Supporting your customer support staff with internal service design

Clearleft
7 min readSep 21, 2023

Originally posted by Chris How, here.

For most organisations, the dream of providing an entirely digital self-service for customers is often far from reality. With many services, there is still (and always will be) a need to blend digital self-service with real-time help from customer support staff.

Our experience working with companies in travel, fintech, education, utilities, local government and the third sector is that behind-the-scenes frontline staff are wrestling with poorly designed digital tools held together with fragile processes.

Internal service design is about getting it right for your employees so they can get it right for your customers. Technology should support your staff to be efficient and effective when helping your customers. You can radically elevate the quality of service delivery by redesigning the employee experience.

Projects to improve the design of internal tools and processes can tend to take a backseat to more visible public-facing websites and apps. So how can you spot opportunities for improvement and build a business case for change?

Here are three ways to quickly identify and evaluate which internal systems and processes to focus your redesign energies on.

Review the tools you get your staff to use

Your staff are booking holidays, ordering takeaway food, looking for potential partners, renewing passports, watching movies, paying taxes and buying clothes on the digital devices in their pockets. The mobile phone is their remote control for running their busy lives.

Your staff have high expectations of the ease of use of digital tools. These expectations are set not by the tools you provide them but by the best websites and apps they choose to use daily.

All software dates. Over time new features get added, information to input changes, and interaction patterns evolve. These all add to an accumulation of technical and design debt.

An annual review of the tools your staff use is an effective way to spot opportunities to redesign them to keep them modern and efficient.

Context is key when undertaking a review of tools in use. Staff are often using systems whilst synchronously talking to customers, inputting data, and searching for information. These physical actions can be compounded by being in noisy spaces with challenging lighting.

A service safari is a cost-effective method to observe and evaluate the tools being used in real-life situations. In looking for design enhancements pay particular attention to how you can improve the speed to complete tasks and the accuracy of data entry.

In reviewing internal tools improvements often arise through:

  • Re-organising the interface to more logically group content and actions.
  • Minimising data to enter by using sensible defaults and appropriate form input types.
  • Removing unnecessary content and clutter from the interface to make the task at hand easier to focus on.
  • Reducing the need to switch between different screens or systems to complete a task.

Speed up onboarding and ongoing training

In many cases, your support staff are the human face of your organisation. Knowledgeable support staff who effortlessly resolve customers’ questions help build the reputation of your service.

Successful customer support doesn’t happen by magic. Initial onboarding and the ongoing training of your staff need to be designed for effectiveness.

Optimising the onboarding process for staff can result in significant operational efficiencies. Whilst working with an insurance company to redesign an internal system we were struck by the upfront cost of training. In talking to new staff each had undergone a ten-day course ahead of answering calls from customers. Experienced staff underwent a five-day refresher course annually. With a big support team and over 100 new joiners a year, a small reduction in training time soon adds up to a large increase in the capacity to answer calls from customers.

In helping customers with their queries, the speed to find, digest and impart the right information is critical.

In the insurance company, information for staff to refer to was available across multiple digital systems and in numerous printed manuals. To counter this confusing situation staff showed us the elaborate and inventive ways they bookmarked the information they frequently needed to go back to.

It’s only when getting back to the floor and talking to support staff do you get to see how they’ve hacked processes and systems to make them easier to use.

Opportunities to improve the expertise your staff deliver can be achieved by:

  • Consolidating information into a single searchable source of truth.
  • Optimising search for the natural language terms used by customers and support staff.
  • Designing help pages to enable quick and confident consumption of the content.
  • Delivering short bursts of training based on timely data of questions currently being asked.

Remove the need for unnecessary calls

Content has a cost. To be more precise, missing or misleading content has a cost. And it’s your customer support staff who unintentionally pay for it.

To elevate your quality of service you ideally want to have your support team solving complex and unique queries. To give them the time to do this you need to remove bad demand from the system. The calls that could and should be answered in other channels.

Customer support staff are a goldmine of insights. In many organisations, they have the most contact with customers. As a result, they can readily tell you the catalogue of unmet needs that cause unnecessary support calls.

How do you uncover the high-frequency calls that are frustrating for the customer and the support staff? It’s surprisingly simple. I like to call it the eye-rolling test. Ask your customer support staff what topics they are asked about daily that they wish would disappear.

“I’ll scream if I have another call today about baggage allowance”.

We recently worked with an international airline on a project to improve their online help centre. The customer support team consistently told us of a single issue they dealt with every day. Calls from customers asking about the size and weight of the bags they could take on a trip.

The scale and cost of the problem was enormous. It was common for each member of the team to take two calls a day on the topic. That’s ten calls a week each lasting around five minutes. With a support centre of 200 staff that quickly adds up to over 167 hours a week. That’s a lot of time dealing with a topic that frustrates customers in having to call to ask it, and support staff in needing to deal with it.

In knowing the problem we could then take a service design approach to finding a solution. We created a user journey map and plotted the communication touchpoints with customers over time and across channels. We then added to it where information about baggage allowances was given. It was apparent there were many moments in the customer journey where highlighting information on baggage allowances would be useful.

The result of relatively small design fixes was a massive reduction in calls on the topic with fewer frustrated customers and more capacity for the support staff to deal with more complex help questions.

“You can tell the time of year by the questions being asked. It becomes predictable”.

When working with a major utility company we used the same customer journey mapping technique to uncover how support calls changed with the seasons. In workshops with support staff, it soon became obvious which high-volume and low-value topics cropped up at different points of the year. This insight led to relevant information being added in call-outs on customers’ bills as well as being featured when relevant on the website.

The timely surfacing of information had an immediate effect on reducing unnecessary calls and freeing up time for staff to use their expertise which added more value.

To reduce the number of unnecessary calls:

  • Spend time talking to your support staff and do the eye-rolling test.
  • Carry out call listening and run surveys with support staff to identify common issues that better content delivery could resolve.
  • Run a journey mapping workshop to see where, when and how information on a topic is communicated to your customers across all your channels.
  • Calculate the value and volume of support calls to help you prioritise the topics that cause bad demand.

Once you know the problem to tackle you are in a better position to design changes and measure the impact of them.

Improving the employee experience improves the customer experience

Small moments of internal service inefficiency soon scale up. This can quickly result in hours and days of unnecessary effort and frustration felt by your staff and your customers.

Great customer services are intentionally designed. And like all products and services, they need reviewing and updating to keep them fresh and fit for purpose. Taking time to regularly review how customer service is delivered is a cost-effective way to spot opportunities where design iterations can add value.

Make great customer service your competitive advantage by spending time improving the employee experience.

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Clearleft

Clearleft is a strategic design studio helping you get the most from your products, services & teams.