The FT Word – October 2004

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the October 2004 issue of the FT Word.

In this month’s issue:

· ideas for high-end support packages

· interviewing strategies

Ideas for High-End Support Packages

Thank you to Brad Pomerantz for suggesting this topic.

When should you consider adding high-end options to your support offerings? Let me count the ways:

· You only have one support offering and your “one size does not fit all” approach is no longer adequate as the customer base grows.

· You just acquired large, demanding customers who are not satisfied with the current offerings. The good news here is that large customers have deep pockets as well as deep demands.

· You frequently find yourself leaning on sales engineers, consultants, or technical trainers to handle field-based issues that were initiated in support.

· You or your managers spend a sizable chunk of time managing large accounts — even outside support escalations.

· Several customers consistently request to work with the same support staffers, creating problems with staffing and scheduling.

· You want to increase support revenue faster than the customer base.

When creating high-end support packages, the goal is to deliver high perceived value to customers while keeping a lid on delivery costs. As you weigh costs versus benefits, be sure to consider the volume of customers who are likely to purchase the high-end offerings since some features have a high initial cost but scale very well.

Here are items that are frequently included in high-end packages.

24×7 or Extended Hours Support

This item has high perceived value (good) but it’s a bear to staff, especially for smaller support centers (bad). Once you have a structure in place to deliver support around the clock, however, you might as well push as many customers as you can towards the higher levels of support to maximize your return on your investment.

More Communication Channels

If you usually restrict customers to logging cases only via the web, allowing high-end customers to log cases by phone is a relatively easy win (do think of how you will answer the phones, though!). You can also allow high-end customers to initiate chatting sessions, as long as you can think of a good way to staff it, of course.

Support Contacts

Most vendors restrict the number of individuals allowed to contact support with issues. The benefit of this strategy is not so much to decrease the number of requests (although funneling issues through the contacts will help do so) but more to ensure that the person you are talking to is knowledgeable about the system. Allowing high-end customers to designate additional contacts is usually inexpensive and has a high perceived value, so it’s worth pursuing.

Expedited Response Targets

Many support organizations offer faster response time at the high end. For instance, the top customers may get a 15-minute response on P1 cases while regular customers get an hour. If you decide to offer very quick response time make sure you will deliver on a consistent basis, including after hours. It pays to be conservative here.

Designated Support Contact

Customers like to work consistently with the same individual who becomes very familiar with their site and their needs and can provide responses faster. This option is difficult to staff since you’ll need a senior-level person and you’ll need to arrange for backups, but it has high perceived value. Make sure to limit access to the designated contact to business hours (in other words, customers go to the on-duty person outside business hours.)

You can also offer access to a dedicated group of support engineers instead, giving you much more staffing flexibility while delivering almost the same level of personalization if you keep the group reasonably small.

The five-star version of the designated contact is the onsite, dedicated contact. Many organizations require multi-year commitments and hefty fees to provide permanent onsite help since it’s very difficult to staff.

Advanced Self-Service Access

Access to special self-service documents sounds good to customers and is typically inexpensive to provide. I must say I have trouble thinking of situations in which I would withhold interesting information from the regular user base, but it may makes sense for you.

Custom Communications

If your tools make it easy to create and send custom notes such as letting customers with a particular system know about a new release, say or a particularly interesting knowledge base document, or to send a summary of their support cases to customers, you can package the capability into a high-end feature. Of course, you can always create such communication manually but the cost would be much higher.

Remote Monitoring

If your products lend themselves to remote monitoring, it’s a terrific option for high-end offerings. Remote monitoring can usually be automated, so it’s not expensive past the initial investment, and it makes for very happy customers when you catch problems before they do.

Account Management

Properly defined and contained, account management has the twin benefits of high perceived value and great potential for preventing escalations. Technical account management provides customers with regular briefings including onsite visits, proactive information on new releases, and escalation assistance. It’s easy to create a low-cost version by restricting the relationship to conference calls and prepackaged information and a high-cost version with frequent onsite visits and tailored information.

Proactive support is often bundled with dedicated support contacts, although it doesn’t need to be. If you decide to have different individuals provide the support and the account management, create a strong communication process between the two.

