Why managing support teams is different – and harder – than managing any other type of team

Managing a team well is hard work.

“Well” is the key word in the statement above. For some folks, managing people is a box that has to be checked as they rise through the ranks of their chosen profession. These people are usually satisfied with being mediocre managers, as long as they’ll get more decision-making power and prestige with the role change. But if managing people is a deeper calling for you – that is, if you want to be a good manager, one who truly empowers her team to do its best work – you’ll have your work cut out for you.

This is particularly true if you’re leading a support team. There are three major reasons that managing support teams is different – and harder – than managing any other type of team:

1. You’ll sometimes find yourself teetering on the edge of emotional labor overload.

Support teams are working with your company’s customers all day, and most of those customers have reached out because they’re unhappy with something about your product. As a result, your support staff is doing the bulk of the emotional labor for the company. This can be very taxing, and skilled support team managers are always looking for ways to ease the emotional burden. This is usually done by checking in frequently, encouraging team members speak freely about their tough customer cases, and taking on some of the most difficult customers themselves.

This is all stuff that support team managers should be doing, but it requires a lot of emotional labor. In effect, support team managers are doing emotional labor for a staff that’s doing emotional labor, and this can sometimes become overwhelming. As a support team manager, you’re pretty much always teetering on the edge of emotional labor overload; when you start to feel yourself toppling off that edge, it’s important to take steps to pull yourself back onto it.

2. You experience a lot of stuck-in-the-middleness.

Usually, the support team sits at an important juncture in the company, with touch points in product, engineering, design and marketing. On the one hand, this is very exciting. Your support staff is probably one of the best-informed teams in the company about what’s launched, what’s coming down the pike, and how all of this is being communicated to customers.

But on the other hand, this can lead to tension that the support team manager is tasked with, well, managing. For example, if the product team launches a new feature without informing the support team, your staff will be aggravated and want assurances that something like this won’t happen again. If the support team unintentionally expresses something about the product to customers in an off-brand way, the marketing team will be aggravated and air its concerns with the support team manager. If a design feature is unintuitive, customers will complain the support team, and the team will look to its manager for help with communicating with them.

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It’s sometimes frustrating to feel stuck in the middle, but with the right skills, you can make the most of your role

Support team managers are constantly stuck in the middle of all of this, and need to develop a specialized set of skills for coping with it effectively.

3. Professional respect can be hard to gain and easy to lose.

Although this is (thankfully) less common than it used to be, many support teams struggle with gaining recognition and appreciation from other teams in their organization. There are a lot of complicated and largely unfair reasons that this problem crops up in some companies, but when it does, it’s the support team manager who has to bear the brunt of other teams’ unreasonable attitudes and expectations. In fact, the support team manager sometimes has to work hard to gain the respect of her colleagues, and this respect can be easy to lose when a mistake is made by someone on her team.

In this type of environment, advocating for your team and its needs is an uphill battle. There are things you can do to make it a little easier, but it nevertheless makes your job as a manager particularly challenging.

There’s no doubt about it: Managing a support team is demanding. But it’s also incredibly rewarding when you have the right skills, attitude and coaching. Want some one-on-one help? Let’s talk about it!

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