Agile customer service: tools, techniques, and best practices
We get it. “Agile principles” and “Scrum frameworks” may sound as bizarre to customer service teams as rare steaks do to vegans.
And while we agree that these aren’t concepts that are thrown around casually in customer service circles, they aren’t entirely unheard of either. Actually, you might already be doing “agile customer service” if your business is flexible and adaptable to your customers’ feedback.
But what happens if you decide to deliberately use agile principles for customer service? It just might be transformative for your whole team—and give you a competitive edge (and we will see how a few businesses have done so in the examples below).
Small businesses especially stand to gain a lot by applying agile methodologies to their customer service. (We’ll get more into this below.) This collaborative, continuously evolving way of running customer service keeps you nimble, consistent, and more accountable.
What does “agile support” mean?
We’ll spare you the super complicated explanation, which basically boils down to building a process that lets you deliver collaborative and responsive customer experiences.
An agile process has short feedback loops. This allows you to make changes in your offerings quickly and ship them to customers on time. It also lets you incrementally test your processes, gather customer feedback, and improve them over time.
By design, agile teams perform at a higher level because they have autonomy and collective ownership to deliver consistent results.
Let’s look at an example of a financial services business to better understand how agile methodology fits into customer service:
The customer support team in this financial business—let’s say it’s a bank—was super slow, which meant it sometimes took up to eight weeks to resolve a simple client request. The management team ran an audit and found that there wasn’t a central team or person who owned the customer journey map and/or had the end-to-end visibility of the entire process.
So the management team took an agile approach to solve the problems of multiple handoffs and poor customer support:
- They created a central team, or a single point of contact (SPOC), for all teams who interacted with the customers.
- The management then looked at the number of customer requests pouring in at their contact center on a day-to-day basis.
- They teamed up the service agents with specialists from different business functions to better handle clients’ questions.
- To measure the team’s performance, the management came up with new metrics that aligned closely with metrics related to improved customer journey experiences.
The new setup made the team self-managing, more efficient, and highly collaborative. The result? In the next 12 months, their customer satisfaction shot up by 20%, the employee morale went up by 10%, and the contact center’s cost dropped by 30%. Forming the SPOC team also meant they could provide a consistent customer experience across all customer-facing teams and even reduce unnecessary handoffs by 60%.
This example shows why agile methodologies shouldn’t be limited to project management circles. In fact, the agile approach makes more sense for customer service teams given the repetitive (yet unpredictable) nature of their everyday jobs.
6 ways to provide agile customer service
To get started with agile methodology, make sure it’s part of your business strategy and not just a fickle experiment. It usually takes time to train a team to be agile and see results. Think of moving to agile as a culture change and a core part of your customer service principles instead of just a sporadic team activity.
1. Define agility
Being agile can mean different things for different teams. For customer service, agility usually means fast response times and ticket resolutions, being on top of all your customer queries, improving customer satisfaction (CSAT), and a higher customer retention rate. Define what matters most to your team and remind them of the end goal regularly.
2. Do daily standups
Make standups (basically quick team round-up meetings) a regular part of your daily routine to go over what everyone is working on and any problems. Accept nothing less than full team participation, radical transparency, and discourage distractions. Daily standups are especially critical for remote teams because they bring visibility on everyone’s task list and keep people in check.
3. Get the right tools in your support arsenal
We’ll talk about the best agile tools for customer support in more detail below. But know that these tools don’t necessarily have to be project management tools. Choose apps that can help your team communicate in real time (by creating a collaboration hub, for example), enhance their customer service skills, and help you provide automated customer service (where it makes sense) to save your team valuable time and energy.
4. Build a strong remote culture
This is if you have a distributed team, and it’s important to give your teammates the benefit of not being distracted by half a dozen meetings in a day. Establish ground rules for remote customer service teamwork and encourage everyone to over-communicate.
Building a good remote culture is important because you and your distributed team members don’t have the perk of being in the same office, which means you can’t drop by someone’s desk or chat with them at the watercooler! It also gives visibility on everyone’s workload and rewards good performance.
5. Empower your team
When new employees join Nordstrom, the management gives them a small handbook that outlines the One Rule: Use good judgment in all situations. The results of this kind of employee empowerment are astounding. Nordstrom consistently ranks among the top fashion retailers in the US largely due to their incomparable customer service.
