Need to Influence Senior Leaders about Staffing? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage a team of customer support specialists. The job requires in-depth knowledge of our products (outdoor/climbing gear, some of it very technical), so we have provided a lot of training and oversight.

In the past year we lost two of our best people, and the executive team refused to let me replace them. Things have gone okay since then; we have had to extend wait times for customers and haven’t received a ton of complaints—but now I am feeling the pinch.

Our company offers unlimited PTO and I have two employees who submitted their time-off request at around the same time. I know my team can barely cover when one person goes out on vacation, let alone two people. Normally I would just approve PTO for the first person who got their request in, but one of them is getting married and the other has a daughter who is getting married.

I just can’t say no, obviously. But the situation is not good: summer is our busiest season and I am really worried about how we are going to manage the volume. If one of my people gets sick, we will have a full emergency on our hands.

I just don’t see how this minimum staffing policy is sustainable. The whole thing is stressing me out. I am having nightmares and waking up in the middle of the night with my heart racing.

I like the company. I think our products are amazing, I love our people, and I’ve always loved my job. I get calls from headhunters all the time—which I have always politely declined—but now I’m feeling like maybe I should pay attention.

I know I need to convince the higher-ups that it would be in the best interests of the company to restore the original size of the team, but I am not sure how. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Squeezed

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Dear Squeezed,

This sounds tough—and familiar. The days of do more with less are clearly here to stay. In your case, it sounds like it has passed that point and now you are expected to pull a rabbit out of a hat. And it is taking a very real toll. People (including you) need to take vacations and attend big family events.

I appreciate that you are eyeing potentially greener grass, but learning to how to make and argue a business case is a skill that will serve you well.

In my experience, executives tend to not be that receptive to emotional distress. But they do pay attention to math and to issues that threaten the brand’s reputation—essentially, anything that could affect revenue.

Start tracking the data on wait times and complaints. It might also be smart to check your reviews to see if comments about slow service are showing up or have significantly increased. You say you haven’t received “a ton” of complaints, which implies you are receiving more than usual. Do a little research. Find data about wait times for support and what people are willing to tolerate. How much is too much time?

If your brand promise is built on customer service, increased wait times will absolutely erode the company’s reputation. Do whatever you can to clearly show that reduced access to customer service will eventually hurt sales, if it hasn’t already. The key is to use facts and data to create a compelling narrative. Include charts and graphs to influence the visual executives.

When it is time to make your case, be ready to state your position: customer service is understaffed and it is hurting our business and our reputation. Then concisely share how you arrived at your position. Be prepared for questions and pushback. Know what is stated in the employee handbook regarding PTO and vacation time. Practice with a friend to ensure that you stick to the facts—and keep emotion out of it.

This might get you one more person.

It would also behoove you to brainstorm other ideas with your team for how to solve the problem, so that you can offer solutions other than increased headcount. Ideas might include:

  • Cross-train others in the organization so that they can cover when your people are out on PTO.
  • Train temps who are willing to come in on a substitute basis. Perhaps the people who left might be willing to fill in on occasion.
  • Use technology (AI, increased information on the website) to help your team manage the load with fewer people.

I found a very interesting report on customer service that might expand your thinking about solutions. It wouldn’t hurt to sharpen your own expertise in order to be as informed as possible about what other companies are doing. The more you know and are able to demonstrate you have done your homework, the greater the chance your senior team will listen to you.

Most companies have been focused on reducing expenses and becoming as lean as humanly possible. It doesn’t occur to anyone that it all works fine until someone needs a day or a week off. There must be extra coverage to account for the fact that you (inconveniently) employ humans.

Try your hand at advocating for what you need to keep your part of the business running smoothly, Squeezed. Get as smart as you can about your business to see how you might get creative.

If you can’t make headway, maybe it would be smart to take some of those calls from headhunters. If you must leave the company to maintain your own sanity, your company will have no one to blame but themselves.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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