Customer Support Skills Tree

A perennial topic in the customer support industry is “What does a career in support look like?” As support professionals, we want to see a path before us and want to know how to develop along that path, especially if our interest does not lie in managing people and climbing a leadership ladder.

There are many ways of looking at a support career, from traditional ladders, to support as a theme park, to a choose-your-own-adventure model as described in the recent Career in Support episode of the Support Ops podcast. These are high-level views of support as a career, and they lead to more granular questions about support careers: what are the rungs, theme park lands, and adventures available to us,?

Something that comes up fairly regularly at Automattic, the company where I work, is this: if a Happiness Engineer (our title for support experts) isn’t interested in leadership, what are other options for career development? What are those other adventures or theme park lands we can explore as we master customer support, and how do we get to them?

To help address these question, my team got together to develop a Happiness Engineer skills tree: a starting point for any team member to assess our skills within our support division (Happiness) and to identify opportunities for development to master customer support at Automattic. We used our colleague Davide Casali’s Skill Trees: a getting started guide, and from there we developed this diagram of customer support skills:

Customer Support Skills tree for
Customer Support Skills Tree

Progressing from rookie to master in these skills will help me as a support agent develop in my career, and if I know where I want to go next, this visual will help me see what skills I need to master to get there. One way to think of each skill is as a fruit or acorn: when it’s ripe — when the Happiness Engineer has reached mastery — that skill can be used to start a new tree, using that specific skill as the seed. For example, someone who has mastered a particular product can use that mastery to teach others, research or develop support tools, act as a liaison between support (ie, customers) and product developers, and be an expert resource for others.

I’m not 100% sold on the tree metaphor, but I haven’t yet come up with a better model that makes sense to me given how I see the skills flowing throughout a career. For example, mastery of a single skill is not all that’s necessary to develop fully in a career, while a single acorn can grow a new tree. With the diagram outlined above, my team and I determined that the highest level skill listed there — adaptability — is an overarching skill that will serve us anywhere. For support specifically, the skills really should build from left to right, as the skills on the left are foundational to all else in a career in support. At any rate, “tree” is the best we’ve got for now, and maybe this diagram will help someone else come up with a metaphor that is more apt :-).

How we created this tree

We initiated the tree by passing out post-it notes and asking two questions:

  1. Think about the last time you had an amazing support day — you rocked live chat, or email responses, or concierge sessions. What did you do that day that made it a success?
  2. Think about your role model(s) in support. What things do you see them doing that you admire?

We each wrote one quality, behavior, or action per post-it note, shared our thoughts, stuck all the post-its to the wall, and then grouped them to create a draft of a skills tree.

We were surprised to find that the most common contributors to success were not technical skills, knowledge, or confidence. Instead, they were behaviors: self-care (good sleep, breaks, proper meals, mood-setting, me-time), time & task management (planning the day ahead of time, checklists, keeping organized), goal-setting & accountability (establishing measurable goals, tracking progress, post-success or post-failure analysis), and focus & follow through (mono-tasking, following up to bring things to fruition). For this reason — that these were ubiquitous in the descriptions of amazing days in support — we determined that those behaviors were foundational to success.

As I mentioned before, we stumbled with the tree metaphor, but as speakers of left-to-right languages, we decided to put those behaviors at the far left of the diagram to indicate they should be mastered first. From there, we added the next group of behaviors we found to be useful no matter what path a Happiness Engineer chooses to follow, and continued to progress towards the right.

When we built the tree, we began and ended with adaptability. Adaptability is essential at nearly every point in a person’s development:

  • Doing something that scares you
  • Acting/doing without waiting for permission
  • Being OK with mistakes and learning from them
  • Being able to change focus quickly
  • Anticipating issues of product changes/launches
  • Working where help is needed

We placed adaptability at the top of the diagram to illustrate its overarching importance.

How we use this tree

At performance review time, I ask team members to provide a self-evaluation using this tree. They rate themselves as rookie, pro, or master of each of the skills on the tree. I invite members to add other skills to the tree if we’ve missed anything they see as valuable, and especially if they have a particular direction in their career that is not represented anywhere on the current tree.

