The FT Word – April 2005

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the April 2005 issue of the FT Word. It’s our sixth year and yes, we did double the number of subscribers this year. Let’s do it again: please forward this issue to your colleagues.

Topics for this month:

  • talking to non-support executives about support
  • what top performers want
  • FT Works at the SSPA conference, 3/20-22

Talking to Non-Support Executives about Support

Have you felt some kind of a block between the support team and others in your company? You’re not alone. The root cause, in my mind, is that most non-support executives have never managed a support operation, which means they have no first-hand experience of what your challenges are.

Typically, their only support experience is from having been a *customer* of some other support organization, usually a customer service experience of some type. This creates a number of incorrect expectations.

· they see support as a bunch of “phone jockeys” and would rather spring for a phone system than a knowledge base

· they see support staff as minimally-trained individuals who parrot back known answers to known problems

· they imagine that support interactions are very short and the majority of issues are solved within 24 hours

· they have little experience of customer-driven environments that must react to customer demands quickly

At the same time, many non-Support executives, willingly or not, get dragged into support escalations from time to time, and they derive more incorrect perceptions from those unpleasant moments.

· support staff simply cannot handle tough questions without help from Engineering or Marketing

· support is all about screaming customers; who would want to work there?

· support staff just doesn’t understand the nuances of working with customers and presenting a positive story

· support staff doesn’t understand the internals of the products and cannot support it properly

· the support engineers don’t dress well when they go to client sites and I would not put them in front of my customers

· the only time we hear about support is when they need help or want to block a product release; don’t they have any happy news?

So how can you get along with non-support executives, educate them a bit, and get what you want from them? Here are 6 tips.

1) Remember they don’t speak your language: speak theirs.

· Lose the jargon. Even something as simple as “response time” is meaningless outside support (most execs think it means what we would call resolution time!). Don’t talk about cases, SRs, priorities vs. severities, technical contacts, and the like.

· Spend time understanding their business. If you’ve never worked in sales, go along for a few sales visits (wear your nice suit and don’t talk much!). If you don’t have development experience, go to code review meetings (wear whatever you want and don’t talk much). Take the VP out to lunch and ask questions about what’s on his or her mind. Find out what their objectives are.

· Educate on the sly. For instance, offer to host development engineers once a week for a brownbag (they talk, support listen) and listening in to calls (customers talk, they listen). They will leave with a new understanding of the breadth of technical requirements to work in support. Executives are welcome to listen in as well (with your most polished support engineer, of course!)

· Create and report tangible metrics for support. They may not really know what a case is, but they can understand that having case productivity jump by 20% is a good thing. And they understand customer satisfaction ratings. Having tangible metrics also gives you something other than customer escalations to discuss at staff meetings.

2) Need money? Create a staffing model.

If you’re talking to the CFO, create and justify a staffing model. Even a modest one will do. The discipline of creating the model will be good for your group anyway, and if you get pushback at least you will have injected some rational thought into the handing out of headcount. Never bother the CFO with non-quantified requests.

3) Need discount control? Create a discount matrix.

It used to be that controlling wild sales discounts was the bane of every support executive’s existence. Well, it still is, but you now have an ally: the CFO. With the new accounting rules public companies simply cannot invent a price for each client and must be able to justify how they handle discounts.

With large customers, forget being “pure” and never discounting support: get to work on a reasonable support discount matrix (different discounts from product discounts, reflecting both the higher marginal price of support and the fact that support is an annuity) and leave it up to the CFO to enforce it.

4) Need a break on escalation madness? Funnel all escalations into support.

Here’s a counter-intuitive fact: escalations that are managed outside the support group will require *more* time and create *more* grief than the ones handled within support. Put in place a simple escalation mechanism that starts by sending all escalation requests to support, asking (begging!) everyone else to never again make promises to customers on behalf of support.

You will need to reinforce the process over and over again with doubtful execs, but the reality is that no one (except for us, of course) enjoys escalation management so they will yield control once they see that you’re serious about managing escalations. Provide short and frequent status reports and you will be left to manage the crises in (relative) peace.

5) Need a voice in product decisions? Be the voice of the customer.

Sometimes you simply have to block the release of a truly unready-for-showtime product. But becoming known as the release-preventer is not a good goal… Rather, create a process (and perhaps a small team) to give regular proactive information to the Marketing and Engineering organizations gleaned from the support experience. By making it a regular process, you will have an opportunity to create trust and openness before the next emergency strikes.

6) Toot support’s horn – gently.

They are many ways to raise the visibility of the support team without compromising your personal modesty.

· post kudos right outside the support center. It’s good for the staff and for anyone else who happens to walk by

· forward significant kudos to your boss (each and every “you’re the best” would be overkill; pick a special one each week or two)

· send a few to the company newsletter

· publicize key internal awards outside support. The support rep with the best customer satisfaction rating for the quarter would be a good start.

· apply for (and win!) industry awards and certification. Somehow they are meaningful to people outside support, even if they are not familiar with the professional support associations.

· give awards to other groups: this one’s particularly powerful, so use with panache and care. General company meetings are perfect for the visibility (don’t forget to remind the attendees of all the poor support engineers stuck at their desks helping customers). And don’t make each and every award about a customer escalation: give kudos for a great product, great training, a big support sale, etc.

Good luck! Learn from non-support executives: they do have a lot to teach us in areas other than our own.

What do support stars want?

A most interesting survey was published in Call Center Magazine 2/05. Reporting on a staff survey conducted last summer, it focused on differences between top performers and others. Among the most noteworthy findings:

· Internal hiring yields better-quality hires than any other method (we knew that, right?)

· Top performers care most about maintaining their reputation as top performers (more than raises, more than training!)

· Top performers get more training than others and want more training — is it because they volunteer for it, or because their names always pop up first in their managers’ minds?

· Top performers care most about flexible schedules (while regular performers want time off the most). To hang on to your top performers, be flexible too. They are the ones who will not abuse the privilege

FT Works in the News

I was happy to see so many of you in San Diego last month at the SSPA conference. Presentations should be posted on the SSPA web site very soon. If you want an early copy of the presentation on selecting knowledge management tools I made with Matthew Gulbranson of Nokia, please email me.

I was a guest speaker at a webinar entitled “Optimizing KM & Self-Service with Business Process Support” organized by Knova on March 30th. You can hear the recorded version at http//

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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