This week, I talked to the marvellous Melissa Pytlak!
Melissa is a Program Manager at PartnerHero, an organisation which builds fully-integrated remote support teams for startups and growing businesses. She’s been there for just 2 months, but has been in leadership for 13 years altogether.
Hi Melissa! Thanks so much for coming to talk about your story! Where did it all begin for you?
I was an onsite Tech Support for my undergrad university’s computer lab. It was a lot of troubleshooting printers and floppy disks back then! Everyone needed to print their term papers at the last minute. I was promoted to Lead in my second year in that role. The Lead role there was primarily scheduling shifts and acting as a trainer/SME role for new hires. Even at that age, when my career path was still wide open, my managers saw leadership potential in me and I’m still grateful for that.
At my next support role, I was promoted from a Tier 2 Technical Support role to Supervisor. Someone they had in mind for the Supervisor role transferred internally to another department. I had been on the team for 2 years, but for that team and level of specialization I was still pretty green. I knew I wanted to move up and I knew I was the best choice. I proactively told my manager that I was interested in the role before it was even posted and really pushed to make it happen. Once it was approved, the transition was pretty seamless.
How did you find things once you were in the role? Were there any particular challenges?
Yes, my priorities were unclear. The job description for the role was at least 5 years old and a lot of the technology and responsibilities had changed. The core duties were to keep the support team working, and I was good at those basic operational tasks. But there was no push to make improvements, or get involved in other departments or projects. I would raise pain points or process improvement suggestions to my manager and nothing would happen.
That’s pretty challenging! How did you deal with that?
Honestly, this was one of my weak spots as a leader. I’m not a pushy person by nature. I assume that if something makes logical sense to me, and I can make a business case for it, it should be an easy sign-off from upper management, right? So those times when it wasn’t a quick decision, sometimes I didn’t advocate hard enough for my solution or for my team. Sometimes an issue just got lost in the shuffle of all the decisions leadership has to make on a regular basis, so I would send reminders but wouldn’t really drive the change.
There are also elements of corporate culture that come into play: is this a culture that is resistant to change or one that embraces change? At some point, if you keep slamming into walls, you are going to stop running forward, or you are going to approach much more cautiously and slowly. The one benefit to being in a “slow change” culture is that it taught me to really have my proposals refined, have my “pitch” to the executives planned and really thought-out.
Has leadership been different to how you imagined?
I thought it would be much easier to address some of the irritations and pain points I had as an associate/rep since I would be able to make the decisions faster. What I didn’t realize is how many more distractions and little decisions would come in front of me daily. There are always little “fires” to put out, along with the big strategic decisions.
The big stuff is difficult, too. Staff reductions are always hard and I honestly haven’t had to do many of them, but that was one of my first really difficult decisions that I had to make as a leader. You are changing someone’s whole life. I also really struggle with delegation because I want to know all the details of everything going on. In my new role that is literally impossible; there are too many things that need to be done. Thankfully my Leads are very capable of handling many tasks without my constant oversight, so I’m beginning to get more comfortable with delegating.
Let’s talk about Customer Support Leadership now, then. Having been in the role a while, do you think there are particular skills that make for a successful CS leader?
Absolutely. You need adaptability: the ability to reprioritize tasks based on new information. And a willingness to listen, to be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes (customers, colleagues, clients). You need to be an effective decision-maker, too, and to have a proactive focus vs being too reactive.
And what about the success of those around you – your team?
I ask myself, are they growing? Are they improving? Are they happy? Basic KPIs like CSAT and ticket volume are a quick way to verify quality/quantity, but true team health and success is much harder to measure.
You have to select metrics that are going to drive improvements or accurately help you create forecasts and plan for the future. The analysis and recommendations that come out of the metrics is the important part.
My support and resources for team development are much better at PartnerHero and that really makes a difference to the overall team health. In fact, it’s one of the KPIs that I am measured on as a leader here. Regular 1:1s are the first piece. Knowing what their career goals are, from those 1:1 discussions, is key. One of my objectives right now is to collaborate with them on measurable development objectives, and then I’ll help them find resources to achieve them. That could come from online coursework, or shadowing another colleague, or working on specific projects.
How do you foster your own personal development?
I was really lucky to have a wonderful manager come on board about 2 years ago, in my previous role, and she gave me a very inspiring kick-in-the-pants to strive to do more. I joined Support Driven, which is such a wonderful community, and started reading articles and just reading conversations from other leaders and picking up on the higher-level topics and thinking they were doing. Recently I’ve been working on a Project Management course online. I also have realized it’s important to set my own PD goals for each month, or it’s too easy to let the time slip by without doing anything.
I’d love to hear your own experiences as a customer, too! Do you have any particularly great or poor experience to share?
Yeah, I do. My USAA credit card was compromised. USAA is an American company known for their customer service. They sent me a text about suspicious activity. I called them and after verifying my information the phone rep was able to confirm that none of those charges had gone through, cancelled my old card, and arranged to send me a new one. It was so easy and seamless I forgot it had even happened until my new card arrived in the mail!
By contrast, we are trying to refinance our house, and the financial institution we chose has made the process extremely frustrating. They clearly have a standard template for every refinance, and if you have any kind of special circumstance or oddity, their processes cannot handle it. My husband couldn’t even get his login working properly to start the process. There are multiple people working on the lender’s side and seems like they never communicate with each other, they have asked us for the same information multiple times. It has been very frustrating, especially when 90% of this should be able to to be handled online and electronically. My husband has been a customer of theirs for over a decade and he’s ready to cancel all his accounts because they’ve botched it so badly.
My favourite question for last – how do you sign off an email?
Thanks Melissa! Great to hear your story!
Look out for another awesome CS Leadership story next time!