If not, it may be a good idea to at least start with setting up a phone number. This is simple—you can set one up in minutes, have it direct to voicemail, which automatically creates a ticket, and then put that on your homepage or on the order page. Whenever a query comes in you can then call that customer back and lock in that sale. It adds legitimacy to your presence, and it's also a great way to test the demand of a live channel before fully launching it or finding the resources to fully staff it.

Sharing an email inbox might seem like an acceptable option at first, but you’ll soon run into serious logistical problems, and you’ll have virtually no ability to track metrics.

Either way, your first steps will be to connect your contact@ and support@ email addresses, as well as your social media channels. "When you're scaling rapidly, it's important that all your communication channels are connected,” says Lakeysha Hayes, domestic and international customer service manager at LimeBike. “We wanted to have email and phone in one place, see stats and get feedback from customers, and to be able to share that out to the team and to each city we serve."

Plan to scale

You should be on the lookout for common questions customers ask about your product from day one and building consistent answers that you can quickly send to customers. At the very least, you'll need a workflow in place to better organize and continually update the product FAQ, which will be your customers' gateway to self-service.

Self-service plays an important role in ticket deflection, a key factor in reducing the number of support tickets your startup's customer service team (which at this point will still include everyone in the company) receives. Your help desk software should allow you to turn user feedback in helpful articles that will serve your customers and help preserve institutional knowledge about how your product works. Building out helpful self-service is an up-front investment that pays off in dividends down the road.

Mark Smith is a writer, editor, and musician based in Bellingham, Washington.

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