Welcome to the December 2011 edition of the FT Word. Feel free to forward it to your colleagues. (They can get their own subscription.)
Topics for this month:
- The FT Works indicator – $1.5 billion
- Known issues – do we expose them to customers or not?
- Temps and part-time staff – why and how
The FT Works Indicator: $1.5 billion
Oracle is buying Right Now Technologies, a cloud-based CRM vendor, for $1.5 billion. This comes after the purchase of InQuira and more recently Endeca – and, unlike the other two, is questioned by industry experts for its unclear fit in the overall Oracle portfolio. In any case, after a period of blossoming for CRM vendors it seems that we are in a consolidation phase. The logical conclusion may be rising prices and slower functionality improvements… until the next cycle.
Known Issues: To tell or not to tell
Many thanks to Chris Farnath for suggesting this topic.
I often hear support executives debate how far they can go in publishing “known issues” to customers without exposing themselves to the ire of engineering, marketing, and legal groups leery of competitors snooping for dirt and customers using the list as leverage during negotiations. But is there really a problem with publishing known issues? I think not, in seven points:
1. All products have bugs. Is it really big news that your products have known issues? Nope, every product has issues and savvy customers are well aware of it, so much so that they are asking to be told of issues in a proactive manner in order to plan around them. The real problem for customers is not that they will encounter product issues, but rather that they are likely to stumble on them unaware (and, to be sure, that they may have to wait “too long” for fixes).
2. The competitive concerns are real but overblown. Competitors would love to wave your known issues in the faces of prospective clients, but, per point #1, clients are not easily spooked by the mere existence of bugs. True competitive harm does not come from the known issues list but rather through unauthorized access to marketing plans and trade secrets – not the lowly bugs list.
3. Uncontrolled information can hurt. If you determine that you will not share known issues, you can be sure that your customer community will try to help itself, and in a world of social media you will soon find that more or less misleading and incomplete bug lists will be circulating in open forums. Such lists may unflatteringly include problems that were long fixed or problems that are not really bugs at all. In the absence of an authoritative summary, you will find it very difficult to set the record straight (plus you may not be able to set the record straight at all if you have taken a vow of silence in the first place).
4. Openness builds trust. In an open-communication world, it pays to be open. Customers appreciate candid communication and a good way to gain their trust is to share both good and bad news, which includes bugs. Customer trust means customer loyalty, and customer loyalty beats competitive concerns.
5. Some issues are worth hiding. I’m all for openness but certain issues simply should not be shared widely. If there’s a security risk or other disastrous vulnerability that could be exploited to hack into your clients’ systems or create havoc, you don’t want to expose the details of how that could be done – only how to fix it. This should be a rare event and can be handled on a case by case basis, but it does not obviate the benefits of openness in general. And naturally I am not suggesting that you expose all the gory details about each bug, only what customers need to know to protect themselves.
6. Good moats are hard to build. On a practical level, making information completely safe from competitors is often an illusion and determined competitors will know to engage third parties that are willing to serve as conduit to installed-base information. So even if you put your customer site behind a login, and even if you vet the logins to ensure that they don’t go to anyone with an email address ending in @big_bad_competitor.com – or even mandate that access is limited to those with @vetted_client.com email addresses – it’s still possible for competitors to get through. Build the moat around your company’s secrets, not installed-base information.
7. Openness can lead to better product quality. Once bug information is widely available you can use it in cool ways. For instance, you can ask customers to vote for the fixes (or enhancements) they want the most. And perhaps the exposure will help you nudge improvements along just a little faster. There’s nothing quite so embarrassing than a big bug celebrating a birthday, if you see what I mean.
In short: do tell. It’s good for customer satisfaction and it is not the security risk you may be terrorized into thinking it is.
Part-Time and Temporary Staff
Many thanks to Stacey Lund for suggesting this topic.
Many support organizations use temps or part-time employees, both by choice and out of necessity. Here’s a survey of when and how to use staff that does not fit the permanent, full-time mold.
Consumer-oriented organizations often have to ramp up to tremendous sizes during predictable busy periods. I have many clients whose busiest day of the year, by far, is December 26th, and others who find that tax season is madness. Since the workload is very much lower at other times of the year there’s no way to handle the bulge through the normal support tricks of shifting vacations and delaying training: the headcount simply must be increased for the duration.
Busy-time reps must be hired several weeks before the predicted busy period so they can be trained. They are typically trained to handle a subset of the high-volume, simpler issues, leaving the permanent staff to handle escalations and more complex problems. Since the cost of training is large for someone who will be productive for only a few weeks, it pays to have great knowledge management tools available for the temps (not to mention for customers, to make the case bulge just a little more manageable). It’s also great to be able to re-hire the same people year after year – and to hire the cream of the temporary crop into permanent positions at the end of the season, which turns the exercise into the try-before-you-buy technique described next.
Some organizations like to hire new employees as temps because it’s easier to unhire a temporary than a permanent employee. It’s also easier to judge the productivity of employees when they are working rather than through the usual interviews. Temps who work out well are offered permanent positions, usually after a standard time period; others are let go or left to languish as temps, usually with much lower benefits and perks than permanent workers.
