The FT Word – August 2005

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the August 2005 issue of the FT Word. Spread the word: feel free to forward it to your colleagues.

Topics for this month:

· managing support under a storm

· increasing teamwork

· a new book on knowledge management

· soft skills training in Seattle, WA

Managing Support Under a Storm


It’s always stormy in support: customers rarely call to tell us how happy they are with the tool, right? But sometimes things get really bad, typically because a truly buggy product was released: it won’t install, it breaks, it keeps breaking after fixes, and fixes are not forthcoming fast enough to patch even the most painful problems anyway.

Are you fighting a storm? Put on your heavy-weather gear and get going.

1. Elevate the issue

Do all you can to get appropriate executive attention on the issue. Be ready with appropriate quantification of the impact on customers. This works best if you haven’t been crying wolf for small issues in the past. And don’t expect to get much attention to the fact that your team is dying under the load.

For truly catastrophic problems heavy-duty remedies may be required, including stopping shipments of the defective product and halting new product development to focus on fixing bugs. Neither one is popular with Sales or Engineering. Don’t dictate the solution even if it’s blindingly obvious. Let the various groups take the lead and stick with recommendations and hints.

2. Help resolve the problem — even if it’s not “yours”

In a big storm, your team will carry a heavy load already, so why help other groups? Because you’re all in this together, because it’s the right thing to do for the customer, and because the act of kindness will be remembered and repaid for the long term (I can vouch for that.) As much as it hurts to dispatch your best code-level engineer to help troubleshoot and fix the problem, do it.

3. Establish an escalation process

If you have one already, it will be fully utilized. If you don’t, create one ASAP. There are two essential features: one is a ranking mechanism to distinguish the desperate customers from the merely crushed and the other is proactive ownership and management of customers through resolution.

On the ranking: it’s very hard to say no to any customer, no matter how small, but it’s certainly better to say yes to a few customers than no to everyone. Entering the rank of the officially escalated customers should require high combined scores on a combination of the seriousness of the technical issue, the revenue associated with the customer and the visibility of the account. It helps to create a scoring system for escalations, letting the Sales team assess the squishy areas such as “visibility” so they can buy into the process.

It’s clear you won’t be able to give every customer the royal treatment during the storm: have a cut-off that’s high enough that you can do a reasonable job with the escalated accounts, including daily updates, at least weekly conference calls, etc.

4. Continue to enforce basic processes and metrics

In an emergency it’s tempting to let go of the normal way of doing things: since everything’s crazy, we don’t really have time to log cases, or meet response times, right? Wrong! While you certainly can differ non-essential activities (see point #6), the basic support processes should be reinforced, not ditched. More than ever it’s important to meet response times, to perform queue reviews, to keep backlog low.

Also, keep an eye on poor performers. High performers seem to work extra-hard in storms, but low performers can give up entirely, hoping no one will notice.

5. Rally the troops

It’s hard to work in a storm. Be visible. It’s hard when you’re scheduled for 6 1/2 escalation calls per day, but being in your office with the door closed creates a vacuum.

Say thank you. To anyone who pulled out a rabbit from a hat, an extra shift, or simply showed up and worked. Focus on what’s getting done.

6. Cut or postpone non-essential activities

Does Support routinely review documentation, deliver training classes, handhold customers through hours-long installations, or create very ornate knowledge base documents? It’s time to review and ruthlessly cut on any non-core activities. This is hard if they are fun for the support staffers (training can be!), if they deliver positive long-term benefits (good documentation will save many support calls), or if they provide customer benefits (like handholding them through installations), but it must be done to preserve the core.

You may need to cut very deep: for instance, if Engineering is overwhelmed with bugs you may find it necessary to “just say no” to customers who request fixes for minor bugs. Better say no today than down the road, after the customers have built a strong expectation for the fix.

7. Be patient

In my experience, truly large storms take months to abate (and that’s once the issue has been properly elevated, as discussed in point #1.) The big release to fix all bugs often only allows more bugs to be found. Be realistic and don’t burn out your staff and yourself on crazed efforts that cannot be sustained through weeks and months.

Should you bail out? Perhaps. If you are not confident that the problems will be resolved, either because you are unable to get appropriate executive attention, or because the remedy seems unfit to the problem, consider it. But give it some time.

8. Focus on what you can do

Getting discouraged? You cannot calm the storm by yourself and overnight, so focus on the good results of your actions, however limited. You calmed down a few customers today? Good for you. You convinced a staff member to hang on? Nicely done.

Share that philosophy with your staff: they don’t need to save the world, just provide local relief. And go home and relax at a reasonable time.

9. Only promise what you (think you) can deliver

When things are really bad, it’s tempting to paint an overly-rosy picture of tomorrow. All bugs will be fixed and all customers will be happy and you will also be able to go on vacation without your cell phone. Resist the temptation to over-commit. If tomorrow comes and the bugs are not fixed you will have a very unhappy customer. Use the same approach with your staff.

10. Consider getting reinforcements

If case load is spiking is workload is growing, shouldn’t you just hire more people? Maybe. If the root cause is that the product is broken, there’s only so much that support staff can do anyway (plus, how will you train the new hires in the chaos, and what will you do with them once the storm abates?) It is often helpful to add a solid escalation manager, however (point #3).

Storms make you stronger. Really. In particular, you will find great improvements in your ability to say no, in your skills in building relationships with customers, and in mentoring your staff. Here’s to hoping your storm will be short-lived.

Getting a Team to Work Together Productively

Thanks to Sonal Patel for suggesting this topic.

What can you do to increase teamwork? If you’re creating a new team, start on the right foot. If you are a member of a team that’s stuck in unproductive conflicts, there are steps you can take to remedy the situation. Here are 7 inspirations.

1. Pick the team members wisely. Some people just prefer to be loners. Screen for team-oriented folks.

2. Have a clear goal. It’s fine to change it over time, but start with one.

3. Assign clear ownerships. To minimize conflicts and to ensure that all aspects of a project are covered, each team member should have a clear definition of their responsibilities — and stick to them.

4. Define team-oriented incentives. Ever wonder why the VP of Engineering doesn’t seem interested in fixing bugs? Chances are that his/her objectives are strictly limited to meeting release dates. Why bother fixing bugs if that doesn’t “count”? At least part of each team member’s goals and objectives should include team deliverables.

5. Establish ground rules. Regular review meetings and basic rules of behavior help minimize conflicts.

6. Talk about being a team. Especially for new teams, you may need to prime the pump a little. Don’t expect a newly-formed team to instantly act as a cohesive unit. Get the team members to work together. Get them to interact at a personal level. You don’t need a cheesy ropes course or other random teambuilding activity. Doing good, solid work together may be the best teambuilding there is. And don’t force the team members to sacrifice nights and weekends to teambuilding activities.

7. Get professional help. If an established team simply isn’t working well, it might require skilled attention. This is particularly effective for executive teams in which all members are very good at what they do, but they just don’t play well together. Look for someone who has experience doing this kind of work and plan on a day or two of intense communications work. The team members may not love each other in the end, but they should be able to gain respect for each other and coordinate appropriately to meet the team’s goals.

FT Works in the News

There’s a new book in the works! Transforming Support with Knowledge is the working title for my third book, which I’m writing in partnership with David Kay, a colleague and friend who focuses exclusively on knowledge management. The target release date is January 2006, and you can read more about content here.

SSPA News published an article I wrote entitled “Workforce Management for High-Complexity Support” You can read it at

Interested in Soft Skills training in or around Seattle, WA? I have one request and would be happy to arrange a group workshop if there’s interest. You can find the course description 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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