The FT Word – September 2001

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the September 2001 edition of the FT Works Newsletter, a monthly review of trends in the support management arena. In this month’s issue:

· ranking and rating – a powerful people management technique

· managing the backlog – back to basics

And a reminder that you have another month to take advantage of the introductory price on The Complete Guide to Hiring Great Support Reps. Details at the end of this message.

Ranking and Rating

Many managers dread writing performance reviews and managing pay raises; some even say they would rather handle a nasty customer escalation! Why? I think managers do not have tools they feel they can depend on, and they fear that if a team member demands a justification on a too low rating or raise, they won’t be able to justify it.

This is why the ranking and rating technique was invented. Ranking and rating has a bad rep in some circles because it has been misused to rank people “on a curve”, but if used properly it’s the only sane approach to performance management in a support center with more than one manager.

Here’s the easy 6-step technique.

1. The first-level managers rank staff on their teams from most to least indispensable.

The rankings should be in strict order (no ties) and should be independent of seniority, job titles, or salaries, so that a bright junior staff member can be ranked higher than a plodding senior member. Performance on established metrics should be included in the evaluation but encourage the managers to think beyond one or two simplistic metrics. As a precaution, and especially if this is your first time using this technique,  review the rankings with each manager to make sure reasonable criteria are used.

2. The first-level managers together create a joint ranking for the entire team.

This is the hard step, so here are some suggestions to make it work better:

  • schedule enough time, a couple hours if the managers have never done it before

  • hold the session in a private room with a large board or plenty of flipchart paper as it’s a very visual exercise

  • encourage peer managers to ask questions about the rationale of others’ rankings, but don’t allow them to rearrange others’ rankings.

  • do not focus on small differences in the rankings: whether it’s John/Jane or Jane/John is indifferent, so there is no reason to argue about it

  • ignore titles and current compensations during this step

  • if you get stuck, try working from the bottom of the list

3. (Optional but helpful for #4 and 5) draw lines between the “stars”, the “solid citizens”, and the “marginals”.

4. Identify job titles; note discrepancies and suggest performance ratings

In general, senior people end up high in the ranking and junior people end up lower, so focus on the outliers:

  • Junior people near the top of the ranking should be rated higher and probably promoted.

  • Senior people that are not at the top are not producing to their ability and should be rated lower.

  • Brand new staff will probably fall near the bottom and that’s ok.

  • Established staff that rank near the bottom are performance issues and should be rated lowest or managed out.

5. Note current salaries; note mismatches and suggest increase guidelines

Over time, you want the salary structure to match the ranking. although this doesn’t mean the two should match exactly at any point in time. For instance, if you have a very bright young star who’s really underpaid you will give him/her a large raise but you may not completely even out the gap and that’s ok. A veteran star will get a more modest (percentage) raise since s/he is already well-paid.

Use the ranking results as your guide to making the salary decisions rather than the raise guidelines you got from HR. In the end, the two should match quite well (that is, the raises you define on the basis of the ranking should fit the HR guidelines; the reverse approach doesn’t work so well).

6. Repeat the exercise in 3-6 months

With a stable team, a twice-a-year exercise should be sufficient. If your team is very dynamic and/or had problems coming up with a ranking the first time around, try again each quarter. Practice does make perfect.

Managing the Backlog

Unlike cheese and wine, support cases don’t improve with age, so savvy support managers discriminate against old cases. It’s legal and, with only 2 steps, easier than most anything else on our to-do list.

1) Pick an age limit.

Depending on the type of support you do (low- versus high-complexity), the right number may be a few days to a month. Declare any cases older than the target to be “too old”. While a handful of truly complex cases may be rightly open longer than your target, any such case will need special overseeing to avoid complete oblivion.

If you find yourself being very successful with step 2, revisit your age limit downward.

2) Review all old cases on a regular schedule.

Every week, create a list of old cases (do this daily if your age limit less than a week). Then, have the first-line manager investigate what’s happening with each case and what can be done to bring it to resolution, with the higher-level managers reviewing the results of the investigation.

It takes time to do the reviews, but much less than having to manage escalations arising from old cases.

By the way, two popular backlog management strategies do not work and backfire, in my experience:

Bad strategy #1: setting up incentives against having *any* cases go over the age limit

Clever support reps can show great ability to close legitimate (complex) old cases and reopen them under a new number. If you must set objectives around old cases, allow a certain percentage to go over. Or better, measure customer satisfaction instead, as customers do not like cases that go on for no reason.

Bad strategy #2: allowing the creation of creative case statuses to disguise the fact that some cases just are not being closed (“hibernated”, “on hold”, etc.)

With more statuses, you are just creating more buckets in which cases can grow old, but not attacking the heart of the issue.

FT Works News

New article: SupportWeek published an article entitled Oops, I hired a whiner that presents 7 bad hire profiles and how to avoid them through astute interview questions.

Special price through 10/31/01: The Complete Guide to Hiring Great Support Reps. Tips and 585 questions to recruit and select fantastic team members. Special introductory pricing for newsletter readers of $100 through 10/31. Order today at your special price.

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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