Incentives for Support

Many thanks to Ben Williams for suggesting this topic.

Ben asked how best to motivate and incent support engineers. Let’s start with basics:

  • Motivation is an internal, downstream phenomenon. We can’t really motivate other people to do anything, but we can built an environment that brings out the best in the team.
  • On the other hand, it’s quite easy to kill motivation and discourage team members. (Yell at people, set unattainable targets, play favorites and see what happens.)

Before thinking about incentives, create a rational performance management system:

  • Define work processes that make sense. My pet peeve is having to ask permission for every little thing. Trust your team members (once trained) to log bugs, close cases, or post knowledge base documents. You can verify, of course, but after the fact.
  • Define outcome-based metrics that cannot easily be gamed. For instance, the number of cases closed (resolved) per week is an outcome, whereas the number of cases worked in a  week is an activity. If you place targets (quotas) on activities, you will get activities, but not necessarily results (e.g. someone will write a bot to update all cases every day to meet your activity goal of touching cases every day). So think long and hard about metrics that will be the subject of quotas and targets.
  • Provide frequent feedback, both positive and constructive.
  • Take action with team members that are not pulling their weight. It’s demoralizing to be working hard while others lounge, apparently with impunity.
  • Provide opportunities for personal development and growth.

With a performance-management system in place, you can think about incentives. Here are 7 ideas to ponder:

  • Base recurring awards on standard metrics. For instance, recognize the team member with the highest customer satisfaction ratings, or the individual who collected the most links on their knowledge article (think about that one: it’s powerful!)
  • Balance goals: for instance, the award goes to the individual with the highest customer sat but only if s/he closed at least X cases.
  • Reward great performance, not just the greatest. Support teams tends to be group oriented so think about giving recognition to everyone who exceeds a certain (high) target rather than the one individual with the highest score. Along the same lines, reward entire teams for extraordinary performance across the team.
  • Add random awards: Alongside regular, predictable awards (e.g., highest customer sat, most-used knowledge base articles), create awards for non-recurring great behaviors. For instance, best knowledge base cleanup (just this quarter, if it was a priority).
  • Think about slow-and-steady awards. It’s so easy to recognize the hero who saved the day, but harder to recognize the individual who consistently prevents escalations. How about a perfect-year award (for hitting high customer satisfaction ratings not just this month or this quarter, but the entire year)?
  • Use people-choice awards. Ask for nominations and select from them so it’s not just a popularity contest and you can ensure that the awards are rooted in behaviors that benefit the team.
  • Award money, or not. Money is great but not required. Make sure the amount is not too small, so it does not backfire as an insulting pittance. And don’t roll the money into the regular paycheck, where it will get lost. Public recognition works, although some recipients will be shy about it. Intangibles (e.g., juicy projects, special schedules) are great, especially if tailored to the recipients.
  • Step back and assess. If you have been running an award program for a while, review the recipients. Are they the ones who regularly, cheerfully, amazingly get the work done? If not, tweak the program.
What have you done to establish incentives for your team?

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