The FT Word – March 2003

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome

Welcome to the March 2003 issue of the FT Word. This marks the start of the fourth year of the newsletter and I hope it will continue to bring you challenging and fun topics each month. Keep the suggestions coming and continue to spread the word!

In this month’s issue:

·         Multinational support: the view from remote offices

·         A book review: “Leading Geeks” by Paul Glen

·         Great news: Just Enough CRM is out and available for your reading pleasure

Multinational Support – The View from the Remote Offices

Last month’s newsletter had an article about multilingual support that sparked an interesting discussion with a number of readers (thank you very much for your thoughts) so I decided to write a follow-up, written from the point of view of all of us who provide support away from the home office, often in a language different from the one spoken there. Here are 10 rules (plus one!) to be successful providing support from a remote office

1. Speak the mother tongue

The folks from the home office may have recruited you for your exotic language skills, but you can only be effective if you communicate in their language. One of my clients with a Paris-based Engineering team reports that it really pays to speak French to the development engineers, even if English is supposed to be the official working language. If your skills are weak, upgrade them (the company may well pay for the lessons).

While you’re at it, learn the local customs, including holidays. You won’t get anything done Thanksgiving week in the US, and you won’t get anything done in France between July 14th and August 15th.

2. Stay up late

Time zones get in the way. It’s a pain to be on conference calls that start at 6pm (or 6am) but arrange your schedule to be available during your counterparts’ business hours. For recurring meetings, suggest that they return the favor so you’re not always the one stuck with the inconvenient schedule.

3. Don’t be a stranger

Out of sight is out of mind, so make it a point to cultivate a positive relation with the home office. Don’t rely on only one person there: you would get a biased view of things, and you would have to start from scratch if that person was to leave. Make friends with the support manager, of course, but cultivate relationships with at least a few support engineers, and don’t forget folks in Engineering or other departments you interact with.

Set up a regular schedule for keeping in touch with your contacts and don’t call them only when you have a problem and you need their help. Try to establish a personal relationship as well as a business one.

Finally, nothing replaces face-to-face visits. Schedule regular trips to headquarters and make sure you spend some time with your contacts outside official meetings. Quarterly trips are great if you can swing them; try to go at least every six months.

4. Be hospitable

Suggest that some support meetings be held at your place. It’s a big job to organize meetings, but it will give you an opportunity to show off what you do. Don’t sequester the attendees in a hotel, hold the meeting at the support center or at least take a field trip there.

Be gracious and welcoming whenever someone from headquarters visits. Do all you can to be more than “the support guy in Sydney”. If you’ve shown them Manly Beach, they will remember you!

5. Integrate with the local team

The org chart may show your team reporting to headquarters, but you need to have a strong relationship with the local sales team to be successful. Find out what’s on their mind. Make their life easy.

6. Don’t reinvent the wheel

You may be tempted to create special processes and special tools to serve the unique needs of customers in your region. Resist the temptation. Whenever possible, reuse good ideas that were invented elsewhere. Consistency is important in all support organizations that support international customers, and reuse is almost often cheaper than reinventing. If you do create a special process, share it generously.

7. Be creative with proactive support

A big part of support is proactive including the knowledge base and the web site. Even if the home office site is nice and mature, it’s still a daunting effort to maintain a parallel site so try the following:

  • Create a lightweight local home page to orient customers, even if the next step is to plunge into the English-only knowledge base

  • If you choose to translate certain articles to the local language, continue to allow access to English articles for customers who are comfortable in English

  • Find a way for customers to log issues and check status online, ideally through a local language portal to the case-tracking system. This type of work is often considered low-priority by IT but it will save you a lot of work.

8. Compete on metrics and achievements

Especially when you are not around to present your record, judgments will be made on how well your team is functioning based on numbers and other factual information derived from tracking systems and status reports. Even if you are not the boasting type, make sure that such tangible information is readily available and will tell a good story. If your metrics are poor because they are incorrect, spend the time and effort to get them corrected. It will protect you in the long term.

