The FT Word – March 2005

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome

Welcome to the March 2005 issue of the FT Word.  Please forward this issue to your colleagues.

An international issue this month:

Must we do things differently in different geographies?

Thank you to Neil Baron for suggesting this topic.

If you manage an international operation, you’ve probably had the experience of a remote support (or sales!) manager asking to tailor deliverables for the region, saying that customers expect a particular level of service. For instance: Japanese customers don’t expect to pay for support; European customers expect onsite service; Latin American customers cannot pay the same rates as North American customers, etc.

Of course, it’s much simpler to deliver the same service worldwide, but we need to be sensitive to different cultures, right? So what should you do?

Are customers truly different in different areas?

Sometimes, it makes sense to deliver different levels of service around the world. For instance, if you sell and deliver support through resellers in foreign markets but you support end-users at home, the kind of service you deliver to resellers is going to be very different. On the one hand, you may be working with highly-trained support staff who only escalate the hardest issues to you. On the other hand, you may be working with resellers who focus on sales and neglect support, so your counterparts will be under-trained and eager to go back to the next prospect. In either case, you will find that a joint training and support approach is the way to go. And financial arrangements for resellers that provide support are very different, too.

Perhaps you have large, demanding customers in one geographic area, and small, cost-conscious customers in another. Here again having different offerings makes sense. Once you have them working well in one area, you can even clone them out elsewhere, even if it’s only to a handful of customers.

In the extreme situation where you have completely different customers and products in different areas, you can treat each market as its own microcosm, with its own offerings and delivery model.

Consistency and International Customers

If you find that your customers are pretty much the same the world over, consistency becomes a great goal. Actually, if you have transnational customers who demand consistent service worldwide, you have no choice! How should you balance unique cultural differences and consistency?

· Listen. Most often, cultural dilemmas occur because the big boss has never been to, say, Korea, and has no idea whether Korean customers truly expect the vendor to come onsite (or whatever other regional peculiarity is being extolled by the local manager.) Go visit some local customers, listen to what they have to say (I know, there’s a translation problem!) and also find out what other support centers are doing there. You may be selling an application but what a database vendor is doing in terms of local support is a great inspiration.

· Be reasonable on pricing. Most support executives find it completely normal to have a different (higher) pricing in Japan, but dangerous to allow lower pricing in Latin America. Get real! As long as your margins are the same, follow the local standard of living. It’s also fine to only offer lower levels of service in certain areas.

· Promote the benefits of consistency. The local manager is often focused only on customers (not a bad thing in itself, if you think about it. Talk about the big picture and why consistency is important.

· Let the numbers talk. Use the same staffing model the world over and managers will suddenly become very wise in dispensing frills to customers.

· Know when to close your eyes. If the local manager decides to go onsite for special customers and it’s not affecting metrics or financials, let it be. You hired him/her to make the right business decisions, right?

Offshore Outsourcing Challenges — and Solutions

Thank you to Florence Oswald for proposing this topic.

Yes, offshore outsourcing can help you cut costs. Yes, you can deliver good service to your customers through offshore outsourcing. But the ugly truth is that there are often soft skills gaps, cultural differences, and process problems that need to be overcome, at least in my clients’ experience. Here are some ideas for recognizing and bridging the gap. Note that, although this is written for offshore outsourcing, many of the same ideas work well if you happen to be insourcing overseas.

Typical Issues

Much is made of thick accents, even with native English speakers. But the real issues are deeper:

  • Timezone differences make it difficult to talk “live”, subjecting one or both parties to regular early morning or late evening conference calls (this is especially true if you are based on the West Coast of the United States)

  • Relying on email and phone communications cuts out the all important non-verbal communication that occurs in face-to-face meetings

  • Travel back and fro is exhausting and expensive

  • Effective personal relationships are rarely established because they would take too much time and effort

  • Offshore staff is often limited to specific tasks, never getting an opportunity to “stretch” (and learn) or “go the extra mile” (and get a complete resolution to the customer

  • Training on new releases is ad-hoc and weak; while onshore staff benefits from direct briefings from the developers, offshore staff usually makes do with a delivery by a less knowledgeable presenter, or even a copy of the slides…

  • While accents can be improved upon, it’s often the way verb tenses are used, or entire phrases that is confusing to customers. It’s very difficult to change the way people use vocabulary and syntax.

  • Basic customer skills are often lacking. While technical skills are often very strong, many offshore centers employ very young workers who are sharp, but have never been trained to work effectively with customers. With no local mentors, and often no incentives to work on people skills, they just can’t learn on the job. So for instance they may be quick to tell customers they caused their own problems. True, perhaps, but not the right way to present it! phone skills are typically weak because, as we know, the phone requires being able to think and deliver on your feet, so unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax and the lack of customer skills cannot be veiled by good email templates and an editing process

  • Cultural differences often creates problems with time management. “Very soon” to an American is today, tomorrow at the worse. Offshore staff may feel that a couple of days is just fine.

  • Countries with young support industries have not had time to grown skilled support managers. It’s very difficult to find seasoned support managers offshore.

Solutions

Depressed yet? Here are solutions.

· Pick a smart location if you’re starting out. For instance, Bangalore is saturated with technical support centers and good people are hard to find. Think Silicon Valley in 1999 (much less expensive, though). Do not automatically follow the crowd.

· Recruit carefully. Most offshore locations have great technical talent so you should be fine on that count. Soft skills are more challenging, so set up an appropriate selection tool for that.

· Train on soft skills. There are umpteen outfits to “neutralize” local accents and to train on “US culture”. Is a knowledge of soap operas going to make a difference for your reps? Probably not. Train on real support skills: greeting customers, driving issues, saying no, working with upset customers, etc. Bring the training you have for your onshore reps to the offshore location. Why not?

· Consider electronic-only support for offshore locations. Many of my clients have made this choice and seem content not to have the battle the accent and cultural issues (at least not so much). Some clients are only doing reproduction work offshore, even.

· Hold regular conference calls. If the operation is working flawlessly, weekly may be enough; make it daily otherwise. Pick the least objectionable time of the day.

· Invest in trips and exchanges. Yes, it takes forever to fly back and forth, but personal contact is the only way to develop the personal relationships that create trust that in turn can generate the openness and alignment that need to occur. Try sending senior people onsite for weeks at a time as mentors. Welcoming a few senior staff from the offshore team into the home team is also a good investment.

· Invest in managers. This one’s tough because the best managers are much fought over and are likely to move out and up quickly. Explore retention bonuses and the like to hang on to the ones you train.

  • Let offshore staff do more. Despite the soft skills gaps, offshore staff can be very strong technically, so don’t just cut them off after a certain number of days.

  • Share the training wealth. If you want any remote team to do a good job, they must get training equivalent to that of the home team. Consider a train-the-trainer approach

FT Works in the News

I look forward to seeing many of you in San Diego this month at the SSPA conference. Come early on Sunday 3/20 and attend a special one-day workshop: “From Support Models to Support People: Make the Right Strategic Decisions for Your Organization”. We’ll explore the intricacies of P&L for support, build staffing models, discuss organization models, create goals and objectives for the staff, and, of course, think about metrics. See more details at http://www.sspaconferences.com/sandiego/training.asp#session1

I will also present on selecting knowledge management tools with Matthew Gulbranson of Nokia, who will keep me honest on what really happens in selection efforts. See http://www.sspaconferences.com/sandiego/breakout2_execinsight.asp#gulbranson, session 204.

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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