As we race toward the end of the year, it’s a good time to start thinking about what’s coming up next. In a recent post, we talked about preparing for the holiday rush. Once you’ve got that out of the way, and you’ve had a chance to catch your breath, you’ll want to start planning for 2022.
Planning ahead lets you create a roadmap to follow when things get busy. The unexpected will still happen, but planning gives you a way to iterate and fine tune your plans. It also encourages you to reflect on the past — what went well and where did problems occur — and envision the ideal future.
When’s the best time to do this? At previous jobs, I’ve done my annual planning in February or July because those were our slow periods. In my current role, I do it in late December and early January because our workload tends to tail off at that time of year. I also check in on these plans and set concrete near-term goals at the end of each quarter.
I recommend you find your own ideal time and aim to do your annual planning then. Add a reminder to your calendar so you know when you’ll take the time. That way, when things are busy and you feel like you can’t catch up, you’ll know that you have time set aside to do your planning.
Exactly how and when you plan will depend on your company’s norms, but here are some tips for getting started.
Planning can encompass a lot of things. It could include anything from your budget to staffing forecasts and team goals, from new initiatives like launching a knowledge base to rolling out a new support channel. It’s whatever will help you run and manage your team or department efficiently and with confidence. I suggest jotting down a list of things you want to cover.
My list includes:
I love to start off a planning session by reflecting on the previous year. For me, it works well to do this offline. I grab a notebook and make lists of the issues we ran into over the last 12 months. I also talk to my team and other coworkers to get their thoughts on what stood out as particularly bad or good, and note what they don’t mention. If things are left unsaid, they’re likely not that memorable and therefore “good enough”.
When you look ahead, think about the big picture first:
Talk to other leaders. While you don’t need to know the specific details of their plans, discussing your goals and theirs can help inform the decisions you make. A good mentor or peer network can also be invaluable. If you haven’t already, join a community like Support Driven, where you can engage with people at similar companies or those who might be more experienced, so you know what to expect in the next few years. Be sure to share your own tips and suggestions, too.
I do this in two phases — starting with the ideal and then revising for the real world.
When I start writing my annual plan, I like to get a bit fanciful. I write a story of what the future could look like. The story takes what I know about our company’s plans but places those plans in a world where I can control everything about support with no constraints on staffing, budget, or anything else.
I find it helpful to write down this ideal future before describing what can actually happen, accounting for the inevitable trade-offs we will likely have to make. You could skip this step, but if you haven’t done it this way before, I highly recommend trying it to see what new things you might imagine.
Next, it’s time to work on a more realistic plan. Consider:
For this step, you’re taking off your rose-colored glasses and using everything you know about your company, customers, and team to put together a plan for the year. If part of your planning includes staffing and team size, try breaking down your specific goals with those things in mind. For example, describe what you could do if nothing changes with your team and then layer on the gains that each addition to the team would bring.
If you already have a list of annual company goals, use these as your north star. Think about how your team or department goals support the overarching company goals.
Let’s build a plan for Acme Corporation, a company that has the goal of increasing its revenue. We’ll use the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework to list the goals and initiatives the company might adopt.
For this example, let’s assume Acme Corporation has the following:
How could the support team contribute to the company’s goal of increasing recurring revenue?
Once you have a written plan — whether it’s just a vision of what could be or a list of goals with resourcing requirements that need to be balanced with another team’s plans — it’s time to share it with your team, other departments, or the company leadership.
Many companies have formal processes for doing this. If your company does, you’ll need to follow these. If your company doesn’t, you might first decide to share your plan with peers in your network. They can help you determine if you’re missing anything or offer advice on different ways of achieving your goals. Then run it by colleagues within your company.
The type of feedback you’re looking for will vary depending on how you’ve written your plan:
Everything involves teamwork, so the more you collaborate when planning, the better it gets. Don’t forget to talk with your own team, too. They’re going to have to act on your plan, so it’s important to get their perspective on what’s feasible and whether it will make their jobs easier or more difficult.
Listen closely to all the feedback you get. What problems do they identify? What alternate solutions do they suggest? Talk through every aspect of your plan, even the parts that everyone seems to agree on. A good plan is something you may feel strongly about, but you should hold onto the ideas loosely.
Let’s go back to the example plan for ACME Corporation above. When the team discusses the plan, a team member points out that one of the three issues on the product list is supposed to be fixed the following week, so it can be removed from the list. Another person suggests that if the team revises their “saved replies”, they could further reduce the need to hire people. They decide to add this to the plan (under initiatives).
Next, the team shares their plan with the other departments. Together, they discuss prioritizing the other product fixes and education needs and how this will affect the customer support team’s goals. For example, the product team can’t add additional tasks without increasing their own staffing requirements, but the education team could take on the suggested improvements.
Remember that your plan is a living document. Refine your plan based on what you’ve learned and what your team thinks is valuable, and keep in mind the resources you have on hand. Each iteration will strengthen the plan, but it should never be considered “final”.
At Acme Corporation, the team removes the product improvements from the plan but decides the “saved replies” improvements and education initiatives are likely to have a positive impact on their customer support response times. Adding these two tasks will also reduce the hiring needs, so the team will only need to hire two additional team members in Q1.
The next version of the plan for the education department now includes the specific topics that the support team identified. And the customer support plan includes the “saved replies” improvements and specifies hiring the two people that will enable them to meet the 24 hour response time goal.
Taking the time to develop an annual plan for your support team is an investment now, but one that will surely benefit your company in the long run. It’s always useful to reflect on what is currently working and what could be streamlined and to update your plan as the company goals evolve over time. If you don’t have a plan, I recommend starting one today.
Diana is a support, success, and experience leader. She’s currently the Head of Customer Experience for Qwilr and previously led customer departments for a number of leading companies. When she’s not writing or helping customers you’ll find her off in the woods taking photos or curled up with a book.
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