We use their self-evaluation to identify where to focus next. Where a Happiness Engineer is a rookie, we decide among the skills that need development and determine which one(s) would be most impactful to focus on. Where they are masters, we talk about how they can use that mastery to help others through teaching, sharing workflows, and other forms of spreading knowledge.

Developing new skills trees

As we progress along the paths we want to pursue in our careers, it’s worth creating a skills tree for where we see ourselves in the future. If a support agent wants to develop toward marketing, what would that eventual marketing skills tree look like? What seed do they need to plant — what skills do they need to master in their current role — to plant that new tree, and what other skills from the marketing skills tree can be developed in their current work in a way that benefits both the company and the agent?

The hardest part of this step, though, is also the most basic: knowing where you want to go.

What is a career?

Happiness Engineer Venn Diagram by Andrea Badgley on Butterfly Mind

Originally published on Butterfly Mind, December 2015.

As I help organize the inaugural SupConf, a conference for people who want to make a career in support, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a career looks like, and what a career is. At the company I work for, Automattic, there is no ladder to climb — we don’t have promotions, pay grades, or titles that make it obvious what career advancement looks like.

In some ways this is liberating — there are no rules, and we have the privilege and freedom to create a new model for working. We get to make it up as we go.

But in other ways the lack of structure can feel chaotic and unnerving. Titles don’t matter? Leadership roles are not promotions? How, then, do we “advance”? The only model we have to go by is the traditional one: promote, get new title, climb the ladder to the top.

But not everyone wants to be, nor can everyone be, at the top. And not everyone wants to be rewarded for good work by becoming a manager. Surely there are other ways to progress through a career. But how? What does progression look like outside of the traditional model?

As a Happiness Engineer — Automattic’s name for support personnel — I’ve been thinking specifically about what progression looks like for someone in a customer support role.

Unfortunately, customer support is often thought of as the lowest role in a company — an entry level position that gets you in the door and serves as gateway to more exciting, glamorous positions. But that’s not how I see it at all. Customer service is fundamental to the character and culture of a company — how does the business treat the people it serves, the people who use its products, and the people who make the company’s existence possible? In the companies customers hold in high esteem, the customer doesn’t serve the company: the company serves the customer. And the support culture is as vital to that admirable reputation as the product itself.

As such, it’s important for people in support to feel valued, to not feel like they’re at the bottom, and to have a vision for what a career in support can look like.

Aside from the obvious — that a career needs to compensate fairly — to me, a successful career is one of continuous learning, and continuous opportunities for learning. In all the jobs I left, the jobs that didn’t turn into careers, I left because I ran out of options: options for more pay, options for more learning, options for trying something different from the same responsibilities and tasks I’d already mastered and had become bored with.

To me, a successful career is one without ceilings, walls, or even a blazed path. It is not a ladder, it is not stairs, it is not a single road with milemarkers along the way to tell you how close you are to your destination. Instead it is like Disney World: the whole park is the destination. When you’re finished with Tomorrowland, you can head over to Frontierland. From there you can head to Adventureland, or Fantasyland. None of the lands are the endpoint, and there are multiple ways to get to them from any place in the park.

That’s the way I see career progression: one of exploring one land after another. Compensation comes with doing a good job and having a positive impact, and that’s part of building a career. But that’s not what a career path is about for me. The career itself is about learning, about developing new skills, about staying excited, about not getting bored.

With movement around different areas — whether as a trainer, an organizer, a data-digger, a bridge between teams, a document-overhauler, a product tester, a communicator between customers and product teams, a customer interviewer, a leader, a big thinker — a person’s skillset and knowlege builds over time, creating a deeper understanding of the company, customer base, and industry. This deep understanding and diversity of skills allow for insight, influence, and impact: big rewards in any career.

I am lucky to feel very valued as a Happiness Engineer at Automattic, to be trusted, to be unobstructed by walls or ceilings, and to be able to pursue a career according to the Disney World path. I’m excited for SupConf so we can celebrate support as a career path, and so I can learn more about the worlds I get to explore as a person who is passionate about support.

Related post: Support is Sexy by Alx Block