If you’ve made it past the headline, I probably don’t need to tell you burnout is a serious concern for individuals and employers. While burnout isn’t a new phenomenon (I was surprised to find the arguments in this 2016 post remain very relevant), the potential for burnout is exacerbated by elevated stress and anxiety stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Customer Success burnout in particular is tied to two factors: unrealistic expectations and an inability to imagine a time when things will improve. What can Customer Success teams and companies do to decrease the chances of burnout during this pandemic, and lay the groundwork for lasting change?
Manage customer expectations
I would argue that burnout is more common in service roles such as Customer Success because our work includes an element of emotional stress that comes from working closely with other people. To limit the strain these interpersonal dynamics have on our mental state we have to manage expectations and set boundaries.
Set work hours
Schedule regular working hours and share them with your customers. This is especially important if you cover multiple timezone- nothing’s worse than waking up in Los Angeles to 3 urgent emails from a customer based in New York. Without a defined schedule you risk letting your working hours span the majority of your day in a misguided effort to cover 9am EST- 5pm PST. Throw in the occasional weekend issue and you won’t be left with much time to unplug.
Design after-hours escalation protocols
Customers often ask us to work around their schedules. While we need to be responsive when a truly urgent request comes in, it’s draining to be in a constant state of vigilance. Escalation protocols define expectations around after-hours assistance in a way that improves the experience for external and internal teams. These protocols can either be part of a formal SLA framework, or fall into more informal expectation setting. Take the time to map out the process of tackling after-hours requests- how customers can get in touch, who will troubleshoot internally, and what kind of updates will be provided. I also recommend creating a protocol for how to communicate with customers during a crisis- such as when your product is down. Having an escalation framework in place reduces stress that results from uncertainty, and helps speed up resolution time.
Ask for help
Now that we’ve set our customer’s expectations around what we can deliver, it’s time to challenge internal assumptions around workload.
Communicate with your manager
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a never ending list of tasks and responsibilities, you need to immediately raise these issues with your manager. As someone who manages a team of 7 CSMs, I know firsthand how hard it is to be attuned to people’s individual workloads and personal situations. This challenge is amplified when people’s personal and professional lives have been disrupted by a pandemic. When CSMs on my team say they’re struggling I don’t view it as a sign of weakness- quite the opposite. Asking for help requires enough maturity to speak up when you’re worried about letting your customers and team down.
If you feel like your manager isn’t receptive to this type of feedback, escalate it up to leadership or HR. Support doesn’t necessarily need to come from the top, connecting with a peer can go a long way. Talking to a fellow CSM can provide a safe space to vent, brainstorm solutions, or validate that others share your concerns. Don’t suffer in silence- people can’t help if they’re not aware of your circumstances.
Get out of the weeds
When we’re overwhelmed in the day to day it’s challenging to plan for the future. But when we’re too busy to think about our goals and what lies ahead, we’re unable to imagine an end to our current crisis- don’t let yourself get stuck in this self perpetuating cycle.
Think big picture
What do you like about your job and what would you change about it? If the parts of your job you hated disappeared tomorrow, how would you spend the time you’ve gained? What else would you want to accomplish in this idealized version of your job you’ve created? Admittedly it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get rid of every aspect of your job you don’t like. However, it’s helpful to think about this future end state and tie your day to day back to big picture questions such as what do you want and what can you change to get close to that goal?
Block off time
Set aside time to make progress on your goals by working on special projects and investing in professional development. People pushed to their breaking point can produce amazing innovation. That’s not to say it’s entirely on you to fix the situation (see “Ask for help” above), but you should look for even small opportunities to improve your situation. It’s especially important to look for opportunities to better scale and create efficiencies.
At a certain point after you’ve tried to manage expectations, asked for help, and gotten out of the weeds- you have to be willing to just walk away.
Take control by setting boundaries and sticking to them
In a time of less concrete commitments it’s easy to spend an unsustainable amount of time working. When you don’t have a workout class that starts in 30 minutes, or a happy hour planned with friends, what’s the harm in sending one more email, or two, or three. Sometimes I find myself working because “there’s nothing better to do”. When I stop and reflect, I realize how silly that sounds. There is always something equally or more worthwhile than work to occupy your time! With fewer external accountability it’s on you to set boundaries and stick to them. If you don’t usually work past 6pm, then don’t start doing so now. If you usually take a half day one Friday a month, keep it up. Not only are these habits unsustainable over the duration of the lockdown, they’ll make it harder to transition back to normal life when the pandemic ends.
Change how you think about your free time
Your free time is just that- yours and free for you to use however you like. But perhaps even more impactful than what you do with your free time is how you think about it. For instance, a recent study found that people who had treated their weekend like a vacation were significantly happier than those who had treated it like a regular weekend. “Research shows that slowing down and paying more attention to your surroundings, the activity at hand, and the people who are involved allows you to enjoy the activity more. Without ruminating on the past or getting distracted by anxieties or fantasies about the future, increasing your attention to the present moment makes you more sensitive to the pleasures that are already in the environment. It helps you savor experiences and life a bit more.”
Be well and stay safe.