Article | 6 min read

How to set up support tiers

Scale up support as your business grows and improve employee retention with support tiers.

By Liz Bauer

Last updated March 22, 2022

If your company is growing, your organizational structure is probably getting more complicated. You may be expanding your customer service team and wondering whether you’re doing it right. At Zendesk, we’ve wrestled with this issue during our own cycles of rapid growth. We examined what would be best for our customers, agents, and our business needs. Ultimately, we decided on a tiered help desk structure that could flex with our growing business.

Today, our Global Customer Advocacy Team comprises over 250 people in eight different locations around the world. Rather than just increase staffing to one vast pool of agents, we purposefully structured this team into customer support tiers.

Why? Experience has taught us that to be truly customer-driven, we need to structure our team around specific skills, competencies, and levels of experience. Our three tiers (tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3) correspond to the complexity of technical problems our customers face.

Why should you move to a support tier system?

There are two key advantages to the support tier system: scalability and higher employee retention.

As your business grows, so will your customer base. Naturally, you’ll see an increase in the volume of incoming support tickets. And if growth includes new products and features, the complexity of those customer inquiries is also likely to increase.

Support tiers offer a strategic approach to managing those challenges. Each support tier is focused on solving a specific range of issues and complexities. For every type of incoming ticket, there’s a specialized agent qualified to resolve it. This tiered system makes it possible for support teams to scale with the business’ growth.

There are customer support alternatives to the tiered model. For instance, in “swarming,” one employee handles a support ticket until it is resolved. If this employee needs help, they enlist their colleagues to “swarm” on it until they arrive at a solution. The downside of this system is that it can create inefficiency when less-qualified agents have to ask for help, and the lack of a clear hierarchy can create frustration for customers and IT teams alike.

[Related read: 9 ticketing system tips for outstanding customer service]

Agent satisfaction on the job is just as important as scalability. If you want to retain customer support agents, you need to ensure that the job they’ve been hired to do is one they can do well. That means finding ways to streamline the ticket process, matching agents with issues they can quickly resolve, and making sure they’re not overloaded.

Tiers give agents flexibility and opportunities for advancement, which can help with agent satisfaction and retention. Without a ladder to climb, agents aren’t motivated to do their best work and are more likely to quit. In the end, this hurts your bottom line—you’ll constantly be hiring and training new agents to offset high rates of churn.

There’s no reason to settle for this when you can devise an organizational structure that supports advancement while also serving the customer better.

3 types of help desk support tiers and what they mean

The most common customer support tier system is composed of three levels. Each one is associated with specific tasks and levels of support. Generally speaking, the higher the tier number, the more complex the issues handled by agents.

Tier 1 support: roles and responsibilities

With tier 1 support—also known as a “tier 1 help desk” or “tier 1 tech support”—agents are trained to handle simple (and often frequently asked) customer inquiries, such as billing- and account-related questions.

Tier 1 agents can provide general knowledge on how a product or service works, help customers set up their accounts, or direct customers to knowledge-base content. These agents are nimble generalists who handle the bulk of varying easier-to-answer tickets so that specialized agents can focus on more complex, time-consuming issues.

In some organizations, tier 1 support agents are the first point of contact for all incoming inquiries. If a customer’s question is simple, the tier 1 agent who received the inquiry will resolve the issue. If the issue requires advanced technical or product knowledge, tier 1 support agents will route the ticket to a higher-tier agent who’s more qualified to help.

Tier 1 issues are meant to be handled quickly (in 15 minutes or less). Tier 1 agent performance is largely measured by both the volume of tickets resolved in a workday and the customer satisfaction (CSAT) ratings given by the customers they serve. At Zendesk, we expect a CSAT rating of 95 percent or above from all tier 1 support agents.

Tier 2 support

If a ticket is going to take more than 15 minutes to resolve, it should be escalated to a tier 2 agent. (This means that part of tier 1’s job is to quickly recognize when they need to escalate an issue.)

Tier 2 tickets require a higher level of technical support and should take 30 minutes or less. Agents need to have in-depth knowledge of the product(s) as well as troubleshooting skills to resolve these issues.

At Zendesk, tier 2 agents handle issues like customizing add-ons, optimizing how companion products interact, and anything else that requires a deeper understanding of the underlying technology.

Tier 3 support

Tier 3 agents offer the highest level of technical support, tackling the toughest user problems.

At Zendesk, this team handles tickets that have been escalated from tier 2 (usually 5-10 percent of the total ticket volume). Tier 2 support agents can refer tickets to tier 3 when they’ve failed to solve an issue or when they’re facing an issue they’ve never dealt with before. These tickets have no time limit for resolution; they take as long as needed to resolve.

Tier 3 agents are specialists equipped to take on one-off issues that haven’t been encountered before and that may require new products or infrastructure to resolve. This team also vets all issues that need escalation to the software development team (when necessary) and tests the fixes put in place by the development team, before settling the issue for the customer.

Scaling your help desk with a support tier system

At Zendesk, the support tier system helped us scale support operations as our business grew. Having tiers and specialized agents made it easier for us to manage an increase in ticket volume without sacrificing customer satisfaction.

Specialized tiers also offered new career opportunities for employees looking to move up in a customer-facing role—both within an advocacy organization or within the broader business. Agents were no longer overloaded with complex tickets they weren’t equipped to handle. Overall, we saw an increase in job satisfaction and employee retention.

If you want to achieve these business results but aren’t sure where to start, check out our guide to structuring your customer support organization. This resource reveals all the lessons we learned over the years as a growing company and provides the framework you need to build out your own support team.

How to structure your customer support organization

Learn how to scale your support team

How to structure your customer support organization

Learn how to scale your support team

Read the guide