The FT Word – January 2006

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome

Welcome to the January 2006 issue of the FT Word. Happy New Year!

Topics for this month:

  • New Year resolutions for Support

  • supporting evaluations

  • contest open for self-service web sites

New Year Resolutions for Support

Gyms are full today. How long will it last? Here are 10 thinking points to make your organization more successful this year. As you go through the list, pick the top 2-3 as your big goals for the year. (And keep going to the gym!)

1) Do you know who your customers are?

Tip #1: most organizations find they serve multiple customer segments.

Tip #2: customer profiles change over time. Many clients report that the technical background of their customers is decreasing. Could that be happening to you?

2) Are your customers paying their dues?

Tip: if you charge for support, make sure you send correct, prompt invoices, and you cut off non-payers.

3) Is your self-service offer up to snuff?

Tip: well-executed self-service is the most profitable type of initiative you can invest in.

4) Is your case resolution process working?

Tip: most problems occur during handoffs. Minimize handoffs and create service-level agreements with other organizations whenever cases cross organizational boundaries.

5) Are you capturing new knowledge?

Tip: let all support staffers create knowledge base documents.

6) Are all support staffers working hard?

Tip #1: during tight economic times there’s a tendency to hang on to marginal staff since replacement reqs may not be forthcoming; is it time to clean house?

Tip #2: scrutinize the productivity of support staffers in “project” positions. You need some project folks, but they should all be pulling their weight. Ditto for layers of managers.

7) Is it time to in-source?

Tip: if you’ve worked hard at your offshore outsourcing venture but just can’t make it work well enough, take a second look at insourcing, now that you know what the real costs and benefits of outsourcing are for you and your customers.

8) Is your staff properly trained?

Tip: well-trained staffers are more efficient and go the extra mile for your customers. Managers need training too…

9) Are your metrics telling the truth?

Tip: if your metrics are rosy but the support staffers (and customers) are grumbling, you’re watching the wrong things!

10) Are you trying new things?

Tip #1: try a new way of doing things each quarter. It doesn’t have to be a huge deal, just enough to get the creative juices flowing – and remind everyone that “the way we do things” is always subject to improvement.

Tip #2: earmark some time to think about your business. Read support books and newsletters. Attend conferences. Get inspired.

Evaluation Support

Thanks to Reginald Carroll for suggesting this topic.

Many vendors allow prospects to download their software for a free evaluation, usually with a time limit. During the evaluation, prospects can often receive support at no cost through the support organization. Does it make sense? What is the best strategy to deliver evaluation support? And should support be compensated for it?

1) Supporting evaluations may – or may not – be a support function

If your product is packaged software and is available as a free download, it makes a lot of sense for the support team to provide support during the evaluation period. After all, customers want to sample the quality of support as well as the benefits of the software, so having them receive support from the regular support team makes complete sense.

Hosted systems are routinely available for evaluations with support from the regular support team, for the same reasons.

On the other hand, if your product requires a complex setup and customization that is likely to be beyond the reach of the average customer, it makes sense to create a team of sales engineers to babysit trials. Leaving the prospects to their own devices is not likely to transform them into customers. Even in a situation with sales engineers, however, it makes a lot of sense to have the support team provide level 2 support to the sales engineers. That way, you can funnel all technical requests to Engineering through one channel.

2) Expect different requests from evaluations

First, customers who are running evaluations by definition are “beginners”: they don’t know much about the product, and in most cases they have not been trained, nor have they read the manual. They are likely to encounter installation and setup issues (even download issues!) that other customers have resolved. And many times, evaluation customers are frequent users of support.

3) Evaluation support is work!

Although I see a lot of value in merging pre-sales and post-sales support, there’s no argument that pre-sales support (or evaluation support) requires people and other resources. It’s very important to track evaluation work, whether or not you get funded separately for it. You may be surprised to find that a significant chunk of your headcount is involved in evaluation support.

4) Stay ahead of demand

There’s nothing worse for a support manager to discover that the Marketing team has launched a big campaign to get 10,000 downloads this month — and no one told Support! Cultivate a good relationship with Marketing and Sales as well as a robust rollout process so you can create realistic forecasts. Since everyone wants evaluation customers to be successful there should be a powerful incentive to work together.

5) Consider giving premium support to evaluations

Depending on how you get funded (see the next point), this could be a tricky decision, but it certainly makes no sense to inflict poor support on evaluation customers. Evaluation support should include a heavy dose of salesmanship, which means it should not be relegated to the lowest priority, and probably should not be outsourced unless you outsource all your support. Some support groups use a dedicated group for evaluation support, delivering higher responsiveness and with a more sales-oriented approach. Some even assign an account manager to prod customers towards purchase. All good ideas if you can fund them — although customers won’t be sampling “real” support during the evaluation.

6) Get creative with funding

Since evaluation support is real work, and since a lot can be done by the support providers to influence and even cause the sale, should the support team be specifically funded for this effort, and should the reps or managers get some kind of cut on successful conversions to product sales?

My view is that evaluation support should be funded, while commissions or bonuses should be approached with great caution. The funding could come in many different ways, whether it’s a set dollar amount per evaluation or per evaluation case, or funding for a preset level of headcount (great if you have a dedicated evaluation support team), or simply a lower target for support profits, if you are a P&L. Clearly a support team that spends 20% of its time supporting evaluations cannot be as profitable as one that does not support evaluations.

When it comes to individual incentives, I would be very cautious for fear that the individual reps would focus on selling the product rather than helping existing customers. I would recommend incenting on customer satisfaction rather than purchases to keep the field more even.

FT Works in the News

SSPA News published an article I wrote entitled Delivering Support through Partners – Successfully. You can read it at http://www.thesspa.com/sspanews/december05/article3.asp

In 2006 I will once again be a judge for the ASP Best Support Sites contest. You can enter at http://www.asponline.com/06entry.pdf

You can find more details at http://www.asponline.com/awards.html Don’t be shy if you are a smaller company. There’s a separate category for small vendors and competition is usually less severe there.

Curious about something? Send me your suggestions for topics and your name will appear in future newsletters. I’m thinking of doing a compilation of “tips and tricks about support metrics” in the coming months so if you have favorites, horror stories, or questions about metrics, please don’t be shy.

Regards,
Françoise Tourniaire
FT Works
www.ftworks.com
650 559 9826

About FT Works

FT Works helps technology companies create and improve their support operations. Areas of expertise include designing support offerings, creating hiring plans to recruit the right people quickly, training support staff to deliver effective support, defining and implementing support processes, selecting support tools, designing effective metrics, and support center audits. See more details at www.ftworks.com.

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