The FT Word – December 2009

The FT Word

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Welcome to the December 2009 edition of the FT Word.

Topics for this month:

  • Making productivity improvements: a timely topic for your preparations for 2010
  • Support awards: how to get one, and which one to go for
  • Introducing the Third Tuesday Forum: mark your calendars to meet, share, network with other support executives in the San Francisco area

Making Productivity Improvements

Productivity must be trendy: I got several requests this month on measuring and improving support productivity so I thought it would be appropriate to outline a strategy to increase productivity, just in time for preparing for a new year.

1. Measure. The first step is to make sure that you are measuring productivity properly. Many support organizations measure productivity by capturing cases per head per day. Do you? Cases per head is a fine metric for individual productivity but it’s a tactical metric. For a more strategic view of productivity you want to measure customers per head, not cases. So if you have 1000 customers and you manage to serve them with a headcount of 100 you have a productivity of 10 customers per head. If you manage to support 1100 customers with that same 100 headcount you’ve increased your productivity to 11 customers per head. You can choose to achieve that productivity gain in a number of ways, for instance by beefing up your knowledge base or by increasing the case throughput of the team. Because the customer per head metric captures all the activities of the support organization it’s a superior metric than cases per head. Note that I’m not suggesting that your one and only support metric be cases per head, only that it’s the best tool to measure productivity. (And if you have multiple product lines you will undoubtedly notice large differences in productivity between them: it’s quite normal.)

2. Improve product quality. The best way to improve support productivity is to improve the product (as a bonus, improving product quality also maximizes customer satisfaction with support!) We are not talking only about minimizing bugs, although certainly that’s part of the strategy, but rather taking a wide look at the product including ease of use. Do you have a team that routinely and continuously works with the Engineering group to identify and address product improvements? If not, put one in place. What you want to do is to isolate and quantify key levers for customer requests and get them addressed. It may take some patience since you will have to wait for a new release (and you may find that support requests don’t automatically make it to the top!) but the outcome can be spectacular. Apart from pure customer issues you can also include supportability requests such as a better debugging environment. And remember that documentation is part of product quality, too.

Cost: relatively low on the support side
Reward: can be very large
Lead time: usually long, depending on the release cycle

3. Provide self-service options. The second most effective mechanism for increasing support productivity is to improve the number and effectiveness of self-service options. The beauty of self-service is that, past the initial investment to set it up and keep it fresh and running, the marginal cost of serving customers is very low. It’s not enough to slap on a knowledge base and declare victory: you need to test with real customers to make sure that the search functionality is usable by “real” people (i.e. customers). You also need to encourage customers to use the web site. They will surely come back if it offers attractive options.

Cost: medium to high if you need to deploy new technology
Reward: potentially large
Lead time: short to medium depending on the scope of the initiative

4. Open customer forums. I’m discussing customer forums outside self-service because they are not strictly self-service, and certainly not at launch time when you need to attract customers to the forums. In the past couple of years I’ve become a big fan of communities and I now think they are the wave of the future: the interactive nature of forums beats what can be accomplished with knowledge bases and the energy is excellent.

Cost: low to medium
Reward: medium
Lead time: very short if using a SaaS solution for the technical side of things

5. Streamline the case resolution process. Having taking care of product quality and self-service or near self-service options, now you can focus on support delivery. The main lever is the process you use: how do you route cases, how you move cases from one team to another. In general, aim to minimize case transfers. Much time (hence, productivity) is wasted in transfers, not to mention goodwill.

Cost: fairly low
Reward: large if the current process is wasteful
Lead time: medium, depending on the scope of the changes

6. Improve the support staffers’ customer skills. I would rank increasing customer skills above technical skills because a support staffer who listens well to customers, troubleshoots skillfully, and organizes his or her time well is more productive than a technical genius who fails to connect with customers and delights in fully exploring rat holes. Also, assuming you hired people who want to help customers it’s relatively easy and quick to improve their customer skills. Improving the managers’ people management skills falls in this category as well.

Cost: relatively low
Reward: significant if current skill level is low (and gains in customer satisfaction are likely too)
Lead time: quite short, weeks rather than months

7. Improve the support staffers’ technical skills. Better technical skills should also improve productivity, but at a cost. To start with, it can be difficult, perhaps impossible to train individuals who were hired without the proper technical background. And typically the effects are not as quick as with customer skills. Still worth doing, however.

Cost: medium to high
Reward: medium
Lead time: medium to long, months rather than weeks

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

Support Awards

Many thanks to the anonymous (and modest) reader who suggested this topic.

If you feel that your support organization is functioning very well, whether you are getting great customer satisfaction or have rolled out snazzy online support features, it would be very satisfying to be able to cap that success with an industry award. Even better, using the award as part of customer presentations can help promote your reputation to prospects and existing customers alike. So here are some suggestions for awards to seek.

The first decision you want to make is whether you are seeking a certification or a competitive award. Certifications measure competence and are usually based on predefined evaluation criteria: if you meet the criteria you can win certification, and you usually have several chances to qualify if you don’t pass on the first try. Competitive awards are more fluid and reflect a win, not just competence.

With that, here are a few well-known programs:

  • The SSPA Excellence in Service Operations. This is a comprehensive certification for an entire organization of a subset thereof (geographic or specialty-based) that relies on a comprehensive audit. I was asked to create the initial draft of the criteria several years ago and I can tell you that the certification is very thorough! The fee and the time investment required are significant. See There is an additional level of certification called the JD Power and Associates certification that includes a customer survey.
  • The HDI certification suite. HDI offers a whole series of certification program for both individuals and organizations, linked to their training offerings. Prices for individual certifications are quite reasonable. See
  • SSPA’s Star Awards are given twice a year in a number of categories including Consumer Support Mission-Critical Support, Partner Management and others. There is a $3000 minimum application fee with discounts for multiple applications. See,
  • The ASP’s Year’s Ten Best Web Support Sites: this award recognizes outstanding support sites and is awarded once a year. I am one of the judges and it’s always an interesting competition focused mainly on innovative approaches rather than completeness of offerings. There’s a special category for small vendors so everyone has a chance (and considering the number of applicants it’s much easier to win as a small vendor!) There is a modest application fee. ASP publishes a report of the winners that makes for a useful set of case studies. See

The benefits of awards come in two ways: one is what you will learn through the process of preparing for the award and getting feedback on your application (true for the SSPA Excellence program and the ASP Ten Best Web Support Sites); the other is the prestige that you will gain by sharing the awards with your customers. In a sea of support organizations that all claim to be wonderful being able to display and award or a certification is a competitive advantage.

FT Works in the News

Drum roll! Starting in 2010 (coming right up!) David Kay and I will be hosting The Third Tuesday Forum, regular roundtables for support executives in the San Francisco area to discuss the topics we embrace and wrestle with every day. Join us for PowerPoint-free, sales pitch-free discussions on everything from services marketing to escalation management to knowledge management strategies. The Third Tuesday Forum meetings will take place the third Tuesday of the month (clever, huh?) 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. Interested? Let me know and I’ll put you on the distribution list.

A new article this month, published by Customer Management Insight: Combining Quality Monitoring and Customer Satisfaction in the Call Center. You can read it at

And Henry Stewart Talks, a UK-based professional development company, published a talk I wrote on entitled Preventing Agent Burnout. You can see it and hear it a (only the first few minutes are viewable without a membership.)

I am continuing to work on the support marketing book. It will be ready for consumption very soon! revising In the meantime check out the support marketing blog, Marketing Wise.

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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