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Extra-queue-rricular Work | Customers, Etc

Extra-queue-rricular Work | Customers, Etc
By Ben McCormack • Issue #46 • View online

Imagine you’re trying to get your foot in the door at the latest rocket ship tech company. They’re hiring for customer support, except they call their support staff “Support Ninjalinos”, which is hip and cool. You send in your application and land an interview—sweet!
A few days before the interview, you’re browsing LinkedIn and notice that a friend from college works in customer support at the company, so you reach out to share your excitement and ask for any tips for the interview. To your surprise, she shares how she just put in her two weeks notice. She’s been totally burned out for the past six months and the entire team is under water with no end in sight. They’re constantly hiring because they can barely keep anyone on the team. Bummed, you decline your upcoming interview and take your job search elsewhere.
Nobody wants to work on a support team where they’re going to get run into the ground. I’ve found that if you proactively schedule time out of the queue—what I’ve come to call extra-queue-rricular work¹—you can provide recovery for your team and get additional work output that benefits customers.
Photo by Team Fredi on Unsplash
Photo by Team Fredi on Unsplash
The industry term for the percentage of time your support agents spend in the queue serving customers is called “utilization”. If you were to work with a Business Process Outsourcer (BPO) to provide support services for your business, one of the things you would ask about is utilization rate. The reason that’s important is because you need to know for each hour of time that you pay for, how much of that time is actually spent serving customers vs working on other things.
Is there an ideal utilization rate?
It’s certainly not greater than 100%, like we might have seen in our fictional example above or in this real example from Away Luggage. Working overtime just to churn through a support queue is not sustainable in the long term and will eventually lead to negative experiences for customers.
It’s also not going to be exactly 100%, which is what Arise advertised to its partner businesses, leading to exploitive practices towards its agents. Arise was able to advertise 100% utilization because agents—who were individual business owners—didn’t get paid for breaks and had to pay for their own training, which is not a great model for building up the humans doing support.
When I spoke to Suneet Bhat from Boldr a few months back (video of our conversation), he mentioned that the utilization rate that they communicate to their clients is around 80% (11:44 in the video):
“We’ve got management meetings, we’ve got reporting, we’ve got all of these learning and development [opportunities]. We’ve got all these things that are built into people’s schedule.”
Simply for the reason that people are going to burn themselves out if they’re sitting in front of a queue all day, you need to have time out of the queue to be your best self at work. But what’s more, extra-queue-rricular work gives your team recovery and produces additional performance.
Extra-queue-rricular work
I’ve written about this topic a good bit before, so I’ll start by linking to what’s out there already: When working the support queue, less is more, a blog post that introduces the concept of “extra-queue-rricular work” and why we need focused time outside of the queue (bonus video covering the same topic).
The magic of extra-queue-rricular work is that it increases the overall performance of your team even as you decrease the rate of utilization within the queue. How is that?
First, taking a break from the queue can help team members recover so that they have the energy and brain space to continue serving customers. You can’t give what you don’t have, and sometimes you just need a break so you can continue to give.
Second, when team members are given opportunities to improve the customer experience outside of the queue, this not only empowers the team members doing the work, but it produces tangible results that benefit customers. This means you have improvements to your knowledge base, better communication with other teams, improvements to your support processes, and whatever else you can imagine, by taking a little extra-queue-rricular time. And guess what? Many of these activities have the positive side effect of reducing the number of incoming support requests, reducing pressure on the support team and further allowing for more extra-queue-rricular work and/or dampening the need to hire as quickly to keep up with growth.
I believe in this approach so much that I designed the FullStory support team around it. I wrote Why you should optimize customer support for queue-based performance as a corollary to the one about time out of the queue because it touches on one of the requirements for this system to work, namely, that you need people who can perform well while in the queue, which is helpful in justifying time spent outside of the queue. When I was managing the team, we would strive for senior support team members to spend 40% of their time each week out of the week. When those team members are high performers while in the queue, the time out of the queue is easy to justify.
Look for time out of the queue
If you’re a support team manager looking to increase the overall output of your team, consider decreasing the utilization rate in the queue and looking for opportunities for your team to do extra-queue-rricular work. You might be surprised at the positive effects it has on avoiding burnout and improving the customer experience.
  1. Hat tip to Caitlin Brett for the invention of the phrase “extra-queue-rricular work”.
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Ben McCormack

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