The FT Word – July 2009

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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

This month’s topics:


“Golden Accounts” – whether and how to deliver a special level of support for the largest customers


Thanks to Chris Farnath for suggesting this topic.

Especially in tough times large customers are very precious. And they often need a type and level of interaction that’s different from other customers. To that end many companies have a special “Named Accounts” sales team that is specifically focused on the highest tier of customers. Should the support organization follow suit?

A special level of service for the top customers focuses extra care on the most valuable customers, maximizing the chances that these customers will remain and will purchase additional products. With a higher level of support you can add a proactive component so that you can be aware of any issues early on – and act before they become large and ugly. And yet, delivering higher levels of support requires additional investments in people and in tools, potentially impacting the level of service that can be available to all other customers. Here are some points to consider as you make a decision on whether to deliver an additional level of support to key customers, and how to deliver it.

1. Are your top accounts really different than others?

It is often the case that the top 10% or 20% customers are different and special compared to other customers, but that’s not always true. Some vendors find that they have remarkably alike customers with little differentiation at the top end. Yes, the top customers are a little larger and yes, their needs are a little more complex, but there’s not really that much of a difference between the top customers and other customers. In that situation it may not make sense to offer differentiated service to the top customers.

In many cases, however, you will find that the top accounts are really different from others: they have multiple locations, often in different regions of the world; they push the products more aggressively to meet their complex needs; they want more proactive account management to match their higher technical needs – and their internal coordination challenges. With a situation like that it makes sense to offer a difference and special support offer to the top customers.

2. Should Support match the Sales structure?

If the sales team is initiating a named accounts team the support organization may be under a lot of pressure to follow suit – but think before you leap. Named accounts are frequently shuffled and rearranged while support relationships benefit greatly from some stability, so while it’s very enticing to align sales and support in the short run, making changes in the support arrangements may cause consternation in the long run. By all means create a special support team if it makes sense to do so, but don’t do it just because Sales is doing it, or just the way Sales is doing it unless it also makes sense from the long-term, support perspective.

3. Is the special support treatment free?

It could be. Some vendors offer special, white-glove support to top customers at no extra charge, reasoning that the top customers already pay top dollar so it makes sense to deliver a higher class of service to them. Others make an overt commitment to provide high-end support to customers who pay more than a specific amount in support fees. Still others package the high-end support features into high-end support packages and deliver them for a fee. In this last situation any customer, in theory, can get high-end support features, as long as the fee is paid.

Should you provide high-end support for free? It all depends on (1) your customers (2) your support pricing structure (3) your overall company strategy. I very much like the idea of packaging support in differentiated offerings because it allows you to properly fund the program without curtailing services for the other customers, because it creates a very clear promise to customers of what you will be delivering, and because it allows you to sustain the offerings for the long run, which we know is important for customers. But I also like the idea of delivering extra goodies to customers who pay more than a certain cutoff, for similar reasons: after all the customers are funding the program so you will be able to allocate appropriate resources to it and the clarity of the cutoff makes it easier to communicate the program to customers. It’s a very good setup if you are lucky enough to have a clean set of accounts, with few historical “deals” on support that obscure the matchup between the larger customers and the larger support fees.

The idea of a stealth cutoff, through which customers become eligible for the program because of mysterious (to them) criteria is more problematic in my opinion. In particular how will you handle the situation of a customer falling outside the scope of the program at a later date? But you may have to go with it for larger strategic reasons.

4. What constitutes high-end support?

Just about anything you want! The more popular features of “top customers” programs are the assignment of a named support engineer and an account manager – and you can add as many additional features as make sense for you and your customers. Especially with fee-based offerings I see all kinds of creative packaging at the high end including free training, attendance to the user conference, and other items that add value to the relationship with the customer.

A named support engineer handles all technical issues for the customer and becomes very familiar with the customer’s setup and concerns, cutting down on the resolution time. It’s a very popular feature with customers, although it can be a little misleading if your product line is very wide, hence one person cannot possibly handle all questions. Named support engineers are often shared between accounts (in other words it’s a named individual, not a dedicated individual, except for very large accounts) but in any event their loads are limited so they are able to provide high-quality service to the customers.

The account manager, who may or may not be the same person as the named support engineer, is responsible for delivering proactive support. This may include a weekly review of support cases; a monthly and quarterly review of support metrics; regular guidance on product updates or defects and fixes; and a yearly site visit. The account manager is in touch not only with the technical contacts at the customer’s site but also with the executives. There’s a clear strategic mission in the account management component.

5. How to deliver high-end support – the people

Assigned support engineers are usually pulled from the existing pool of support engineers. Select experienced support engineers who can handle customer situations in a mature manner, but don’t automatically select the most senior engineers: some may not have the customer skills to do this, or they may prefer to stay in a pure technical role. Unless your team is very small the assigned support engineers should not be expected to also function as level 2 support engineers: that would create too many time conflicts. On the other hand they can and should pick up other cases (from customers that are not premium customers) if they are not being fully utilized.

