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.

Crisis Management – A Primer

Outages happen. SaaS vendors need to have a robust process to minimize them, manage them to happy conclusions, and learn from them.  The 7 steps described here explain how to proceed.

Step 0: Define roles and responsibilities ahead of time

During an outage, emotions and confusion reign. Prepare ahead of time by defining roles for everyone likely to be involved, and in particular:

  • The support team, who is usually responsible for customer communication
  • The operations team, whose focus is to return the system to a stable stat
  • For larger vendors, the marketing communication team, who can help craft the communication both during and after the outage
  • Executives and the customer success team, who can help bring resources to bear (execs) and spread the word to customers (CSMs) but are more in a bystander role

Define and document the crisis management process and the communication template to be used in steps 3-5. Practice a few dry runs, including off hours when reaching appropriate individuals may be challenging.

Step 1: Monitor systems to detect outages early

Outages are bad, but they can be a little less bad if you detect them before customers do. Have tools and processes in place to find out about problems right away — and alert internal parties, chief among them the support team.

Plan how the Operations team will be alerted if the outage is discovered by an internal party, or by a customer. This is usually a direct, synchronous contact such as a phone call.

Step 2: Qualify the outage

Not every outage deserve a formal crisis management process. If the outage is very brief, it’s often best to skip the entire customer alert process (in other words, proceed to step 6, post-mortem). The Operations team makes the call of whether to declare a formal outage, based on what is known about the issue and the solution.

Step 3: Alert affected customers

It may be tempting to simply keep quiet when there is a system issue, but customers will likely be incensed if they find that you knew about the issue but did not warn them. The difficulty is to avoid unduly alarming customers who won’t be touched by the issue. Do all you can to identify the customers who are using the server, service, or tool that is experiencing the problem, and alert them and not others.

Alerts are usually proactive, by email, but they could be by text or phone — and they can also be posted on the website to be seen by customers who seek information.

Best practice is to use a template so information can go out quickly and yet be reasonably worded so as not to create panic. Include:

  • The nature of the issue
  • Its likely resolution time, if known
  • A time commitment for the next update
  • If appropriate, a method to obtain progress information such as a document in the knowledge base

Having the marketing communication team help craft this and other customer messages is wonderful, but focus on speed rather than craftsmanship at this point (and think about how you will do this at 2am on a Saturday).

Step 4: Send updates at regular intervals

If the outage lasts more than a few minutes, you will need to send updates. Best practice is to:

  • Commit to a specific time for the next update in each communication. You can always give an update sooner than promised if a new development occurs.
  • Give updates at least hourly unless there is a well-understood resolution path that has a known, longer duration. (Very frequent, systematic updates such as every 15 minutes are usually worthless since they may detract from a quick resolution and not much is accomplished in short intervals.)
  • Provide high-level progress summaries. Customers want a full resolution, of course, but will be encouraged if a diagnostic has been made, even if the resolution path is long.

The support team usually sends the updates, relying on predefined templates appropriate for your particular environment and customers. When you create the templates, remember that you may end up sending multiple updates so make sure that they create a spirit of reasonable hope and not just a pile of empty sentiments.

Step 5: Alert affected customers of the end of the outage

Once Operations give a green light, the support team sends the final update. You will want to have a template for outage ends as well.

Step 6: Conduct a post-mortem

Up until this point, all efforts are focused on resolving the outage. But step 6 is the most important step because it uncovers the root cause of the outage and defines long-term fixes.

The Operations team leads the post-mortem and produces an internal report. In turn, the Support team can disseminate an appropriately-edited version to affected customers. This should occur within a few business days of the outage and does not need to occur immediately, especially if the outage is off-hours.

Most vendors review outage post-mortems at the executive level to ensure that appropriate efforts are being deployed to minimize outages, especially repeated outages with the same underlying cause.

Do you have a crisis management process? What works well for you? Share your tips in the comments.