The FT Word – January 2010

The FT Word

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Welcome to the January 2010 edition of the FT Word. Happy new year and new decade!

Please forward the newsletter to your colleagues. (They can get their own subscription here.)

Topics for this month:

  • Things we never got around to do properly in the past year (or decade): a hopeful to-do list
  • Where does Support belong?
  • Sign up for the Third Tuesday Forum: the first meeting with support executives will take place on February 16th in Santa Clara, CA

Things We Never Got to Do Properly Last Year: a Hopeful To-do List

On a month where many resolve to sleep more, exercise more, and eat less, I see many excellent ideas floating around in the Support world and I wonder why they are not universally adopted (yet). It seems that many support organizations live like it’s still the nineties (or earlier yet!) How about dropping the vintage act and embracing best practices others have already tested for you, such as…

1. Price transparently. Customers are much more savvy about support contracts and the business side of support is streamlining towards simpler portfolios. If creating a support quote requires an hour and a formidable pricing formula (and perhaps, horror! the liberal application of mysterious discounts), it’s time to move to a plain, nothing-to-hide pricing model. Create customer trust through a transparent pricing model for support.

2. Leverage the wisdom of your crowd. The most important development of the past couple of years is the adoption of customer communities not only for “free” support but also for high-complexity support where the accepted (wrong-headed!) wisdom was that customers simply could not and would not help each other. So-called closed communities, accessible only to customers with a valid support contract, are thriving.

3. Embrace KCS. Knowledge-centered support, the idea that all support staffers can create and update knowledge documents as they resolve customer issues, seems “obvious” but many support organizations are busy justifying why it simply cannot be done in addition to resolving the mountains of customer issues. Guess what makes more sense from a productivity standpoint: reinventing the same wheel repeatedly, or sharing the mold for the wheel? Give up the “KCS is too much work” fight and get with the program.

4. Leave behind that tired tiered model. (And say it quickly five times in a row!) There are many other ways to resolve cases than bouncing them up through a tiered structure: experiment with a Touch and Hold model (great for high-complexity products), refine your routing logic to ensure that cases get to the right people, and allow the support staff to select the issues they are able to solve.

5. Make your tools talk to each other. Forcing your team to reenter the same information manually is a waste of time, not to mention a data quality nightmare. Not to mention a metrics nightmare.

6. Count your customers. One of my (very large, very influential) customers recently discovered that they were mis-counting their customers by a factor of 25%. Needless to say, the discovery created havoc with all kind of metrics based on the size of the customer base. Data integrity matters and it is an attainable goal: if you clean up each month as you renew support contracts you’ll have a clean(er) database by year end.

7. Use ratios everywhere. “FT, we get 10,000 cases per month. Is that a lot?” Compared to what? Use ratios for all your metrics and you will be able to compare your performance to last year’s and others’, with ease.

8. Make time for experiments. All the good ideas in support come from someone, somewhere, who took a chance – and from 100 others who took a chance and fell flat on their faces! Nurture small experiments for pricing, for your web site, for routing cases. Many of them won’t work, and that’s ok, but keep trying new ideas.

The following FT Works tools can come in handy as you work to improve productivity:

Reporting Structure for Support

Many thanks to Zoran Popovic for suggesting this topic.

Those of us who have spent any length of time in Support have experienced many reporting structures for support organizations: Development (since that will take care of bug fixing issues, right?); Professional Services (since it’s all about post-sales and customer interaction); Marketing (because of the Voice of Customer concept); Sales (well, that happened to me once, and all I will say is that it was very interesting). So which one is right?

Let’s start by admitting that the reporting structure is often a flavor-of-the-day decision, based on little more than expediency or political maneuvering rather than logic since most CEOs have no hands-on support management experience. And it’s true that Support must maintain close ties with very many other teams within the company including Development, Sales, Marketing, and Services. So I do not believe that there is a unique reporting structure that works well for all companies, but rather a number of possibilities that vest serve different situations.

For a low-complexity product Support can report into Sales or Marketing. The technical requirements are minimal so reporting into Development yields no particular benefits, and since support is often “free” in the low-complexity world there’s less of a need for direct oversight by the CEO – except for very large companies in which a direct reporting relationship is useful.

For a technology startup, Support does well as a subgroup of the Development team. Many of the issues the support organization faces at that stage (release schedule, product quality, staff skills and resources) are technical in nature and the reservoir of technical resources is naturally in Development. Sure, Development managers often have little experience with support but with a sufficiently savvy manager the support organization can do well reporting to Engineering. The one weakness in this scenario is the strong link with Sales but in a startup environment that issue can be overcome rather easily.

For mature, high-complexity products, my strong preference is to have a standalone Services organization reporting directly to the CEO and encompassing Support, Professional Services, and Training. One of the benefits of a direct reporting structure is visibility, and with a mature organization the size of the financial contribution from Support alone would suggest that the CEO want a direct oversight of the group. Having a voice at the executive level allows the Services organization to build strong relationships with all the groups it interacts with and to influence product strategy as befits the Voice of the Customer organization.

Reporting structures I don’t think are effective include separate units reporting into different geographies and reporting into Finance or IT. Starting with IT: while there is often a support team (help desk) in IT and it may makes sense to leverage tools across both organizations the reality is that supporting external customers is quite different from supporting internal users. Plus it buries Support too deep into the org chart to effectively push customer issues. Reporting to Finance is quite similar, with the sad addition of extreme cost cutting rather than growing the business (if you charge for support). Splitting the support organization into regional units is unfortunately common, aligning customers between Sales and Support, but breaking much of the efficiency of large support teams and root cause analysis. It’s fine to have geographical units if you sell different products in different regions, but otherwise stick with a global organization with distributed staff, naturally.

If you don’t think your organization’s reporting structure works well you can work towards a change – but regardless you’ll have to work on developing good relationships with Development, Sales, and Professional Services.

FT Works in the News

Mark your calendar for Tuesday February 16th. That morning, David Kay and I will be hosting The Third Tuesday Forum, a regular roundtable for support executives in the San Francisco area to discuss the topics we embrace and wrestle with every day. Our first presenter will be Victoria Perkins, Vice President of Customer Services at Vocera Communications, who will speak about their customer satisfaction survey. Please join us in Santa Clara, CA, around a breakfast buffet. There is no membership fee, just sign up ahead of time and make a small contribution for the food and room fees ($40). Interested? Register now!

Customer Management Insight published an article I wrote entitled Can Good Metrics Solve the Call Center’s People Management Issues?. Customer Management Insight 12/09

It’s that time again: You’re invited to enter your Web support site in the ASP’s closely-watched “Ten Best Sites” competition. Even if you don’t win, you’ll get a wealth of statistical benchmarking and feedback from our judges. Click here for details: The deadline for entries is 3/5. I will once again serve as a judge for the competition and I look forward to discovering and applauding lots of creative ideas.

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.

Françoise Tourniaire
FT Works
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

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