As mentioned earlier you can either ask the assigned support engineers to provide the account management function or separate the two roles. It’s often easier to rely on different individuals since the skills are really quite different.

6. How to deliver high-end support – the process & tools

Carefully define the support process for high-end customers as the details are very important. Should they call their assigned support engineer directly or through the hotline number? Is the assigned support engineer available off hours? (I recommend not, except as specifically arranged: you don’t want to burn out your staff.) Will meetings be held by phone or onsite? Missed expectations will destroy much of the value of getting a premium level of support so it’s particularly important to spell out the details. And again if you must modify the premium program downward the customers’ reaction will be negative so be careful about your early promises.

Your existing tools should be able to serve the high-end customers, although some tuning may be required. (For instance, cases should be directed towards their assigned support engineer, if they have one. New reports may also need to be created, focused on individual customers.

Bottom line: delivering a higher level of support to the top customers is a good idea, but look at the long-term implications before jumping in.


Live Chat Support

Thanks to Bill Counts for suggesting this topic.

Live chat has transformed the way teenagers communicate. What about support? Here’s a guide to leveraging chat as a support channel.

1. Use chat as a reactive support tool

Chat may be the most important technological improvement of the past ten years for high-complexity support centers: the ability to view and perhaps control the customer’s environment without having to rely on said customer’s sometimes naïve or limited control of the technology, technical biases, or even active sabotaging of the troubleshooting process. Chat as a tool for reactive support is a winner in every single support organization I’ve worked with in the past many years, so much so that customers often demand that the support engineer “do a WebEx session” whether or not it’s warranted. Hence the caveat:

2. But beware of providing full-fledged system administration services

Since it’s so easy to dial in the customer’s system, your staff may now be expected to take over the system administration chores. Not so fast! Yes, it’s easy to control the customer’s environment but that means that limits must be placed on the use and abuse of the technology: the support engineers must be good at saying no to demands that go beyond the normal scope of support. Still, it’s a wonderful tool that saves a lot of troubleshooting time.

3. Consider chat as a bona fide support channel

Many vendors, especially in the lower-complexity arena, offer chat as one support channel. So customers can request support via chat just like they may be able to request support by phone or by email. The lure here is the beauty of a seamless transition from self-service to assisted service, coupled with the chat vendors’ promises that support staff can be very productive by handling multiple chat sessions at one time. That’s not entirely true… Some customers also have a strong preference for a phone interaction, especially when they have complicated issues.

4. But be prepared to staff for it

Chat support may not have the intense queuing requirements of the phone, but it’s still a near-real time tool – or at least it should be. This means that the staffing requirements for it are much closer to staffing a telephone hotline than standard electronic support: you must be ready to accommodate demand peaks. If offering a chat channel means that you can do without a phone channel it will be a savings in staff. If you are replacing a standard electronic staffing you will need to staff more.

And what about those claims of multiple chat sessions? Many chat vendors claim that support reps can handle up to six (6!) concurrent chat sessions, making them six times as productive. The reality is not so bright. Just think: could you handle six simultaneous conversations? Probably not without some significant gaps in the conversations, which is the bane of chat support. Most organizations find that two, perhaps three conversations are comfortable (depending on how much “thinking time” is needed by the customer), nowhere near the six theoretically possible for the tool.

Finally, like any other written tool, chat requires literate reps. There are many reps who are great on the phone but cannot write coherently, even with templates.

5. Leverage the benefits of chat

Unlike any other support channel, chat brings you unique online benefits. Train your reps to make full use of them.

  • Automatic logging: every conversation is recorded and can be used as a reference tool
  • Easy reference to self-service tools: if the customer simply missed the appropriate knowledge base solution, the rep can simply pop the URL into the chat window. Voila!
  • Seamless interface to online systems such as pointing the customer to a site or taking control of the customer’s environment
  • Seamless transfers and escalations to colleagues, and three-way chats
  • Easy monitoring, because all conversations are logged

Bottom line: chat is great as a reactive tool in highly-complex support organizations; interesting as a substitute for the phone channel in lower-complexity support situations. And, naturally, chat has always been used as a productivity tool internally to support centers, to ask colleagues for assistance.

FT Works in the News

  • The manuscript of the upcoming support marketing book is taking shape with 6 chapters completed and only six more to go (shorter ones, thankfully!) so it’s time to name the book. The working title is Marketing Wise, like the blog, but I welcome suggestions for the final title. It should evoke the idea of a complete guide to support marketing, from creating support packages to pricing, marketing, selling, and renewing. Email me your ideas by month’s end (7/31/09). The winner will get a complimentary copy of the book.
  • Check out the new posts at Marketing Wise, the FT Works support marketing 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

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