Support teams center their workdays around the constant flow of incoming support requests. While a busy support queue often correlates to having many customers and the business going well, a large queue of tickets can be stressful. Teams struggle to stay on top of the competing demands of hundreds or thousands of customers submitting support tickets every day. The smallest bottleneck can snowball into significant problems and cause headaches amongst the team and customers.
But, a well-managed support queue can create a better employee and customer experience through streamlined workflows and clearer roles and responsibilities. When the queue is run like a well-oiled machine, response time and customer satisfaction improve, and your team is set up to scale more smoothly as your ticket volume increases.
That said, there are several ways to approach queue management, and each has its pros and cons.
Tiered support is a traditional support model organized by different levels or “tiers” of support. A tiered support model typically follows a numbered hierarchy system such as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, and maybe even Tier 4+ depending on the needs of the business and customers. Issues move up the tiers depending on their complexity.
The idea with tiered support is that teammates are assigned to tiers based on their level of knowledge and skill. The most basic requests start at the first tier, and if they’re not able to be solved by the assigned group of people, the ticket is escalated to the next tier.
With this model, most tickets are solved at the lowest tier, and the least amount of tickets are solved at the highest tier. Here’s an example of what it might look like:
- Tier 1: Tier 1 is for less technical and more basic routine inquiries. Many of these requests can be solved by automation tools.
- Tier 2: Support inquiries are moved to Tier 2 if Tier 1 is unable to resolve the issue. Tier 2 staff are more experienced and have some specialized knowledge of the product or feature set.
- Tier 3: Tier 3 staff are highly technical and really know the ins and outs of the subject matter. Tier 3 might even involve bringing in developers to help resolve a difficult problem.
Pros of Tiered Support
Tiered support is great for rapidly growing teams, as it helps bring structure to the support operation. Thinking through the different tiers and what skills are required for each one also brings clarity to who you might need to hire, helping you add the best-fit people for your team. Tiered support also helps with resource allocation of your existing team, as you more efficiently allocate tickets to the people best suited to solve them. It’s good for teams who get a lot of the same types of inquiries, and it’s easier to implement from a training standpoint.
Cons of Tiered Support
When a widespread incident occurs, Tier 1 staff can become overwhelmed with the influx of tickets, while the rest of the Tiers are impacted much less. Because of this, it’s worth considering putting an “all hands on deck” policy in place when an incident occurs.
There’s also an inherent risk of diffusion of responsibility, or a “not my problem” mindset, as tickets get passed to higher tiers. This can result in longer response and resolution times, and a larger backlog of tickets in the long run. However, this pitfall can be avoided by hiring folks with a strong sense of ownership, implementing SLA-based alerts to management, and making resolution times a part of individual performance tracking metrics.
Swarming is a collaboration-based model of support queue management where the entire team “swarms” the most important queue first, reduces volume, then moves onto the next most important queue. Larger teams may have a more complex swarm model with multiple specialized swarm groups who tackle tickets that fall under their purview.
In any case, team members typically choose which tickets to take, based on their strengths, though the swarm model can also be combined with first-in-first-out (more on this later) so that tickets are answered from oldest to newest. Agents retain ownership of the tickets they take, but they can collaborate with other members of the team in order to find solutions.
With a swarming support model, the team hierarchy is flat and you play to the strengths of the individual. It relies heavily on collaboration where teammates are able to discuss what they’re working on and lend help to each other.
Pros of Swarming Support
Swarming promotes learning through collaboration, and the shared approach to ticketing can create strong team camaraderie. And because there’s no delay in transitioning tickets to tiers and less information transfer between agents, tickets can be solved faster and more efficiently.
Cons of Swarming Support
Swarming can become chaotic and uncoordinated as companies scale and teams increase in size. Highly skilled support engineers might also be found answering simple routine inquiries, which isn’t the best way to leverage resources. This approach to support queue management requires a good amount of training to ensure the majority of the team can answer most of the tickets that come into the queue.
Skills-based support or “skills-based routing” is where customers are connected with a support agent with the most relevant skills for handling their requests. For example, a customer who only speaks Spanish would be routed to a support agent who can speak Spanish.
The main goal of skills-based support is to connect customers with the best person to help fix their problem, faster — reducing overall resolution time and back-and-forth with higher-quality and more accurate solutions.
Skills-based support is a rather complex model but it’s great for companies with multiple product lines or a large number of “specialties”. Anytime there is a large gap between “easy” and “hard” inquiries is a great place to consider looking at skills-based support.
Pro of skills-based support
Customers get faster answers as they don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops talking to agents who don’t have the skills or knowledge to help them. It also ensures that each member of the team spends time on inquiries they can have the most impact on, which increases efficiency and boosts agent’s confidence and pride.
Cons of skills-based support
It usually takes a larger team to execute skills-based support well, as smaller teams don’t have enough support agents with enough highly-specific skills to make this work. It also requires a special configuration of tooling to build out and maintain the “skills” matrix.
First-In-First-Out, or FIFO, is a pretty straightforward queue management model. It functions pretty much like a line at a bank or grocery store. The idea is that the first person in the queue gets helped first, and the last person in the queue gets helped last.
Pros of FIFO
It’s super easy to implement since it doesn’t rely on any complex configuration in your help desk tool. Your help desk tool likely already sorts incoming requests by chronological order from when they were received, so you can be off to the races with FIFO right away. FIFO promotes fairness for customers, however, this can also be seen as a con when it comes to more urgent, but newer, issues sitting in the queue waiting to be answered.
Cons of FIFO
FIFO doesn’t provide much flexibility in handling high-priority or urgent requests. In other words, there’s no way to “skip the line” which can sometimes be problematic. Every problem is different and has different complexities, priorities, and urgencies. If you adopt a FIFO model for managing your queue, it’s worth bending the rules a little bit to account for high-priority and urgent inquiries.
There‘s no single way to manage a support queue. Every company is different and customers have varying needs. As a small team, it’s ok to start out lean and scrappy using just a FIFO model, and that might even continue working as your company begins to scale.
But you should regularly examine how your queue is managed because as your company grows, you’ll likely need to put some additional structure around how you manage your queue in order to make the best use of your resources while maintaining a good customer and employee experience.
Jake has spent over a decade working in Customer Support for SaaS companies. From working in the queue to building and leading teams, he strives to always put the customer first. Now a full-time freelancer and musician, Jake loves helping early-stage startups create content that educates and inspires readers. When he's not writing or consulting, he's traveling the country playing drums.