Give your service reps the opportunity to take calculated risks and build good customer relations. Don’t drag them down with vain company rules if breaking them earns you valuable, lifelong customer relationships.
6. Get customer feedback
Encourage your team to proactively interact with customers as much as they can. If there’s a customer query, maybe your online service reps can jump on a video call and solve the problem immediately.
Embed upvote and downvote buttons on your service touchpoints for customers to rate their experience after every interaction. Invite your customers for an open house session. Ask them open-ended questions over pizzas and beer and encourage them to question you.
The perks of running Scrum and sprints in customer service
Although most customer requests (like refund and exchange requests) are repetitive in nature, customer service is highly unpredictable because each customer expects a personalized and stellar customer experience.
(Key word: personalized.)
Let’s start with a few quick definitions.
Let’s take the concept of Scrum as an example of a way to train your team to deliver a consistent, agile customer experience. (Scrum is basically a process framework that uses agile methodology, where a team carries out tasks in set time periods, called sprints.)
Say your customer service team has piled up a backlog of support tickets since the last holiday season. To make sure you resolve them all by February, you can call for daily scrums (think: team huddles similar to standups) and run short bursts of once-a-day sprints (think: a short-distance relay race) where you try to complete certain tasks.
This might require your service reps to collaborate with people outside of the team—including talking to your customers. The 12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto recommends always communicating the roadblocks you’re facing in clearing out the backlog of work.
Sprints are essentially time-boxed events that you do within the Scrum framework to get closer to the end goal. The short sprints allow your teams to finish tasks quickly and make assessments to see if you have to apply more changes to refine the process. Imagine the high-intensity workouts (sprints) that your gym trainer gets you to do every day (daily scrum) to prepare for an ultra marathon (sustained agility).
So, what does all this have to do with customer service?
Agile methodologies are great for remote call centers
Despite doing a pretty repetitive job (taking calls, answering customer support emails and questions, etc.), call centers handle uniquely complex problems every day. Like therapists, contact center agents often deal with raw human emotions that can’t be streamlined away with task automation. And yet, they have to deliver consistent, predictable outcomes to each customer’s problems—no matter how nuanced they are.
For small and medium-sized businesses, testing agile methodologies on your call center operations early on builds a firm culture of good customer service. Not only that, it also helps you discover your team’s strengths and build them as your steamroll over your competitors.
Oh, and if you have a remote call center, being agile isn’t just an option—it’s a business imperative.
Take Inktel as an example. The Miami-based outsourcing company offers call center solutions, and over the last 23 years of their existence, Inktel has helped businesses improve their tech support, order processing, and customer experience.
One of their clients is a leading provider of fitness-related products. Their limited team bandwidth and lack of expertise in customer service was costing them—in the form of a steep drop in monthly memberships. So, they hired Inktel with an aim to acquire new members and offer them highly personalized concierge services to improve customer retention—all from a remote location.
The Inktel team had to collaborate closely with their customer, course correct the broken processes, and take feedback from customers to constantly improve their services.
Within a few months of this partnership, the remote call center team helped their client boost their new member acquisition by 11%, increase customer retention by 16%, and improve customer satisfaction by 26%. The company also saved close to $38K in monthly operating expenses as a result of the new customer-centric strategy.
Applying agile methodology in your remote call center teams can be the antidote to a siloed customer service team, miscommunication, and unexpected roadblocks. For instance, using video conferencing software to have your quick scrum meetings can replace in-person standups pretty effectively.
Video meetings also give your team a chance to huddle every day, brainstorm new ideas, and record important sessions for future reference:
How can agile methodologies benefit customer support teams?
Customers hate two things the most. The first is being told that their credit card was charged twice for the same transaction. The second is hearing this phrase when they call customer care:
Your call is important to us. Please hold while we transfer you to our customer service executive.
Customers today want instant gratification. They don’t want to jump through the hoops of complex phone trees while listening to a ten-minute flute solo punctuated with hollow messaging.
Small businesses can sometimes (ironically) be slow to adopt agile ways of doing customer service because they think it’s not suited for them. (Can’t blame them—it can be hard to wrap your head around terms like lean, Six Sigma, agile, and Kanban, which sound like fun topics for big consulting firms and enterprise boardrooms.)