9. Take exquisite care of Follow-the-Sun customers

If you participate in the Follow-the-Sun program, the way overseas customers are treated by your team will regularly be echoed back around the world. Customers that call off-hours are often desperate, and are often large and influential. A good word from one of them to the right ear at headquarters will do more for your reputation than all the metrics in the world (a good story is worth a thousand numbers). Roll out the red carpet for them.

10. Push for a geographically-dispersed support organization

Many companies choose to concentrate the escalation team and the planning team at headquarters, close to the Engineering group. It makes a lot of sense to locate people who work together close to each other, and it’s certainly wise to start with a headquarters organization, but in the long run a good goal is to have a geographically-dispersed organization because:

  • It’s much easier for support staffers to escalate to a local resource

  • It provides a career path for the remote staffers, who can sometimes offer more staying power and more affordable compensation than people at headquarters (this is true for most Silicon Valley-based companies)

  • It ensures that issues from remote offices are attended to

  • It makes it easy to handle localization problems (do you know how hard it is to set up a Japanese machine in a US office?)

As soon as you can demonstrate that you have the required technical talent locally, push for decentralizing at least the escalation team.

11. Use local support as a competitive weapon

Providing multilingual support is expensive and complex, but it’s also a wonderful way to gain and retain customers. Don’t tire of collecting stories of how you beat the competition by providing local support. Well-done, well-received local support is a great asset. Demonstrate its value on a regular basis.

Leading Geeks – A Book Review

I don’t remember doing a book review in the FT Word, although I’ve alluded to magazine and journal articles, but I just loved the title of this book and I thought it would be of interest to you. Let me know if you’d like to see more reviews.

This month’s review is about Leading Geeks by Paul Glen, published by Jossey-Bass in 2003, which tackles the topic of “managing people who deliver technology”. The author specifically includes support engineers in the geeks of the title, although the examples are very much slanted towards software engineering.

I was somewhat disappointed in the management tips presented in the book, mostly because I thought they would be applicable to any environment: “include the staff into the decision process” (really?) and “don’t micro-manage” (duh!). The author makes the point that managing geeks is completely different from managing blue-collar workers and 6-year olds. Having a 6-year old at home, I think he greatly underestimates them, and probably blue-collar workers as well. He does provide good ideas such as the need for managers to protect geeks from outside politics and to help reduce the ambiguity inherent in geek work.

The best part of the book is the first few chapters where Paul gives a sweet and insightful picture of how geeks behave and what they like and don’t like. Here are some samples:

  • Geeks value rational thinking above all

  • They have a problem-solution mindset

  • They prefer machines over people

  • They think of communication as stating a point; they don’t appreciate the value of closing the loop and checking for understanding

  • For them, money is about fairness, not about power or possession [think of this next time you work on salary increases]

  • They are fiercely independent

  • They resist formal hierarchies [put informal leaders on your side]

  • In geek work, defining the work is often harder than doing it

  • As a result, they resist giving estimates

The points all rang true to me, both for support staffers (although support staffers are typically chosen and encouraged to be better communicators than the average geeks) and certainly for the development engineers we interact with, and many Engineering managers.

Although it delivered few management tips I could use, I recommend “Leading Geeks” for its kind and accurate portrait of technically minded people.

Just Enough CRM – It’s here!

My latest book is out and available from your favorite bookstore. Just Enough CRM gives business managers in Sales, Marketing, and Support functions a practical blueprint for selecting and implementing CRM systems. No fluffy, generic discussions of CRM, no techie discussion of the merits of XML, just solid step-by-step checklists.

You can find a description and order it here.

FT Works in the News

I will be presenting a workshop on “Web Support Strategy and Implementation” at the upcoming SSPA conference in San Diego on April 2nd. I hope to see you there! The workshop description is at http://www.sspaconferences.com/sandiego/workshops_04.asp

SSPAnews published an article I wrote entitled “Does stress management work?”, where I argue that, while stress management techniques are worth learning, the first thing to do about stress is to remove stressors. You can read it at http://www.thesspa.com/sspanews/030403/article2.asp

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.

Regards,
Françoise Tourniaire
FT Works
www.ftworks.com
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 www.ftworks.com.

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