The FT Word – March 2002

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the March 2002 edition of the FT Works Newsletter. In honor of its first anniversary (yeah!!) it’s getting a new name — The FT Word — along with a rational numbering system. Many thanks to all of you for contributing so many suggestions and compliments along the way to keep it going.

In this month’s issue:

·         Enhancing support reps’ soft skills

·         Supporting products with very small install bases

·         A new FT Works booklet, “Best Practices in Self-Service Support”, at a special price for newsletters subscribers

Enhancing Support Reps’ Soft Skills

You know the feeling: your tech lead just resolved a gory case that had been opened for days, and now the customer’s on the phone to you wondering how you can keep such rude people on your staff. Your CFO is questioning why customer satisfaction is down even though you sent your entire staff to expensive technical training just two months ago. And the managers just refuse to carry the duty pager because it doesn’t stop ringing….

What went wrong? Well, all signs point to a need to improve your reps’ need better soft skills. But who has time to coach them? And would sending them to a seminar really make a difference? Let’s take a step back and think through six steps for success:

1) Hire well

It’s too late for the folks already on your staff, but the next time you hire, focus on customer skills. Do candidates listen well? Do they show an interest in people? Can they cater to a variety of individuals, not just hard-core techies? No amount of training and coaching can compensate for the lack of those basic personality traits, so be sure to screen for them.

2) Promote well

In many support centers, the only promotion criteria are technical skills. Granted, you would not want to promote people who do not have advanced technical skills to senior positions, but neither should you promote people who cannot deliver customer satisfaction on a regular basis. This is even more important when you promote individuals to managers.

3) Train early

Include customer skills training in new-hire training. It’s a sure way to advertise that customer skills are valued, it ensures that everyone has a basic frame of reference and repertoire of techniques, and it’s key for new hires with no support experience. There are many good vendors out there, including yours truly, so don’t reinvent the wheel: buy ready-made curriculum. A typical support skills class lasts 2 days and includes plenty of role-plays.

4) Reinforce regularly

Many good support skills workshops are wasted because there’s no follow-up whatsoever. The reality is that acquiring a new behavior takes time, much more than what can be accomplished in two days of training. One of my clients selects a customer skill topic for each monthly staff meeting and is getting very good mileage from the one workshop I taught for them.

5) Measure and reward customer skills

Are your metrics and awards all about productivity and technical prowess? Implement at least one public award related to delivering consistent customer satisfaction (what I call “firefighting” awards do not qualify here.)

6) Model good customer skills

The management team can and should serve as role models. Treat customers well and do not make negative comments about them, even when they might deserve it. Invite junior staff to listen to customer conference calls and debrief afterwards for ultra-realistic learning opportunities.

Improving customer skills is a process. Do not count on a one-shot training program to turn things around without proper reinforcement. You need to make it a part of the culture.

Supporting Products with Very Small Install Bases

In support, big is beautiful, so supporting so-called small products, that is products with a small user base, is a big headache. Here are some strategies to cope:

1) Don’t shrink them more!

Don’t impose artificial barriers around products that make them smaller. For instance, for larger products it may make sense to specialize reps by products *and* by operating system, but for smaller products removing the OS specialization may allow for reasonable team sizes without creating any significant problems.

2) Try the disappearing act

This is not always easy of course, but you may find allies to sunset a small and aging product (try the Engineering group!) Even if you must continue to support a small product for six or twelve months, having an end in sight makes it easier. And it may make sense to provide free services to customers to migrate to a more recent product.

3) For a new product, play up the “way of the future” appeal

A small, but technically interesting product is appealing to support engineers so you should not have problems finding volunteers to support it. The only concern is what may happen to them should the product fail, which is something you should be able to address.

4) For an old product, hang on to the support engineers

It’s very difficult to entice young recruits to learn old products and to learn them effectively enough to provide good support, so if you need to support older products it’s much better to hang on to existing talent. If practical, offer the support engineers opportunities to learn new skills at the same time. And if they wish to transfer outside the support team, try to work out a deal with their new managers so they can help out as needed.

5) Reinforce the knowledge base

Even with a good staffing plan, small products will have to be supported at least occasionally by people who don’t know much about them. Leverage the knowledge base to include as much as possible about them, and especially troubleshooting guides. That’s essential for older products if you should lose knowledgeable support engineers and have to train new ones.

6) Plan and argue for special staffing allowances

Supporting small products requires proportionally more staff than supporting large products, so plan for them separately and don’t forget the coverage issues, whether for long business hours, vacations, or off-hours.

7) Price support higher

To sustain the extra staffing required, you may need to raise support prices or to make other special arrangements with customers. This is not unusual for older products. For newer products, the marketing plan may allocate funding for the special support needs while the user base grows.

One final word: outsourcing usually does not work for small products since the challenges of a small user base are just as bad for an outsourcer. However, older products may be well suited to outsourcing if they no longer fit in your focus, but have a base large enough to attract a third-party.

Last Days for the Special Offer on “Best Practices for Self-Service Support”

Get practical ideas to evaluate and improve your current self-service offerings and at the same time get a glimpse into the new full-length book I’m working on which will be on online support (including self-service). The special introductory price of $25 for newsletter subscribers is valid until 3/31/02. To order, click here.

FT Works in the News

SupportWeek published an article I wrote entitled A New Frontier in Support Metrics. If you want to go beyond traditional support metrics dashboards and explore how you can leverage existing support data to highlight root causes of support requests and effect change throughout the organization, read it at

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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