5 Tips for a Smooth Customer Service Workflow

One core productivity principle is the minimization of disruptions and distractions. But in customer service, disruptions are what your job consists of.

Paul Graham wrote a great post about the difference between a manager’s schedule and a maker’s schedule (e.g. developers, writers). Meetings play a crucially different role in productivity for each of them.

Infographic of maker versus manager schedule.

A manager's job revolves around meetings. His productivity depends on them. A maker's job, on the other hand, revolves around creation that requires a state of flow. His productivity is destroyed by meetings.

The schedule of a service rep, then, is like that of an overworked, amnesia suffering manager. Not only are all meetings unplanned, there are ridiculously many of them and they often overlap.

In support, you're always in reactive mode, which makes productivity a whole different ballgame.

Customer requests can come in via chat, phone, or email. Managing this variety is challenging enough, but in many teams the support ops have even more tasks on their plate. They're asked to be both a maker and a manager.

In our team, those side tasks include:

  • Process optimization
  • Maintaining help material
  • Setting up videos
  • Writing posts about service experiences
  • Product testing

Our support team has come up with a specific approach to deal with this challenge. Whether your job consists out of full time support or is divided between supportive and creative tasks, these tips will help you in creating and retaining a structured customer service workflow.

1
Categorize & plan your tasks

Because ‘reactive’ is the standard service mode, many reps tend to dive right in at the start of their day.

Starting out with a blueprint of your day, however, will help to retain a sense of direction. Categorizing your tasks allows you to go through them chronologically, instead of in a constant mix.

Customer service activities fall into four broad categories. Some of these go better together than others.

  • Synchronous support. This covers the processing of customer inquiries through phone or live chat. Customers expect instant communication with these channels, so you have to drop what you’re doing when one comes in.
  • Asynchronous support. Email support falls under this one. Customers don’t expect instant answers with email, so you’ll have some leeway in replying to them – although you might have certain standards set up.
  • Low cognitive tasks. These tasks you can do on autopilot, e.g. administrative tasks or product testing. Plug in your headphones, turn up the bass, and go.
  • High cognitive creative tasks. Creative tasks that require a state of flow. Examples would be creating support videos or blog posts.
Infographic of cognitive load of task and whether communication is synchronous or asynchronous.

2
Prioritize your channels

Most companies have multiple channels through which customers can reach out. A typical combination is live chat, email, and phone.

Be clear about which channels you prioritize, especially with ‘competing’ channels like phone and live chat. Both of these happen in real-time, so you can't combine them.

Spoken and written words target the same language processing area of the brain, making multitasking impossible. You may have tried making notes once while talking to someone, finding that you jotted down not what you intended, but the words you spoke – or the other way around.

When you’re chatting while calling, your phone partner will quickly realize your lack of focus. At Userlike we let the phone ring when just one support rep is available and busy chatting.

Infographic of combining synchronous and asynchrnous communication.
By prioritizing you know what to focus on.

3
Assign channels & tasks

Larger support teams of, say, three people, have the luxury of distributing tasks and channels.

We could assign Fabian to the chat and email (synchronous - asynchronous), for example, Tim to administrative tasks and the phone (low cognitive – synchronous), and Jörn to the optimization of service processes (high cognitive).

Userlike's support team.
The perks of a support team.

If you’re working in a smaller team or alone, there's no way around prioritizing and making trade offs. When you’re on chat duty and a call comes in, you'll have to put yourself on ‘Away’.

Userlike's Chat Panel on Away status.
Put your chat status on Away if you're on the phone.

You can also coordinate with your non-support teammates to drop in when you’re on the phone – a workflow we made possible through Chat Butler.

If you need to get high-cognitive work done, you’ll need to plan it outside of synchronous support hours.

4
Note down what you’re working on

This is one I always use when I’m on my weekly lunch-hour chat duty (catch me on Wednesdays between 12.30PM - 1.30 PM CEST).

The problem with multitasking is that –when done right– it's actually more like serial tasking. And every time we switch, we pay a 'cognitive task-shifting penalty' – some energy to get back on track.

When single-tasking isn't an option, you can use this note-taking tip to contain this penalty.

My work mostly consists out of creative tasks, e.g. writing blog posts. When on the chat, I dumb my tasks down to administration or the simple stages of blog post creation – jotting down ideas or typing keywords in the Moz keyword explorer.

A simple notebook next to keyboard.
A simple note reminds me what I was working on before the chat.

Whatever the task, I note it down on a piece of paper. When a chat comes in, I focus on handling it. When it’s finished, a quick look on my post-it reminds me what I was doing again.

5
Shut down all other disruptions

Many of us have surrendered authority of their attention span to their mobile devices, ‘allowing’ newly installed apps to send push notifications.

Remember, technology is a great servant, but a terrible master.

Stephen Covey

Allowing such notifications for apps like WhatsApp, Messenger, Snapchat, and Instagram takes you into a constant reactionary flux of updates.

When you’re in support, you have plenty of distractions to deal with already. Don’t make things harder than they already are. Shut down your notifications.