On Support as second-class citizen

Is it inevitable that support staff within a B2C tech company end up as second class citizens, compared to developers or designers within the same company?

It’s an interesting question, and one that the Support Driven community has attempted to address at some level.

I think my opinion on this is ‘yes, it is inevitable, unless your support staff fulfill other roles too.’ (I recognize this is controversial, and am willing to consider changing my opinion; however, this is my perspective after being in a variety of support roles in multiple companies.)

It’s definitely true that support staff roles tend to pay less than developer/designer roles, broadly. It’s probably true that support roles are perceived as requiring fewer skills that other roles. At least Tier 1 support roles – entry-level support – pay less and have fewer job requirements compared to dev/designer roles.

We also don’t see this issue in B2B companies, largely, as the support role is often merged with project management or sales or both as an “Account Manager” or “Account Executive.” But B2C tech companies tend to require supporting large numbers of clients – thousands per support staff member easily, and those support requests tend to be simpler.

It was interesting to watch this at Automattic during my time there; there was a definite claim from management/HR that support staff were just as valuable to the company, but the actions and role of support didn’t match that. Development and design teams receive an extra team meetup each year compared to support; their team members also get paid better based on the few data points I have; support staff have an expectation to work their regular job during meetups in a way that other roles don’t. Support staff work has become much more ‘cog in the machine’, ‘performance measured purely by interaction numbers’, etc… It’s difficult to look at that and say that support are fully equal to other divisions within the company.

But the broader question – what would equality look like? – is a difficult one to justify. There is a need for lower-skilled work in support compared to other roles – there are many simple customer questions that need to be answered quickly. There is high-skill work within support too, it’s just a smaller percentage of support for B2C tech companies.

Maybe this means that your high-skill support jobs stay within the company, and are treated equally to dev/designer roles, and then all of the low-skill support jobs are outsourced, so that you don’t have to treat them as equals.

Or maybe it means that you commit to equality in some ways – meetup quantity, or pay scale. Or you counterbalance the disadvantages with other positives – training time to move up in support or move into development/design. (I recognize that you need to provide support 24/7 in most cases, which includes meetup time, and that’s a requirement that needs to be fulfilled.)

The cognitive dissonance can be difficult for a support person to deal with when they’re being told that they’re equal to other staff in all ways; it may be better for companies to say that they’re not equal, and instead provide additional opportunities for their support staff to move towards higher-skill, higher-pay, more-highly-regarded roles.