The FT Word – June 2009

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the June 2009 edition of the FT Word. Please forward it to your colleagues. (They can get their own subscription here.)

This month’s topics:

  • Self-service for high-complexity support
  • Highlights from the May SSPA conference
  • Want more FT talk? Check out the new posts at Marketing Wise.

Self-Service for High-Complexity Support

Thanks to Jason Presley for suggesting this topic.

Many of the self-service success stories we read about in support and service magazines focus on organizations that serve consumers or that support low-complexity products. Why? Because support is often free in those environments so the pressure to implement alternatives to assisted support is very high. As a result, low-complexity support organizations have historically pushed harder for self-service solutions. (Also, to be fair, self-service is infinitely easier when a grand total of 19 FAQs can handle 90% of incoming inquiries!)

So what does self-service look like in high-complexity organizations?

1. Everyone’s doing it

It used to be that self-service was very much an afterthought for high-complexity support, with typical justifications like “Our customers expect to get personalized service”, “The caliber of the cases we get is way too complex for self-service”, or “We just don’t have the resources to provide a good self-service experience.” That is no longer the case. Every complex support organization regardless of size has some kind of self-service component and, surprise, customers expect (quality) self-service options in addition to personalized service.

2. From the inside out – and it shows

While support executives for complex support organizations long denied the potential of self-service for their customers, the support engineers had a need for an internal knowledge base, so when the decision to create a self-service site for customers was made the logical strategy was to expose at least parts of the internal knowledge base to customers. That’s a good idea because it brings critical mass to the knowledge base and because the most experienced customers can typically use the same documents as the support engineers. On the other hand, the documents may not be written for (the average) customers, they may not be searchable by people who don’t use the same technical jargon as the support engineers, and they may not even address some of the basic topics that customers would like covered. So the inside-out design of most early self-service systems is not necessarily ideal.

3. Self-service is worth dedicating a team to it

Years ago it was often the technicians tasked with maintaining the support tools team that were asked to take on self-service, as if self-service were purely a matter of tools. Nowadays it’s typical to see a dedicated team for self-service that focuses on the customer experience and translates it into requirements for self-service offerings, hence tools. The self-service team includes individual with specific online service experience as well as veteran support engineers who bring the value of their experience on the assisted support side.

4. Self-service pays off for high-complexity support

Underlying the investments in self-service is the realization that self-service makes sense financially. While complex support organizations cannot expect to unload a majority of their support cases to self-service, as may be possible for low-complexity support or for self-service, it’s clear that there are tangible financial rewards for offloading even a portion of the expensive cases to self-service. This is above and beyond the benefits of self-service in terms of customer satisfaction (yes, those same customers that were said to demand assisted support exclusively) as well as employee satisfaction – clever, highly-compensated support engineers prefer to handle complex cases rather than the simple ones that can be handled via self-service.

Larger organizations routinely use ROI analyses when determining whether to invest in self-service (or any other support initiatives.) What they find are relatively rapid ROI for self-service, certainly faster than the typical 18-24 months for a new CRM system. The financial benefits are based on case deflection, which can be modest but with high-cost employees a little deflection goes a long way.

5. KCS is winning

A common refrain in high-complexity support has been that documents must be thoroughly scrubbed and reviewed before they can be shared, but I’m seeing more and more organizations warm up to the benefits of the principles behind Knowledge-Centered Support and in particular the idea that knowledge can be continually improved through usage. So I’m seeing fewer convoluted, slow review processes (and their accompanying long delays for reviews) and more lighter review methodologies that ultimately yield better quality, and certainly faster turnaround. This puts a heavy burden on the support engineers to share their knowledge with each other, not just the one customer they are helping, and the culture and incentives required to accomplish the mind switch are still lagging badly, but the direction is clear: KCS it is.

6. It’s not just the knowledge base anymore

Years ago I often got puzzled looks when I suggested looking beyond the knowledge base, and perhaps that was a good thing since the knowledge base still needed much tending. But today high-complexity support organizations are looking at a much wider set of online tools including electronic software delivery facilities (for patches and upgrades); profile update; online diagnostics tools, and communities (see #7.) Installing a knowledge base and calling it your self-service system does not cut it anymore.

7. Communities are taking off

Communities (forums) used to be the domain of low-complexity support, as the reasoning was that high-complexity questions could not possibly get resolved in that environment. It turns out that it’s possible to sustain very successful communities for high-complexity support and that said communities can leverage the knowledge base better very well as well as be mined for additional so-called “tribal: knowledge contributions. I expect this is a theme that will endure over the next few years.

8. Tools are much more sophisticated

The progress of self-service for high-complexity support is tied in part to the progress we have seen for tools. I see

  • A fantastic improvement in search engines. It used to be common and absolutely unremarkable not to be able to find a document that was there but with better search engines it’s becoming unacceptable.
  • The development of reliable, functionally-rich SaaS solutions. Let’s face it, one of the bigger impediments for support tools was the elusive availability of IT resources to implement them (properly, that is.) While SaaS tools can’t necessarily be deployed without any IT resources they require many fewer than conventional tools – and they have transformed the landscape for CRM.
  • Specialty tools for knowledge management. The knowledge management modules of CRM systems are typically weak, especially for larger environments with tens of thousands of documents to manage. Purpose-built KM tools are transforming the way support organizations can create, manage, and distribute knowledge.

Amidst all the progress the weakness continues to be tool integration. All the new tools are wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as they could be if they were integrated. We still need to choose between integrated, not-perfect-all-around tools and great tools that require integration. Here’s the IT problem again.

9. Metrics are still pretty weak

I wish I could end on a high note but metrics and incentives for self-service are still poorly understood and often weak. Too many organizations still act as if every use of self-service is a deflected case (hint: since about half of self-service users report not finding what they wanted during their visit, that can’t be right!) and too many organizations incent their support engineers through simple document creation quota (a wonderful recipe to collect poorly-written, overlapping documents.) Very few organizations have a comprehensive dashboard for self-service success.

Highlights from the May SSPA (TSW) Conference

I was happy to see many of you at the conference! Here are some of the notable thoughts I heard, agreed with, or was surprised by .

  • Are we out of touch with our customers? We push customers to upgrade to the latest release but (on average) only 15% of customers are running the current release.
  • Maintenance margin continues to be significantly higher than the margin for project-based work. If we push for more professional services in the services mix what will happen to our margins?
  • The budget allocated to services sales is twice as large for consumer products than for enterprise products. Fewer than a third of SSPA members have staff dedicated to support marketing. Are we trying to do too much with too little?
  • Of the reasons for becoming an “ex” customer, 68% are related to service (Tara Bunch, HP)
  • 30% of companies are planning an investment in self service (up to 22% a year ago) and 13% in communities (up from 8%)

FT Works in the News

  • If you’d like a copy of the talks I gave at the Lithium User’s Conference (How Much will you Save?”) or at the SSPA/TSW Conference (“Easy Money”), both on the topic of communities ROI, and the latter in tandem with Cisco Consumer Business Group (CBG – Linksys), please let me know.
  • I am deep in the throes of putting together the Support Marketing book. Many thanks to all of you who agreed to share your support offerings, pricing, contracts, and more. If you have not come forward yet please let me know right away! The more the merrier but we’re down to the wire… I will have a contest for the title in next month’s newsletter.
  • Finally check out the new posts at Marketing Wise, the FT Works support marketing blog (or subscribe to the blog.)

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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