The FT Word – April 2006

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the April 2006 issue of the FT Word and the first in volume #7. Thank you for sharing it with your colleagues to continue to spread best practices in support.

Going to the SSPA conference in San Diego? Join me on

  • Sunday 4/9 at 10am for a one-day seminar entitled The Knowledge Manifesto (please register ahead of time)

  • Monday 4/10 at noon for a “Meet the Authors” session with David Kay. We will show off the new Collective Wisdom book Tuesday 4/11 at 1:30pm for a one-hour session entitled The 10 Commandments of Knowledge Management

  • Or let me know if you’d like to arrange a 1-1 meeting.

Topics for this month:

  • Handling escalations – a special writeup for non-support executives: you can drop on the right desk to make your life easier ·

  • The Ten Faces of Innovation – lessons for support

A Guide to Handling Customer Escalations for CEOs and Other Executives

If you’ve worked in a technical support or customer service group for any length of time, you know how to handle customer escalations. You may have learned the hard way, and you may not welcome them, but you know how to calm customers down, drive the issues to resolution, and even learn from them afterwards.

If you just inherited a support team, or if, as many CEOs, you don’t have direct experience in support, you may need a little boost. Here are 10 easy steps to surviving, mastering, and even benefiting from customer escalations (note that we did not say “enjoying” them; that would be pushing it!)

1. Accept that escalations will happen

Customer escalations will happen even with a great product and a great support team. Sure, they are more frequent and less pleasant if the product doesn’t work as advertised or the support team is in over their heads, but even a clean product and an effective support team will have escalations from time to time. Escalations are more common for complex products, where more can go wrong with larger consequences, and with large customers.

Don’t automatically conclude that escalations are a sign of incompetence.

2. Take escalations from the Support VP

If a customer calls you directly, route the call to the Support VP as the first line of defense (Support VPs take very good care of customers who are routed from above!), unless you have a personal relationship with the customer or the customer is a key customer. If the Support VP needs assistance you will know soon enough.

On the other hand, if the Support VP asks you to talk to a customer, make the call. There are times when customers won’t quit until they talk to the boss, and that’s you.

3. Get background information

You don’t have to talk to customers “cold” (hence the benefit of only taking calls from customers routed through support, as described in step #2). It’s much better to get background on the problem, what’s being done, and what can be promised ahead of the call. As an important and busy executive you have some leeway in returning calls – but don’t delay beyond 24 hours! Aging is not a good policy for irate customers.

4. Apologize for the impact on the customer

Let’s face it: there’s not much you can do for an escalated customer on the first call beyond apologizing. You don’t need to admit fault, your own or the company’s, either. Simply apologize for the consequence of the problem for the customer. “I understand the system crashed three times yesterday. I’m very sorry to hear that.” Make the apology short, but sincere, detailed, and heart-felt.

5. Do not make guarantees you cannot deliver

If you’re absolutely certain you can fix the problem, knock yourself out. Otherwise, be cautious. It’s much better to say, “It could take us a couple of weeks of detailed analysis to isolate the problem.” and get an earful from the customer rather than promise the moon and get many earfuls later on, perhaps even a lawsuit. Legal problems don’t come from heartfelt apologies (step 4) but rather from broken promises. Don’t make promises you cannot honor.

6. Propose alternatives

Be creative. This is where the prep period before you take the call is useful: many times, your team will be able to suggest workarounds and temporary solutions such as loaner equipment. Think outside the box. Focus on what would help resolve the problem. For instance, customers often demand onsite engineers (I call them hostages) but the reality is that engineers will work much more effectively at your site, with their tools.

7. Define the next step and a schedule

There’s often little that can be done at the start of an escalation so the next best thing is an action plan: what will be done, by whom, by when? Always set a deadline for the next communication. Pick a reasonable length of time so that productive work can occur. An hourly update is unlikely to cut it.

8. Monitor escalations but don’t own them

Presumably you have a real job, setting strategy and making critical decisions. Driving escalations to resolutions doesn’t belong to your to-do list. Let the support team drive the work. All you need to do is to monitor progress from time to time (see step 7.)

9. Learn from escalations

Escalations occur because of (in no particular order): poor service, mis-set sales expectations, technical issues, and often a combination of these factors. since they are so unpleasant and resource-consuming, you don’t want to repeat them, whether with the same customer or others, so insist on post-mortem (or root cause) analyses on all escalations after they end – whether positively or not.

Refrain from assigning blame during the escalation itself. People under pressure become defensive and make more mistakes. Resolve the escalation first, then do the post-mortem.

10. Be proactive

Escalations work much more smoothly if you can be proactive with them. Don’t wait for the customer to lose it to get involved. Request a regular report on escalations and always ask whether a proactive call would help. Customers who feel their problems are being worked on are much less likely to become irate and litigious.

The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley

I picked up this book as part of my regular program to peek outside the Support world. Beside some fancy names (the hurdler, the storyteller) I found some interesting ideas and reminders in this book from the general manager of IDEO, a well-known design firm. Here are five key points I took away:

· Being innovative is not just about having good ideas. Kelley talks about three main functions: gathering information, helping the organization process the ideas, and creating a setting that’s conducive to innovation. That means that those of us who may not be “creative” in the traditional sense have a role to play in innovation.

· Be an anthropologist, Kelley’s word for people who observe how humans interact with products and services. I’m working on a few self-service projects and I’ve found that a good anthropologist, who withholds personal judgment, is a wonderful asset. The book has a description of a team member going through a hospitalization as an observer which tells volumes about the lack of patient-centered processes in hospitals.

· Try cross-pollinating, finding ideas in other industries or fields. This is what I was doing when I picked up the book.

· Collaborate to create better new ideas. Cross-functional teams really are more effective than individuals.

· The physical environment matters. Make room for people to exchange ideas (one cube, one head is probably not the best start!) and don’t hesitate to illustrate ideas with mockups.

Support is not known for being a very creative field. Try dispelling that notion every day!

FT Works in the News

If you’re planning to attend the SSPA Conference in San Diego on April 9-11, I will be leading two sessions about my current favorite topic, knowledge management.

· 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

· 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, David Kay and I will be showing off our new book, Collective Wisdom, at the “Meet the Authors” session at noon on Monday 10th. More details about the book here.

SBusiness republished an article published an article I wrote entitled Planning and Operating International Support Operations: Is there such a thing as a big, happy family? in its special Winter 2006 edition. Please let me know if you’d l

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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