Onsite Assistance

If the regular level of support doesn’t include onsite help, you can bundle it with the higher levels of support. It’s very expensive to deliver onsite support, especially if you don’t have an infrastructure for it, so define your delivery mechanism carefully. To limit your exposure, you can set a ceiling for the onsite days, although you will want to be careful about not appearing to nickel and dime the customers: high-end customers hate it.

Another way to limit exposure is to simply allow high-end clients to receive discounted rates for onsite assistance. It’s not a perfect solution, however, since customers balk at paying anything when it’s your problem.

Bundled Extras

Let your imagination take over here: training credits, consulting days, free attendance to the user group meeting, product discounts, etc. The only obstacle is whether you can coordinate and allocate revenue across organizations. Work it out ahead of time to avoid customer frustrations.

Once you select the high-end features that make sense for your customers, create a datasheet that summarizes the benefits and features and don’t forget to train the sales force on it. High-end support is more challenging to sell than regular support and may require a special sales force, and/or timely intervention by support managers.

Interviewing Strategies

Thank you to Florence Oswald for suggesting this topic.

Recruiting does not need to require hours of your time and your staff’s time, and it doesn’t need to be a crapshoot or a popularity contest either. And yes, you can check for troubleshooting skills. Here’s the full story.

Use a Checklist

Don’t spend a moment recruiting or interviewing before you have a checklist of the skills you need. And don’t settle for the wimpy “5 years of support experience” either. What do you expect the candidates to be able to do after the 5 years: be friendly with customers? troubleshoot kernel problems? write good case notes? keep conversations brief and to the point.

A checklist, or hiring profile, can be used to communicate with all the participants in the recruiting process, whether it’s an internal or external recruiter, and can also be used as a rating tool once candidates are identified, from screening resumes to interviews. I like to create a spreadsheet from the hiring profile to easily assign weights to each criteria and compare candidates against each other.

Know the Decision Makers vs. Consensus Makers

In my experience, most hires are made after too many interviews: exhausting for the candidates, costly for the company, and yielding little more evidence than you would gather with a few judicious interviews.

Separate the decision makers from the consensus makers. For most support positions, there are only a handful of decision makers: the hiring manager, that manager’s manager, and one or two key future peers or peers of the hiring manager. Everyone else is a consensus maker.

Have decision makers interview first so consensus makers don’t waste time interviewing candidates who don’t stand a chance. (Actually, the hiring manager should go first to screen ahead of other decision makers.) Group interviews with consensus makers are a great way to minimize the number of interviews.

Divide and Conquer

Ever sat in a series of interviews in which you are asked the same questions over and over again? It’s a waste of the candidate’s time and a missed opportunity for the interviewers. To maximize the scope of the interviews, assign the topics on the checklist to different interviewers. Some overlap is fine, especially for complex issues, and interviewers should also feel free to ask others to double-check on an aspect they could not quite capture in their time slot, but plan ahead to limit overlap.

Check Technical Knowledge

Stay away from asking general technical questions a la “How comfortable are you with networking concepts?” Instead, include a networking expert on the interview team who can ask pointed, but straightforward technical questions. I like to bring an existing case scenario and have the candidate work through it.

Check Troubleshooting Skills

Troubleshooting skills are different from technical skills. Sometimes you will have to hire people who don’t know your product well, but you certainly want them to be strong problem solvers. Good problem solvers armed with a good knowledge base are often more effective than mediocre problem solvers with strong technical skills — of course you want the good problem solvers with the strong technical skills, but they cannot always be found readily!

How do you test for troubleshooting skills? A good approach is to give the candidate a realistic situation and ask him or her to walk you through the resolution process. Use a real case if the candidate knows enough about your product, but a logical puzzle will work too if not. Take note of how the candidate analyzes the problem, interacts with the pretend customer (you), uses technical resources, and tests solutions.

See more ideas and a pre-filled checklist in The Complete Guide to Hiring Great Support Staffers and The Complete Guide to Hiring Great Support Managers

FT Works in the News

SSPA News published an article I wrote entitled Managing the Outsourcer: Best practices for an emerging field. SSPA News 9/28/04. [ ask me for a copy if you are not an SSPA member.]

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

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