The FT Word – April 2007

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the April 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:

  • Case length, case volume, and toll-free numbers
  • An interesting and enjoyable read: A Perfect Mess
  • Join me at the SSPA conference in San Diego

Case length, case volume, and toll-free numbers

Thank you to Cathy Switzer for suggesting this topic.

What are the key drivers for case length and case volume, and how do toll-free numbers impact these metrics?

For the purpose of this discussion, we will assume that the pool of customers is fixed, since clearly case volume is very dependent on the size of the customer base. In an environment in which customers are enjoying “free” support, such as is the case for many consumer products, limiting the length of the free support period or the number of free cases can drastically curb case volume – in my experience by as much as a factor of 10. Again, we will assume that customers are either covered by a support contract or enjoy free support.

1) The main driver of case volume is product quality

Let’s face it: support organizations cannot completely control their destiny. The main driver of volume is whether the product is stable, functions as advertised, and is easy to use – so it’s not really how buggy the product is, but a more all-encompassing definition of quality that includes ease of use. This holds in all environments, whether you support complex or simple products, and whether your self-service systems are wonderful or terrible: product quality drives volume (and satisfaction too!)

2) The main driver of case length is product complexity

Here again, the main determinant of case length is not something the support organization can do much about. If you support a complex support (think an enterprise application) case length will be greater than if you support a simple consumer item (think a kitchen appliance). The amount of troubleshooting, research, and replication work required for complex products can be astounding. I have clients with average case length (effort time) in excess of two hours…

3) New releases

We all know that new releases make for a higher case volume. Sometimes it’s simply because they are buggy, per point #1 above, but even if they are not they create questions and uncertainty for customers – and the support team needs some time to ramp up on them, per point #5.

4) Self-service tools and offerings

Self-service is a great opportunity for support organizations to decrease case volume, both by providing helpful tools such as search engines and software downloads and also information such as a complete and accurate knowledge base. For organizations that support simple products, a solid self-service offer can decrease case volume by a factor of 10. For complex support, expect a more modest decrease between 10 and 20%, no more.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, powerful self-service tools increase case length by removing lots of “easy” cases from the intake and leaving all the complex ones that cannot be handled through self-service. You still come out ahead since you have fewer cases, but expect case length to increase and case productivity to decrease when you implement self-service tools.

5) Technical knowledge

Let’s start by considering your customers’ technical knowledge. If you start selling more complex products to the same customer base, or you expand to a less adept customer base, such as moving from second-line support to direct user support, you will find that volume will go up. (Case length may or may not, since more naïve users tend to ask easier questions.)

Looking at it from the other side, the more technically-savvy your staff the more productive they are likely to be. So you will probably see spikes in case length when you experience turnover, or if you start an outsourcing relationship that requires a rampup. Less-knowledgeable staff may also cause a higher case volume as customers who are given incorrect answers simply open another case.

6) Staff incentives

Are you somehow incenting your staff to make cases longer? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But if you use an outsourcer that you pay by the minute, a common pricing structure, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Ditto if the only reward your staff gets for handling more cases is the opportunity to be given more of them.

And you can also incent your staff to increase case volume. A large consumer-oriented organization in California decided a few years ago to give bonuses to support staff that kept conversations under 5 minutes. Magically, calls went down to under 5 minutes as staff terminated them promptly, only to force customers to call back. If you incent staff strictly on the basis of volume, with no quality measurement, you’re likely to increase volume while decreasing customer satisfaction, not a good combination.

7) And what about toll-free numbers?

They don’t matter much if you serve enterprise customers, since paying for phone calls is not a big worry for them. (They do pay for phone service, but the person placing the call never sees the bill.) If you serve consumers and small businesses, the ability to call a toll-free number will increase case volume slightly. Conventional wisdom is that toll-free numbers have a negligible effect on case length.

So toll-free numbers don’t make much of a difference outside consumer environments, and then only for case volume.

A Perfect Mess – Book Review

It’s good to consider ideas outside the mainstream. Especially if you are very well organized and/or a fan of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People pick up a copy of A perfect mess : the hidden benefits of disorder : how crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. The authors give many interesting examples of how great ideas and great results come from chaos rather than a well-ordered to-do list.

Yes, the book meanders and is frankly messy, but well worth the (quick) read if you want to justify the benefits of your messy desk – or if you simply want to understand why messy people can be so successful.

FT Works in the News

Inquira published an article written by David Kay and me entitled Capturing Tacit Knowledge: Jumpstarting Your Knowledge Base with Existing Content in its March-April 2007 issue. Please ask me for a copy if you’re interested. For more information about knowledge management, see David’s and my book, Collective Wisdom.

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 (Thanks to all of you who signed up already!)

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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