But there’s huge potential here.
Let’s look at the benefits of applying agile principles to your customer service:
Much better collaboration
Without having to pay for fancy communication tools, daily scrums and sprints provide a way to build more effective collaboration within your teams. These quick, rapid-fire meetings force you to come up with creative solutions, articulate your ideas, and talk about your roadblocks openly in the team. It leaves very little room for overthinking (which can be a huge obstacle if you need to get things done quickly).
A great customer experience across every channel
Businesses used to treat customer service like it was the last leg of the customer journey. But a buyer’s journey isn’t a linear sequence anymore.
Customers these days may buy from your brand from any channel at any stage of their engagement. For instance, customers might discover a brand because they came across their popup store in a mall. They don’t necessarily have to go through the traditional process of attention, interest, desire, and action to make that purchase.
By the same token, customer service is no longer limited to dealing with inbound calling or emails that get lost in endless queues. These days, angry customers will just fire off a tweetstorm from their smartphones to get a brand’s attention in public and get their refund process sped up. And a service interaction is often the moment that helps a customer decide whether or not they want to spend more time and money with your brand.
The agile method of customer support gives your service agents autonomy and empowers them to proactively help customers—for example, on social media—before their problems snowball. With customers expecting faster and faster response times, your customer service team has to be—you guess it—agile.
Increased ownership and accountability
Applying agile methodologies to your customer service also means you make your support team accountable for business results.
In addition to measuring their performance through a set of metrics such as ticket resolution time and first-call resolution rate, you make them equal stakeholders in delivering customer satisfaction, revenue, and other metrics associated with growth.
Agile methods give them the ownership to define their role in the organization and encourage them to take part in revenue-generating activities such as retention, upgrades, and reselling.
When you measure your team’s performance against these call center metrics and share these numbers with your team, you give them a seat on the table. It empowers them to become stakeholders in your company’s success—or failure—and encourages them to be more conscious about their actions instead of just being robots doing what they’re told.
Customer service can be pretty volatile; it needs to change along with your customers’ preferences and behaviors. For instance, while customers expect a human touch in their brand interactions, they also appreciate the do-it-yourself style for customer services such as self-service content or chatting with an interactive answer bot. Most customers feel more in control when they can resolve their questions on their own.
These are trends that your customer service team should keep up. Embracing agile principles keeps your teams on their feet. It compels your service agents to reply to tweets, automate instant messages into support tickets, or jump on a video call with customers to walk them through a solution visually and in real time.
Can you apply agile principles to ticketing support?
Short answer: Yes!
Long answer: Support tickets are like goods in a manufacturing plant’s assembly line. They come attached with an issue number, customer details, and a description of the customer’s problem.
The traditional way businesses handle customer service with ticketing is very inefficient. The ticketing process tends to lack context and creates a backlog of customer issues, which makes for slower responses.
Suppose a customer bought a pair of shoes online and wants to exchange them because they found a hole in it. If you run things by the old ticketing system, a customer service rep would create a ticket and ask the customer to send the shoes in and stay tuned.
But what happens if that store were a customer-obsessed team like Zappos? The solution is almost always instantaneous and beyond what customers expected.
Consider this example of the customer who had called Zappos’ customer support to return a pair of shoes. In between putting the request and shipping the shoes back to Zappos, the customer lost her mother. The Zappos team discovered this news when they called her during a regular service follow-up.
So Zappos did what they are known for doing—they not only went out of their way to send a courier to pick up the shoes, but also covered the shipping cost of the shoes and later sent a bouquet of white flowers to their grief-stricken customer.
Oh, and the customers did get her shoes exchanged to her liking.
The agile way of customer support changes the old ticketing process because it brings context to the forefront of communication and is designed to help foster a collaborative culture before the queuing process sucks the issue into its ticketing black hole. The agile way of doing customer service works because it empowers your reps to solve a customer problem intelligently instead of following an inefficient process for the sake of following it.
And even if the issue requires tech support, the agile culture embedded in the business would make sure that the ticket finds its way to the right expert with the right details and gets resolved to the customer’s satisfaction.
