The FT Word – March 2007

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the March 2007 issue of the FT Word. Please forward it to your colleagues who are interested in support issues. Subscription information is at the end.

Topics for this month:

  • 5 key points for selecting a new support tool
  • managing performance in the support center
  • join me at the SSPA conference in San Diego

5 Key Points of Selecting a New Support Tool

The standard way to select a new support tool, and certainly one I would advocate myself, is to follow a structured process that goes along these lines.

  • create functional and business requirements
  • rank the requirements to identify the critical ones
  • evaluate vendors against the requirements – whether using an RFP process or a looser evaluation method
  • check references with production customers (since some items on your requirements list simply cannot be evaluated fully from a list of features, or even a proof of concept if you decide to use one.)
  • select an appropriate implementer since you don’t want to select a tool for which they are no qualified implementers available

But here, instead of reviewing the process, we instead look at some useful sanity checks before you take the plunge. You still need to do your homework, but if you focus on these five points you won’t stray too far from the right course.

1) Did the end-users validate the requirements?

I once spent several hours interviewing the managers of a support center who insisted that they needed complex escalation-management functions in their new CRM tool – quite a reasonable request since managers focus on escalations. The problem was that only a tiny proportion of cases ever got escalated and that the real issue was that the case entry screen, essential in an environment where over 90% of cases were closed with a single interaction, was strewn with dozens of obsolete fields that got in the way of the agents every single time they used the system.

While managers’ needs are important, and while end-users are often limited in their vision of what the system could do, validating the requirements with end-users is critical.

2) Can the new tool do very well 80% (+) of what you need to do?

While I would never advocate a strict no-customization stand, be very, very wary if you must customize the chosen tool to get your basic needs met since customizations are always costly, fraught with problems around upgrades, and rarely work quite as well as a regular feature would. For instance, trying to add parent-child cases to a system that does not support them is ill-advised, if not doomed to failure.

3) Are the features you need working well in production?

Don’t buy from the release list for future releases. In extreme cases, it may be concocted just to get you to buy, but even if it’s honestly constructed the features may be delayed, or may not work right out of the gate. If it’s a critical feature on your list, you must check that some customer somewhere is already using it, successfully, in a production environment.

4) Integration is as valuable as the feature set

There are some situations where it makes sense to choose a best-of-breed solution for, say, the knowledge base, and to pay the price of integrating it to the existing case-tracking system. But before you embark on the road of having to create (and maintain!) the integration, always reconsider the need for it. Especially if you don’t have the luxury of a dedicated system management group you will find that a built-in integration is more valuable than the additional features you would gain by going with a best-of-breed combination.

Combine points #2 and #4: if the integrated system can do 80% of what you need, best-of-breed may not pay off.

5) Does the new tool pass the Goldilocks test?

As we know from the fairy tale, Goldilocks liked her chair, and bed “just right”, not to big and not too small. That’s exactly what you want to shoot for when buying a support tool.

  • It makes no sense to invest in a top-of-the-line system a la Siebel if you cannot commit the millions (yes, with an s) of dollars you will need to maintain it in a usable state. Just because you may need some or all the features one day doesn’t mean you must buy a high-end product today. Better start with the Goldilocks “just right” size and upgrade when you have both the needs and the means to do it.
  • On the other hand, it makes no sense to buy a small wiki-like system to run a large knowledge base. Yes, even low-end tools scale well to hundreds of users, but you will find that they lack some of the functionality you need in larger environments such as complex permission schemes or the concept of hierarchical reporting that’s so important to create usable metrics.
  • The same principle applies to the vendor: don’t buy from a huge vendor and expect personalized service if you’re small. And don’t buy from a tiny vendor and expect miracles if you have huge needs.

While your due diligence should go way beyond those 5 key questions, use them for a sanity check. They have not failed me yet.

For more information about selecting support tools, see Just Enough CRM.

Managing Performance in the Support Center

Performance management is not everyone’s preferred activity, but it’s one that makes the difference between a support organization that rocks and one that merely bumps along.

1) Define specific goals and objectives for everyone

HR specialists will tell you that it’s very difficult to manage someone out barring a list of missed deliverables, so have one ready for everyone. In the support center, this will probably include

  • productivity (number of cases closed, perhaps)
  • SLA achievement
  • customer satisfaction, whether measured directly through a survey or via monitoring
  • other contributions to the team such as knowledge management and project work

Each objective should have a specific measurement, such as “Achieve customer satisfaction ratings of 8.0 or better.” The clearer the better.

2) Manage performance every day, not just at performance review time.

If you can give everyone access to their personal metrics on a continuous basis, that’s great! If not, weekly reports are fine too. Be sure to highlights both successes and problems as they occur. That’s what 1-1s were designed for.

3) Be consistent.

We all have favorites, but everyone needs to achieve the same targets, even if it’s the master brownie-maker who is underperforming.

It’s fine to make allowances in special circumstances, such as if an employee is going through a rough patch in his personal life, but in the end everyone has to contribute equally and must be talked to if there’s a problem.

4) Take action on problems.

I have not had to fire many people, thankfully, but every time the reaction I got from the rest of the team was “finally!” (and I thought I was pretty quick to take action…) When there’s a performance problem, everyone on the team knows it and you are doing no one a favor, least of all yourself, by ignoring it.

Yes, it’s hard to confront the individual with the performance problem. Yes, it’s a pain to follow the HR process. But it needs to be done, and it is your job. Of course, you must respect the privacy of the individual who is on performance plan and not blab about what’s happening to the team. Just be quick and everything will be fine.

5) Tackle established issues.

So you just inherited a support staffer who’s been here umpteen years and has been granted all kinds of exceptions and favors over time including perhaps a special work schedule, time off during school vacations, priority access to juicy projects, etc. What do you do?

After checking that the special treatment has not been enshrined in a formal agreement (your friendly HR rep would know if that’s the case) reevaluate the value and appropriateness of the special circumstances. If the staffer is otherwise meeting all the objectives you have set (#1) you may want to leave well enough alone. But if he’s not, it’s perfectly fine to move away from the special treatment. It won’t be fun for a while, but there’s nothing that spas morale more than gross inequity.

6) Upgrade when backfilling.

Chances are that someone who did not work out did not possess certain skills or abilities that you would like to find in their replacement. Modify the hiring profile accordingly so you don’t have to face another problem in the future.

Don’t delay and work from established objectives. Those are the keys to successful performance management

FT Works in the News

Are you planning to attend the SSPA meeting in San Diego at the beginning of May? Please join me for

1) a presentation entitled Making more and spending less through online support. Time TBD at this point.

2) a full training day on Paying for KM: Building Honest ROIs that stand the Test of Time. You will leave with a template and plenty of ideas on how to justify your KM investment. Information 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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