What’s different about supporting partners?

Many thanks to Jimy Shah for suggesting this topic.
There’s a general consensus that partners are “special” and therefore deserving of special support — but since support is the land of Big is Beautiful, think twice before creating a special partner support offering, let alone a dedicated partner support organization.
Here are 6 questions to help you decide what to do, followed by 5 strategies to implement a successful partner support program.
1. What do your partners do?
Partners can be resellers, implementers, or frontline support providers (or a mix). The needs of the country distributor for Vietnam (say) are bound to be quite different from those of a firm like PwC that integrates your products in enterprise solutions, or those of your support outsourcer in India.
If you have several kinds of partners, consider that you may need several kinds of partner support programs.
2. Do partners have special needs, different from other support users’?
Perhaps your partners need immediate assistance when they are onsite swapping out hardware, or they need solution design help — if the requirements are different from those of your other users, you may just have to create special offerings.

3. What’s the technical level of partners?

Partners that are resellers often have only basic product knowledge, while partners that are responsible for implementation may be as knowledgeable as your top support talent.
4. How much control do you (support) have on partners?
Resellers are often recruited and compensated strictly for their ability to sell, so the profiles of their support users may be all over the place. At the other extreme, you should be able to dictate which outsourcer’s contacts may interact with your team, and how. If you can control the technical knowledge of the support users, or if you can charge for partner support, you can design more ambitious routing schemes.
5: What is your support model?
If you use a tiered model, a common way to accommodate technically-savvy partners is to route their issues directly to tier 2 (or 3).
6. How large is your organization?
Larger organizations can more easily be broken into specialized units. If you have a small team, refrain from creating a team dedicated to partner support.
With that, here are 5 basic moves for partner support:
  • Implement some kind of partner success management to ensure that partners are properly onboarded and managed for the long term.
  • In particular, mandate, persuade, or seduce partners to get appropriate training.
  • Flag partners in the case-tracking environment so that all support staffers can instantly identify them. (Do not require clicking to a separate screen to find that information!)
  • Whenever possible, use the same support portfolio and process for customers and partners. It’s often the case that partners’ needs are very similar to those of larger customers.
  • Measure the percentage of already-known issues. The key metric for partners is not case volume. but rather percentage of cases that are not already-known issues. If you have a partner that only logs complex cases that are almost always bugs, you have a partner that is doing their homework!

What have you done to support your partners? Please post a comment to share your experience.

Poor Outcomes for Tiered Support

I’ve long been a fan of alternatives to tiered support — and TSIA just released a survey that tiered support is not so great on the employee side:

  • attrition is significantly higher for tiered support (19% vs. 11%)
  • employee satisfaction is lower (77% vs. 86%).

If you’d like a refresher on case management models, my colleague Jim Hendrickson has a nice, concise description on his Tech Support Management website.

The Customer Success Playbook – A Primer

What is a customer success playbook? A guide for the customer success managers on how to handle various situation. Despite its name, it can be stored as a set of documents, each focused on a particular process (and searchable, in a wiki or knowledge base).

How do I get started? The customer success playbook is a living document, to be modified and enlarged over time. It’s fine to start with just a few key pieces and add on over time. Since the playbook is particularly useful to train new CSMs, you can ask new hires to keep track of what they need to know and learn during their first weeks and use that list to build (and improve) the playbook.

What does the playbook consist of? The playbook is organized by situations, which include:

  • onboarding
  • regular reviews with customers
  • how to respond to various customer situations/objections

For each situation, provide a script and templates for how to proceed. Sample emails and sample dialogs are useful, although you should encourage the CSMs to adapt to their own specific voice and client needs.

Do you have a playbook for CSMs? What does it contain?

Ultimate Scaling (aka Consumer Support)

Many thanks to Ram Ramadas for suggesting this topic.

Some support organizations have hundreds of customers. Others, especially those serving consumers, have millions. What approaches work for very large customer bases? I suggest 10 approaches — which may be of interest to you even if you do not have anywhere close to millions of customers.

1. Make your product bulletproof

If you have a handful of customers and your product is just a little buggy, or just a little difficult to use the first time around, you can cope by giving each customer a little nudge. But you cannot afford to do that for very large customer bases! So work with the engineering and product marketing teams to make sure that usability and stability are near-perfect.

2. Assemble a top-notch support-readiness team

It will help you with goal #1, above, and with all the other goals below. You cannot afford to improvise.

3. Invest in self-service options

Self-service scales best, so anything you can do to improve your support website, in-product help, documentation, knowledge base, or product diagnostics will have a high return.

4. Invest in onboarding

If your product or service is “obvious” to use, great — but if not, invest in onboarding. It could be as simple as a short cheat sheet on getting started, or a series of short videos on how to accomplish common tasks, or regularly-scheduled webinars. If you can, do all of the above.

5. Encourage community support

With lots of customers you naturally have enough volume to sustain a community, as long as you provide appropriate guidance, and regular answers.

6. Invest in social support

Any customer, but especially consumers are likely to take to Facebook and other online media to share their experiences with your product. Be ready to harvest compliments and react to concerns in real time with a proper social support monitoring tool (and process and people behind it).

7. Make 1:1 support the last resort

No, I’m not talking about taking it away entirely, but it is a valuable commodity so provide lots of faster, and helpful alternatives (and check out #10, below).

8. Prepare for peak demand

Whether your busiest day is the day after Christmas, the day after a new release, or the day when your largest offshore center is closed due to a typhoon, you want to plan carefully for how you can deliver a good customer experience under the most demanding conditions. Self-service and community service are likely your best bets.

9. Learn from every customer interaction

One of the important goals for support is to be the voice of the customer, and it’s even more important with a large customer base. Categorize your cases to determine where volume is coming from, and do something about it: get the product fixed or changed in some way, do a better job of onboarding, have a knowledge base article ready, etc. And since most volume will come through self-service and the community, analyze those interactions as well.

10. Nurture a partner community

You may not want to deliver personalized service to every customer, but some want and need it, and some partners will be interested in delivering it. By offering some inside information to (selected) partners you can make everyone happy, partners, customers, and you.

Having a huge customer base is a challenge, to be sure, but it is also a wonderful opportunity since your budget allows many experiments for self-service and community service. Focus on providing a great customer experience without the need for (too much) assisted service.