Ticketing software programs are just tools—and a piece of customer service software doesn’t decide if your customer service is agile or not. It’s the culture around your business that turns your processes agile.
4 best tools for agile customer service
It’s worth repeating that agile methods aren’t reserved for megacorps. Being agile can help your small business play to its strengths. You don’t necessarily have to apply agile principles the same way a project management or an IT development team does it. That’s perhaps the best feature of agile methodology; it’s agile enough for you to adapt to your unique customer service use cases.
If you’re wondering how to get started with agile, here’s a list of our favorite tools that can make your customer service teams quick on their feet.
Trello is when a project management tool meets fun. It’s extremely easy to use, super lightweight, and designed for small business teams. Trello lets you do anything ranging from planning your office potlucks to mind-mapping new project ideas.
Trello is inspired by the Kanban-style of project management, think: a workboard where you can move post-it notes from “to do” to “in progress” to “done”. In Trello, the Kanban boards are labeled as Trello Boards that you can color-code for clarity, power them up for the extra productivity oomph, or set it as private for limited team visibility:
Its advanced functionalities include features such as rule-based workflow automation and setup, an automated checklist tool, and integrations with major apps such as Google Drive, Asana, or Zapier.
Besides the fact that it requires absolutely no learning curve to get started, Trello is great for small businesses also because it comes with a freemium option coupled with affordable paid plans. If you decide to give Trello a try and you’re clueless about starting new boards, check out these 35 cool Trello boards for inspiration.
We had to add some zen to our list because that’s what helps you be one with customers. But don’t get us wrong, we’re not talking about decorating your customer service desks with mini zen gardens.
Zendesk is among one of customer service teams’ favorite tools for managing workflows, addressing customer queries across all channels, and setting up self-service content.
It, of course, helps your service teams route tickets and resolve them quickly and easily. But here’s what makes it even cooler—Zendesk integrates with RingCentral to help you level up the quality of your customer service.
Zendesk paid plans start from $9/month/agent and offer great features for businesses of all sizes. The advanced subscription plans come with additional features like capabilities to embed CSAT surveys, IVR phone trees, and answer bots for complex service requirements.
Their user interface is pretty straightforward and designed to help you manage ticket overwhelm during peak business seasons. All in all, Zendesk is a well-rounded helpdesk tool that can prevent your team from dropping the ball on customer service and help them collaborate more effectively.
Okay, #ShamelessPlug time.
The RingCentral app comes included with RingCentral Office®, and it lets you send instant messages, have video conference calls, and make phone calls from wherever you are. The ultimate goal? Better team communication. The RingCentral app helps virtual teams in particular because it unifies all your team communication needs in one place:
Now if you want a tool that’s specific to solving contact center woes, you should check out RingCentral Contact Center™. In addition to having several capabilities that the RingCentral app offers for your internal team communication, the Contact Center solution is a collaborative app that allows you to route customer requests from across all channels, exchange critical information with other customer-facing teams, and handhold agents in real time to ensure an effective customer experience.
Coming back to the RingCentral app, here are a few other features that your remote customer service teammates will enjoy using:
- Creating team conversation threads for projects, topics, or departments
- Link and file sharing
- HD video meetings
- Joining video meetings through computer audio or dial-in using a phone number
- Screen sharing to brainstorm ideas in real time
- A business phone number for calling, SMS, and fax
The RingCentral app also integrates with a host of other communication and collaboration tools so that you can make the most of it.
If you want a simple helpdesk solution without a dozen bells and whistles features, Groove is the right fit for your customer service team.
Groove, or GrooveHQ, is the human-centric response to the robotic customer service that happens through email, phone, and chat. Groove helps your service team keep track or all your support emails, handle support tickets with priority, and cut down your response time.
The best thing about Groove is that it requires little to no setup or installation. Just allow your customer service agents to log in to Groove, and they’re ready to make the world a better place for your customers.
You can try Groove for an unlimited number of agents and unlimited features free for 15 days. Its paid plans start at $19/user/month and come with cool features like embedding a support widget in your website and an @mentioning capability so that your agents can enjoy tighter collaboration.
Agile customer support is
If your customer service team is overloaded and just buried under questions and calls, it just might be time to give agile customer support a try.