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Watch any movie about organized crime, and you’ll see the same arc: poor boy on the streets of a ghetto gets involved with fatherly-yet-brutally-violent mafia boss, works his way up the ranks of organized crime ladder, eventually becomes the boss, buys beautiful wife and possibly mother a sprawling mansion, and lives an outrageously lavish lifestyle until one day he makes a mistake with his wealth (like wearing the fur coat to the boxing match), and is caught, imprisoned, and once again, poor. Whether it’s Goodfellas, American Gangster, or even The Wolf of Wall Street, the rise and fall is the same. And the message is that with increased wealth and power comes an inevitable fall from grace.

This same giddiness before the fall often occurs in growing companies. A flurry of hiring, increased salaries, and better office space can easily precede the total demise of the business if you don’t scale properly. And one of the hardest areas to scale in is customer service, a department that is crucial for medium and large companies, but often overlooked in the startup stage.

Scaling customer service in-house has numerous components, which we’ve outlined here:

1. Utilize technology.

Much customer service can be handled digitally. For instance, Nordstrom has a digital 3-D foot scanner that can tell you what shoes will best fit your feet. They also allow customers to pay from anywhere with their mobile devices, so that they don’t have to wait in line. Services such as these both save your company money (in terms of hiring customer service reps), and save the customer time.

2. Staff intelligently

Gather analytics on rush times (both in-store, via call centers, etc), and staff accordingly. For 24-hour customer service, take a page out of Airbnb’s book and create incentives for off-shifts (like 2 a.m.) with higher pay and perks. Airbnb also used a sophisticated scheduling tool, through which employees can manage their schedules and request PTO. Initiatives such as these enabled them to scale to 24/7 support in a single month.

3. Implement a standardized onboarding system.

This is actually one of the hardest aspects of scaling, partially because so many companies get it wrong: 32% of executives say that the onboarding they received was poor, and it shows in high turnover rates, with half of all senior outside hires failing within 18 months. There are several problems with the way onboarding is currently done. For one, there’s little-to-no continued training in most companies, and new employees are supposed to retain and apply information that they learned in a single training session. Furthermore, many onboarding playbooks consist of non-searchable PDFs, and are therefore difficult to reference. Onboarding should include continued training (much of which can be done via technology, like quizlets), an interactive, easily navigable playbook, and frequent check-in points to evaluate progress so that new hires don’t become a drain on your company.

4. Set clear in-house career progression.

Startups in particular are prone to hiring people for nebulous positions, simply based on intelligence and general aptitude. When hiring customer support agents, think about what other positions they have the skills (if not the background) to fill, because it’s much easier and more cost-effective to promote in-house than it is to get a new hire. Ask, for instance, does your new support agent have the writing skills to one day support top-tier loyalty customers/ VIP players?

5. Establish a process to identify knowledge and productivity gaps.

As Sahra Santosha, head of Client Happiness at Earnest said of scaling her team from 3 to over 30, “The things we noticed that started falling apart the most quickly after everyone was in the door, trained, and responding to tickets, was knowledge gaps and productivity gaps. When you’re a small team and bringing people in the door very quickly, you have to train them with minimal resources and still help them to become useful as quickly as possible to hack away at the backlog. Once the dust has cleared, you start to see you trained these people with everything you could possibly think of, but you’re not necessarily covering all the bases. So making sure in the end that you have a really good process in place to uncover these unknown knowledge gaps as quickly as possible to make sure 1) that they’re addressed, and 2) that they’re well documented so that when you do get to point where you are outsourcing or opening up a second location you already have that process in place.”

Scaling customer service properly from the outset of your company’s growth can save you millions later on– as evidenced by Comcast’s recent $300 Million customer service reparations. Building the tools and customs to have a consistent and effective customer care team early on will exacerbate your growth burst, and offset the usual supply-demand wall that most companies hit. So next time you’re flipping through movies on HBO, ask yourself if you’d rather be Henry Hill or Anthony Soprano. Not all great leaders fall, and not all companies have to be unprepared for customer service growth.

Published May 16, 2016
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