The FT Word – July 2011

By Technical Support

The FT Word

The FT Word is a free monthly newsletter with support management tips. To subscribe, click here. The subscription list is absolutely confidential; we never sell, rent, or give information about our subscribers. Here’s a sample.


Welcome to the July 2011 edition of the FT Word. Please forward it to your colleagues.

Topics for this month:

  • July’s number of the month – 35%
  • Recruiting high-level support engineers – leveraging recruiters
  • Our first open-registration training event ever! Register for the Tech Support Skills workshop in Santa Clara, CA on September 12-13

The Number of the Month: 2

Support offshoring is inexorable, right? Well, maybe not. As of today, July 1st, 2011, two airlines, Delta and US Airways, are bringing back their customer service centers onshore or near-shore. Most of the readers of this newsletter operate in support organizations that handle issues more complex than those of airline contact centers, but I thought it was an interesting trend.

Why re-shore? Quoting from the article, “The reason many executives were originally sold on off-shoring was based on a myopic view of the wrong metrics – such as cost per call and cost per minute” So true! How do you define success for offshoring initiatives? And are you meeting the customer satisfaction, productivity, and cost targets you set?

Read the (short) article about Delta and US Airways here:

Recruiting for Tough Hires

Many thanks to James LaRheir for suggesting this topic.

After wading through dozens (and dozens!) of resumes for an admittedly difficult hire (complex technical requirements on top of excellent customer skills), James asks how to find a good recruiter. All of us in the complex support world that the market is once again tight for experienced support engineers these days, so this is a good time to review recruiting strategies.

Six Steps for Highly Technical Hires

When you know you will have a hard time recruiting candidates because of the technical requirements you have, it makes sense to place the technical screening early in the process. So while for other hires you may start with a phone interview I like to put the technical screening first so as not to “waste” time talking with candidates that are simply not qualified. Here’s my suggested sequence of events:

1. Craft a solid job description

2. Source candidates and perform initial screening (which could be done by a recruiter)

3. Conduct a technical test

4. Conduct a phone interview

5. Hold face-to-face interviews

6. Check references

Diagnosing Recruiting Problems

What if you do all that and after several weeks and several dozen resumes you still can’t find anyone. Put your detective hat on! Where is the funnel breaking?

Sourcing. An experienced recruiter should be able to find candidates for you. Otherwise, switch. Also, use internal referrals and give a bounty for successful hires.

Initial screening. If candidates regularly fail the initial screening, either the job description is not realistic (looking for Mr. Perfect? For Mr. Perfect at a too-low salary?) and you will not find what you want, or your recruiting efforts are not reaching the right people and you need to switch techniques and/or recruiters. It’s fairly easy to tell when you are low-balling the compensation, since you will get interested candidates but they will tell you, en masse, that the compensation is not sufficient. If no one is good enough for your needs, bite the bullet and lower your expectations. Better spend a few months training someone more junior than waste them looking for a candidate that does not exist.

Technical test. You should see some drop-off at the technical testing stage (otherwise, why bother?) but huge failure rates are a sign that you should do a better job of identifying technical skills when you do the initial screening. Try to find a couple of key questions to ascertain right up front so you don’t waste candidates’ time and yours – but it’s better to eliminate a lot of candidates at this point rather than to suffer large drop-offs later on.

Phone interview. This is where a good recruiter matters. I once worked with a great recruiter over a matter of many months and by the end every single candidate he sent me was just a delight. Not a hire, mind you, but certainly a strong candidate. To get there required many feedback sessions on each and every candidate that did not make it through the process to identify what was not perfect – and I never saw the same issues again in resumes submitted later. (I’m so sorry to report that my wonderful recruiter has moved on to other challenges! Happy trails, Doug…)

Face-to-face interviews. Candidates that have been vetted by a recruiter, who have  the right technical skills, and who do well on the phone should do well in face-to-face interviews. Surprises at this point should be rare. It’s fine to choose not to hire after the interview, but if you find the interview was a complete waste of time you need to tighten up the earlier screening steps.

Reference check. Failing here is a blessing, really. Failing a reference check means that you were about to hire someone with a big problem. Be thankful to the reference who dared open a usually timid mouth and move on to the next resume.

What should a recruiter be able to do

A skilled recruiter is a wonderful ally and should be able to do all this:

  • Help you craft a complete, specific, realistic set of requirements (you need to provide the meat, no miracle here)
  • Create a compelling job posting (try not to interfere; this is marketing, not managing people)
  • Suggest and pursue non-standard sourcing scenarios
  • Vet resumes for your critical requirements (each non-conforming resume submitted to you should include a note explaining why)
  • Accurately assess strengths and weaknesses of the candidates against the requirements
  • Pose basic technical questions (following a script that you provide)
  • Assess soft skills (this is quite easy to do even if the recruiter cannot asses the technical skills!)
  • Assess ability to learn, organizational skills, and other meta-skills for support
  • Improve over time (i.e. avoid presenting multiple candidates with the same flaws)

For more techniques and a great checklist for hiring support staff, see The Complete Guide to Hiring Great Support Staffers.

FT Works in the News

Third Tuesday Forum Breakfast – July 19th

Are you based in the San Francisco area (or will you be there on Tuesday July 19th)?  That morning, David Kay and I will be hosting The Third Tuesday Forum, a roundtable for support executives to discuss the topics we embrace and wrestle with every day. The presenter will be Lala Mamedov of Juniper Networks, who will speak about supporting version 1 products, products for which you have no track record to plan from. You can register here. The full calendar is here. You can also sign up for the mailing list and join the Third Tuesday Forum groups on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Still open for registration – The Tech Support Skills workshop with open registration!

Over the years I have received many requests for an open-registration version of the popular Tech Support Skills workshop – and yes, it’s coming to Santa Clara, CA on September 12th and 13th. The workshop is for support engineers and reps and covers all aspects of working with customers, from picking up the phone or the electronic case all the way through resolution. With an open registration you can easily sample the workshop to decide whether to bring it in-house, or train just a handful of support engineers.

You can find a full description of the workshop and register here. Book now to ensure you get a seat. Attendance is strictly limited to ensure a highly interactive experience. (And if you want to attend both the Tech Support Skills workshop and learn about KCS you can register for a full week of fun here.)

ASP’s Ten Best Support Sites

ASP has published the list of this year’s Ten Best Support Sites, an annual competition for which I am an enthusiastic judge since it’s so fun to see what’s new and exciting in support websites. This year winners are: CheckPoint Software Technologies, Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard, Juniper Networks, Nokia, Red Hat, and, in the Small Company division, Ariba, Genetec, TiVo, and Websense. Congratulations to all the winners, and especially to the FT Works clients Cisco, HP, Juniper, Nokia, Red Hat, and Websense. (I always recuse myself from judging the entries of my customers, so I got to enjoy other applications instead).  The announcement is here

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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