The sun never sets for businesses that rely on remote support, and global support, for customer service. Read on to learn what a follow-the-sun model is and how to implement it at your company.
What is a follow-the-sun model?
The traditional “follow-the-sun” model is a type of global workflow in which issues can be handled by and passed between offices in different time zones, increasing responsiveness and reducing delays. It was developed so companies can provide round-the-clock customer service, literally following the sun around the globe. If the sun is shining over a region, be it San Francisco, Paris, Hong Kong, or Sydney, business is being conducted there. That means customers’ requests and communications are coming in quickly and often—and these businesses must meet that demand.
In its early days, this customer service approach only seemed feasible for big companies that had the resources to open and staff multiple offices around the world. The truth is, follow-the-sun support is simply a method meant to satisfy customers, regardless of time or location, and that too can be a reality for even small- to mid-size businesses. It can also be achieved in a variety of ways.
Is a follow-the-sun model right for you?
Start off by asking key questions. If you’re a small company looking to provide global support, consider what steps you can take now to achieve your longer-term support goals. This can be done by evaluating when your customers need you most, and carefully considering how to meet them where they are. You most likely won’t need to open multiple offices, especially at first, but perhaps a small remote office or a representative located remotely in a key area or time zone may satisfy your customers’ needs.
Prezi, for example, has teams in two locations: San Francisco and Budapest. They meet their global support goals by working together, providing a combined 18 hours a day of coverage. To do this from a single office they’d have to aggressively staff up.
Another consideration is the way you use technology. Are you using a tool that makes it easy to scale, and to quickly hand off support tickets?
To help decide what’s best for you, your team, and your customers, ask the following questions:
1. How large or small is your team?
When you’re small, you’re actively jumping to meet the needs of customers. Every time you learn you have a new customer base, you find someone to support them. But as you grow, you begin to standardize, build out streamlined processes, and build teams. If your team is still in the lean, jumping phase, you might not be ready to offer global support. You can, however, start planning for it.
2. How complicated are your support issues?
Are the majority simple, transactional issues like password changes and processing returns, or are they more complex technical issues requiring more resources? Depending on the answer, you might just need a globally-accessible FAQ page or Help Center rather than a team of people always on call.
3. Where are your customers primarily located?
There’s no reason to leap forward with global support if most of your customers are in only one or two regions. Focus on those regions first.
4. What time of day do you receive the most tickets?
If you’re using a customer service platform with great analytics, you’ll be able to make data-driven decisions about the right time to expand globally. Stats around ticket volume by time of day will be your new best friend. Regardless of where the bulk of customers are located, if you know that you’re receiving a lot of tickets outside of your standard support hours, then it’s time to start thinking about a rotational support model.
5. Are mobile apps being used?
After considering your demographics and volume, could you make up some of the support volume by using a mobile app? A customer service platform with mobile access might allow you to stagger your shifts between home and work, and to cover different time zones, without having to hire a remote representative.
6. Are you driving self-service?
Self-service is often the best place to start when building out global support, but some companies overlook self-service because it feels like there aren’t enough resources to build out a nice-looking repository of help articles. In reality, setting up a Help Center doesn’t have to be a monumental task, and by offering community forums, you can give your customers the chance to help each other. It’s a great way to optimize your support.
7. What’s your industry?
How do companies similar to your own handle support? What about the companies your business aspires to emulate? Do you know where you fall in industry benchmarking when it comes to customer service? In the gaming and retail industries, for example, 24/7/365 support might be pretty standard. But not every industry really requires that. The model you choose, develop, and refine should be the one that works best for you and your customers.
How to implement a follow-the-sun model
Some companies go with the more traditional application of follow the sun: which means providing anytime, anywhere, 24/7/365 support. For example, our customer and partner Zuora offers 24/7/365 support coverage. They do it by starting a team in Colorado at 8am (MST). In California, teams start in waves at 7am, 8am, and 9am (PST). In addition, team members in the Beijing office start at 7am, 9am, 1pm, and 2pm CST (China Standard Time). By staggering their support personnel start times across these key time zones, they are able to meet the service level-agreements they’ve set for their customers. Zuora also employs a daily handoff model, in which open and pending matters are passed along to the next team when one goes off duty. Zuora uses private comments in Zendesk tickets to help communicate important details to team members picking up issues already in progress.
But other companies may determine that they can meet their global support needs with other tactics. In any case, one thing is clear: To provide the highest level of customer service, your support team must decide when to be available. Sure, this could mean 24/7/365. But it might not, and that’s OK; there are other options that allow you to deliver anytime, anywhere service and get global, fast—regardless of the size of your company.
For example, another Zendesk customer, Prezi, has teams in two locations—one in San Francisco and one in Budapest. They meet their global support goals with these two teams working together, giving them 18 hours a day of coverage without having to staff up aggressively. Or, consider the approach at Solium, which provides an equity management platform that performs real-time trades 21 hours per day. This schedule is determined by global stock exchange hours.
In creating a support structure based on this schedule, they examined the business units they needed to support and each region. They also divide their support to cater to two groups of customers: participants (employees at companies) and client administrators (HR teams administering equity and compensation). Which begs another question your team should consider when evaluating options: How would you categorize your customer base, and does your customer service team’s approach require variance between all of them?
Follow-the-sun best practices
We can also use ourselves as an example:
- Dashboards offer the ultimate 360-degree view of all the teams and activity, and they’re very effective in helping everyone stay informed.
- Collaboration tools are also invaluable: The Zendesk Support Team uses Flowdock to provide a space for conversations between customer service teammates. It’s a type of virtual follow the sun, as it allows one team to find out what another team was doing at any time of the day.
- Daily handoffs mean more than just passing the baton once one team’s quitting bell sounds. It means agent accountability and tracking metrics based on performance, both of which we think are essential for best-in-class customer service.
- Communications are essential; don’t underestimate the value in investing in a system that allows HQ and regional support teams to communicate with each other. You may find yourself in a frustrating game of telephone otherwise.
- Leadership; there must be a leader for every team. Think about every time you, personally, were on a customer service call and the issue needed to be elevated to a manager? Team leads are the go-to resource for issues while they are occurring or when action must be taken immediately.
- Training; if you’re going to follow the sun, follow the sun in a consistent manner across the globe. That means providing the same training experience and same program for all customer service agents in all regions. In addition to the all-important consistency, which also impacts the overall experience with your business and brand, it also allows teams to be feel like a part of the team — not simply a satellite of HQ.
- Languages; Talk the talk of the region you’re speaking to. Zendesk, for example, uses dynamic content to help address this need. It allows agents everywhere, with a few clicks of a button, to deliver support in the correct language.