The FT Word – March 2006

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the March 2006 issue of the FT Word. Please forward it to a colleague!

Topics for this month:

  • Certification programs
  • More on interesting support organizations
  • Are you planning to attend the SSPA Conference in San Diego in April? Join me for a one-day seminar on 4/9 entitled The Knowledge Manifesto (all about knowledge management)  or a one-hour session on 4/11 entitled The 10 Commandments of Knowledge Management about, what else, knowledge management.

Certification Programs

Thanks to Emil Flock and Chris Doell for suggesting this topic.

Certification programs are useful for customers, partners, and internal staff.

We tend to think of certifications as being customer-driven, but in fact they may be most effective and most needed for channel and implementation partners, who can be a great burden to the support team if they are not properly trained. Certification can be used effectively to gate access to the elite levels of partners, so that a “Gold” partner must maintain at least, say, 25 certified individuals – in addition to a certain level of sales – while a “Silver” partner may need only 5.

Certification is also useful for internal staff, both as an entry gate before they are deemed to be able to handle customer issues by themselves and also later on for promotion decisions. Since creating a certification program is a large undertaking, think of it as being able to serve multiple audiences.

Full-blown certification programs are expensive

For a complete certification program (think Microsoft or Cisco) you need to

· Create an extensive database of test questions

· Validate the questions, using real test subjects, to ensure that the tests are valid and reliable. Tests are valid if they measure what they are supposed to (can certified individuals actually install the product?). They are reliable if it yields consistent results (if I pass today, I will pass tomorrow; if I fail today, I will fail tomorrow). There are lots of technical issues around measuring reliability and validity, which means hiring a specialist to do the validation.

· Set up a testing environment, typically by using a company that specializes in delivering tests and has the necessary facilities and security system

· Update the tests regularly as the product changes – this is often the most burdensome part of the project

It’s not unusual for certification programs to take over 6 months to create and to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For many smaller vendors, a full-blown certification program is simply unattainable.

Small, informal programs can be useful

If a formal certification program is out of your reach, you need not give up entirely. Especially if you are targeting partners and internal staff, an informal program may be all you need – and can be achieved within a couple months with a modest investment. What you will not get is the formal quality of the testing program that comes with the reliability and validity testing, so you probably won’t be able to get customers to pay for it.

Six steps to an informal certification program

If you want a certification program but you’re not ready for a full-blown program, follow the 6 steps below.

1. Narrow down your goal. Before you do anything else, define very specifically what you need to accomplish:

· who is your audience?

· what do they know already? (interestingly, prerequisites can often be couched in term of other certifications)

· what are the skills you want to test for?

For instance, if your audience is third-party implementers and you want them to be able to install your product, a written test is unlikely to meet the requirement whereas having the candidates actually install the product would. On the other hand, if your audience is the pre-sales engineers and they simply need to describe the implementation process at a high level, a written test should work fine.

2. Create the test questions once you’re very clear on what you want to achieve. Remember that standard, written, multiple-choice questions may not be a good fit for your goals, even if they are the easiest ones to score. Focus on the skills you want to test for. Ideally, you want to create lots and lots of questions so you can easily create multiple tests, which are useful for people who need to take the test again, as well as to avoid cheating by co-workers of individuals who took the certification test. If you have limited resources try to create at least two different tests.

3. Test the questions. With an informal program that may consist of running a few individuals through the program. Try your best to get real candidates, not the people who wrote the test! Most of the problems with test questions lie in the wording so the writer is the very worse person to test them.

4. Use a face-to-face delivery model. At least to start, short-circuit any potential issues with technology and security by simply delivering the testing face to face. It also allows you to bridge any comprehension problems you did not catch in the testing.

5. Anticipate the handling of failed tests. The whole point of certification is that not everyone can become certified. If your partners (or your staff) need to be certified to remain employed, you can bet there will be protests if they fail the test, especially with an informal setup. Do all you can to describe and quantify the evaluation process In particular, if the test includes steps that are evaluated qualitatively, create a detailed checklist with specific criteria and a clear rating system.

6. Define a plan for updating the test. A good strategy is to give certifications for a specific release of the product and to require re-certification for major updates (e.g. for going from 4 to 5, not from 4.1 to 4.2.) You can choose to grandfather certified individuals if the differences between releases are minor.

More about Support Organizations

Last December’s article about support organizations generated a lot of responses, so I figured it would be worthwhile to post the information online permanently, and to add a few that did not make it to the original list.

ASP Resource directory

The Association of Support Professionals maintains a directory of resources that includes several from this list, and many others.

Call Center Networking Group

CCNG is an association of call center professionals (mostly low-complexity, high volume). It offers a series of workshops and national and local conferences.

The Consortium for Service Innovation

The Consortium is a clearinghouse for organizations interested in Knowledge-Centered Support (KCS). Check out their library section for interesting books and articles about KCS.

Incoming Calls Management Institute

ICMI is training and consulting firm that also offers membership, publications, and conferences. Mostly for the high-volume segment.

Teleplaza’s Directory

This directory is a great resource for low-complexity, high-volume support centers. There’s some overlap with organizations mentioned elsewhere in this list, but very little.

FT Works in the News

Join me at the SSPA Conference in San Diego on April 9-11. I will be leading two sessions about my current favorite topic, knowledge management.

· One is a full-day seminar on Sunday 4/9 entitled The Knowledge Manifesto. It’s a detailed walk through setting up and maintaining a successful knowledge management program including many hands-on exercises. Details at

· The other is a one-hour session on Tuesday 4/11 entitled The 10 Commandments of Knowledge Management. It’s a rundown the key issues behind successful knowledge management programs. Details at

In addition, there will be a “Meet the Author” session probably on Monday 10th. I’m looking forward to seeing many of you in San Diego! (And we don’t have to talk about knowledge management all the time, honest.)

Collective Wisdom: Transforming Support through Knowledge, or everything you always wanted to know about managing knowledge in support centers, is now shipping with a 24-hour turnaround. To order go here.

SSPA News published an article I wrote entitled Staffing for Knowledge Management. You can 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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