The FT Word
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Welcome to Volume 5 of the FT Word and to this, the March 2004 issue. I’d like to get to Volume 6 with twice as many subscribers as today. Would you help reach the goal by sending this URL to colleagues you think may enjoy it (your direct reports, your boss, your peers)? Thank you!
In this month’s issue
· selling the value of support
· should I hire experts outside the main support center?
· create a complete support library with The Works
Selling the value of support
Thank you to Noreen Barrington for suggesting this topic.
Are you finding that your requests for headcount or other resources are routinely turned down? Is support discounted into nothingness to close deals? Can you simply not remember the last time anyone was recognized for support heroics at a company meeting? Then you have a big job: selling the value of support.
Think of it as a challenging turnaround and PR campaign. Here’s a XXX-step get well plan to put you back on track.
1. Think long-term
You won’t change the situation in a day or a week so you need a long-term strategy. Set your goals, be consistent, and don’t get discouraged. Use colleagues as sounding boards and helpers. Be ready for at least six months of hard work, most probably a year.
2. Spiff up quality
Do all you can to maximize the performance of the team, including cleaning house if you have to. This can be a real challenge if you are seriously under-resourced. Try focusing on one particular area if you must. For instance, offer superb service to key customers or to customers of a particular product, even if you have to neglect others (I know this goes against the grain for many of us, but think long-term). Being successful in at least one area demonstrates the competence and ability of the team.
3. Quantify success through metrics
One reason why it’s so hard to defend support budgets is that it’s not easy to link them to tangible results. If you don’t already have metrics that are shared and understood outside the support team now’s the time to put a package together. For instance use volume (so everyone can see how much work you’re doing), customer satisfaction ratings (report just *one* number even if you ask several questions), and percentage of cases closed within 24 hours. Make sure each metric is transparently clear, so if you are measuring cases closed within 24 hours don’t exclude cases associated with bugs, as it gives the impression you are trying to manipulate the numbers.
Report metrics on a regular basis, whether they are good or bad. Consistency will be noted and by itself builds trust. And of course, work hard to make sure the metrics you publish are as strong as you can make them, even if you have to neglect other aspects (I know, against the grain again.)
4. Publicize success stories
Save and share compliments from customers. A common rule of thumb says that it takes ten compliments to balance one negative, but in some settings it feels more like 100:1. Keep them coming. Swallow your disdain for heroics: we know that support success doesn’t rely on heroics, but rather on repeated flawless execution of strong processes, but heroics are what people remember.
5. Cultivate (volunteer) spokespeople
If you stand up in the next company meeting and declare that support is great, it won’t have much of an impact — actually people will wonder what’s wrong. Instead, get others to say you’re great. For instance, some of the success stories you have been saving come from or through salespeople: ask them if they would talk about them. If you helped save a large deal or retain an important customer, they will!
Even better: get them to share the story in a sales meeting. You don’t need to be there to bask in the glory: the positive PR will find its way to you.
6. Win awards
This one is harder, not that there are not many support awards out there, but all require a certain level of achievement that may be impossible to attain with tight resources. But compete when you can. An official blessing from a third party is very powerful.
7. Bone up on the financials
If you don’t create your own budget, work with your financial analyst to fully understand how it’s made, including the staffing model. A robust staffing model is a wonderful justification to get the headcount you need. Certainly beats “we just can’t support the new release without it.”
8. Pump up support revenue
Whether or not you are responsible for the revenue side of support, work on it. It’s easier to get started with renewals, which often get little attention even though they are excellent for the bottom line. Are customers billed promptly and accurately? Are they presented with upgrade options? Are any discounts granted at the initial sale gradually removed (as contracts allow)? Raising the top line (revenue) makes it infinitely easier to argue for more resources.
Have you noticed that non-support executives have never managed a support team? They just don’t know what you’re up against. Tell them, while taking special care not to sound preachy, condescending, or boring. I’ve found that inviting development engineers to the support center on a regular basis also works well: they get a feel for the variety of questions that come in and challenging it is to bounce from one to the other.
10. Use third-party benchmarks
Third parties (with appropriate credentials) often have more credibility than you do. Sad, but confirmed in my experience on both side of the consulting fence. So when you find an article or a story that supports your point of view, share it. You may even want to go through the trouble and expense to have an expert validate your staffing model or your tool strategy.
The following FT Works booklets may be useful if you want to learn more on this topic: Managing Support Strategically; The 10 Commandments of Support Pricing; 20+ Ways to cut Support Costs; Best Practices for Support Metrics.
Should I hire experts outside the main support center?
Thanks to Neil Baron for suggesting this topic.
Here’s the dilemma: you are opening new centers in Europe and Asia to support a growing user base on those continents. Should you stick with “level 1” types, who are cheaper and easier to recruit, or should I target “level 2” or “backline” types who can handle difficult cases independently?
Tough question, standard answer: “it depends”.
It depends on
· the percentage of cases likely to be escalated: if it’s a very small percentage, say fewer than 5%, escalating to a central point may well be acceptable despite the delays and complications of communicating across languages (perhaps) and time zones (certainly). Also, you may simply not have enough volume to keep a senior person busy.
· the type of customers and products you are supporting: consumers and non-critical products can tolerate the delays caused of central escalations, enterprise customers with mission-critical systems are less accommodating.
· the volume you are expecting in the outlying geographies: with tiny volumes, it simply doesn’t make sense to hire senior people unless you have other tasks they can do (whether it’s helping other support staffers around the world or participating in another activity locally). Forecast volumes a year out: it takes that long to develop a productive senior support engineer.
· whether you intend to share resources across geographies. Since senior resources are always scarce, it’s usually best to share. So when deciding whether volume is sufficient to warrant hiring a senior person, include off-hours volume from other areas. Being able to get a competent person on the line with an American customer who is in trouble at 4am is wonderful (and the customer will easily adapt to the British accent
Pulling it all together, let’s say you’re running a consumer support operation with a small volume in Asia. You should probably not invest in a senior local staff member, since volume is small. On the other hand, if you’re running support for an enterprise company that’s expanding quickly in Europe, you probably should invest in a senior person there even if the first months are spent in handling “easy” cases or filling in for US senior resources