I see a number of obstacles to this seemingly clever scheme:
- It may not be legal in your area: check with your HR team, as many countries or states frown on the practice.
- I have doubts about the ethics of it, even when legal. Why exploit low-paid labor when managers should just buckle down and learn how to interview people properly?
- The strongest candidates may choose not to consider temporary positions, even if they are temp-to-perm. So you may be discouraging the very individuals you most want to hire.
- For organizations that support very complex products it may take many months for someone to become truly productive. Even a long temp period may not be enough to judge whether someone is truly going to contribute – and labor laws restrict the length of time you can hang on to a temp.
- Understandably, the loyalty and morale of temps are not nearly as good as for permanent workers, and conflicts and jealousies between the two castes are common, especially if temps feel that the promised permanent offers are repeatedly delayed. So you swap one problem (of hiring technique and cost) for another (people management).
If you choose to use a temp-to-perm setup (and you have ascertained that you are within the law!) create a clear criteria for conversion to permanent status, and leave the door open to offer strong candidates an immediate offer as a permanent employee.
Getting Around Hiring Freezes
Using temps is a common technique to get around hiring freezes, especially for support organizations where the show must go on even if the company is experiencing financial difficulties. The problems of the temp-to-perm method, as described above, are easily overcome by the lack of alternatives in this situation, with the important exception that very strong candidates may choose not to participate in the scheme and you will have no other option to offer them.
In any case, select your temps carefully. You’re likely to have very few slots so you don’t want to squander your opportunities, and you will want to be in a position convert as many as you can to permanent hires when the darkness lifts.
Many organizations manage to juggle individual reps’ schedules to match demand, but if you have particularly busy shifts – or awkward shifts, such as weekends or nights – you may need to hire part-time employees to work them. I have in the past used that technique for weekend nights, which no one wanted to work but for which I was able to find college students who thought that our generous pay could counterbalance missed party time. They only worked weekend nights and they were allowed to pick and choose the nights they worked (so important party time was not compromised). None worked more than 16 hours a week, they tended to stay until graduation, and it was a great arrangement for both parties involved.
The issue with part-time workers is that, at least in the US, they may or may not get benefits, which could prove costly to you or undesirable to them, respectively. They also need to be trained, which is always costly since they don’t work as many hours as others and awkward to schedule (don’t get me started on the weekend night training schedule!) And there’s always the risk that part-time workers will aspire to a different shift, or a full-time job, which will send you back to your scheduling problems. But if you find, as I did, a good fit between your needs and the needs of the people you hire it can work very well indeed.
Another reason to use part-time employees is because some employees do not want to work full-time, perhaps because they have family responsibilities or because they have a hobby to accommodate. The situation is different from the hard-to-staff shifts in that the request is coming from the employee rather than from you – and the solution will be different depending on whether you want to and you can accommodate the request.
• Disability and family leave laws may require schedule accommodations. Check with the HR team.
• Outside mandated accommodations, you are free to decline requests for part-time work from marginal contributors or for schedules that create hardship on your end.
• On the other hand, if a trusted, high-performing employee asks for a part-time schedule, it’s worth considering – as long as he or she can contribute positively. So if a manager wants to work three days a week that may not work at all, but if a frontline rep is asking for the same thing it may not be a problem at all. Granting a special schedule to a top contributor is a unique way to foster loyalty so is well worth pursuing
• If the employee is willing to help with hard-to-staff shifts, make it a win-win. If a parent wants to work the 5am shift no one likes in exchange for leaving at noon, that may be a great compromise all around.
• One request may generate others. Before you grant a request for part-time work, ask the HR team to help you devise a strategy for handling copycats.
An interesting twist for part-time work is to work from home. The benefits of working from home may encourage employees to work more challenging shifts including split shifts and to work more or fewer hours to match the workload. Managers are often leery of allowing employees to work from home but many support jobs are surrounded by so many metrics that they are usually good candidates for remote work. The difficulty lies more with training and teamwork so as long as you can deploy robust remote management techniques, it could be an excellent solution. Home-based workers are also unusually loyal.
With that, I see very large differences between the support team I work with in the prevalence of temps and part-time employees. Some use none at all, while in others permanent, full-time employees are a minority. As long as you can match your needs with those of the employees any setup should work fine. Don’t expect miracles of loyalty out of temps, and plan for the training overheard for part-timers.
FT Works in the News
ASP’s 10 Best Web Support Sites Nominations – I’m a judge!
Plan ahead for 2012! I will once again serve as a judge for ASP’s 10 Best Web Support Sites award and entries can be submitted starting now at http://www.asponline.com/awards.html. The awards are wonderful recognition to the winners, of course, but all participants receive actionable advice from industry practitioners, including yours truly, so it’s a great learning tool as well. You can read more about the awards at http://www.asponline.com/whyenter.html.
Third Tuesday Forum Breakfast – January 17th
The next Third Tuesday Forum breakfast is on January 17th and will feature a very special guest, Catherine Aurelio of Apigee. Catherine will be speaking about Gamification: Using Game Design Principles to Engage Customers and Staff. Prepare to be very intrigued by Catherine’s innovative 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.
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