The FT Word
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Welcome to the September 2007 edition of the FT Word. If you think one of your colleagues may enjoy it, feel free to forward it. Subscription information is at the end.
Topics for this month:
- handling case volume spikes
- should you add account management to your support offerings?
- an interesting read about … email. Who knew it could be a fun topic?
- announcing the newly revamped and augmented FT Works Smarter Support Library
Handling Case Volume Spikes
Thanks to Amith Ellur for suggesting this topic.
If you haven’t yet experienced a case volume spike, you must have just started in support! Spikes are common, stressful – and sometimes exhilarating to adrenalin-seeking souls. Here’s how to prevent and survive them
Many times spikes can be forecast. Almost all spikes are due to
- Timing. If you sell financial software, chances are that month-ends and quarter-ends are busy times for you. Many consumer hotlines are busiest on Mondays. Retailers typically see insane loads in the last two months of the year. Use your historical data to confirm your intuition.
- New releases. Support centers typically experience a spike in volume immediately following a new release as bugs and confusion gets cleared out
- Product problems. Severe product problems can paralyze support centers. This is common in SaaS support, and also as a result of poorly-tested new releases for packaged products.
Spikes related to timing and new releases are easy to forecast. Spikes related to product problems are more challenging but you can and should have an early warning system for product problems so you can mobilize quickly if one strikes.
You may feel there’s little you can do to minimize spikes but be creative. Try
- Informing customers. Customers who are told they may have to wait longer than usual will be more patient – for a while. Don’t overuse the “due to exceptionally high call volumes…” messages. If you must use it for hours or days, remove it and fix the underlying problem. It is very handy during short-lived spikes, however.
- Extended hours. On days you expect heavy demands, open early and/or close late. Make sure you advertise the change in hours so customers take advantage of them.
- More self-service support. Most spikes center around a handful of issues, so make sure those issues are covered in your self-service materials and are obviously accessible from your support site. Customers may hit the problem but they may be able to help themselves. (Be sure to reinforce your self-service server capacity so it too can handle the load.)
- Getting involved with new releases. While you don’t want to get a reputation as “release blocker”, do inject the voice of the customer to ensure that new releases get tested adequately both in-house and by customers.
- Filtering rollouts. If at all possible spread out the distribution of new releases so you don’t have enormous exposure, at least until you have worked out the major issues. This is usually much easier with business customers who tend to be risk averse.
3. Have a good handle on staffing
Many of my clients who struggle with spikes are actually struggling with a more basic, more problematic monster: understaffing. If you are understaffed even a small variation in volume can take a disastrous turn. Create a solid staffing model, minimize turnover, and tirelessly advocate for timely replacement headcount. (And hire quickly and well!)
4. Put all hands on deck
If you can anticipate a spike, your job is easier: ask staffers to postpone vacations, schedule projects for another time, and ask anyone who can help customers to do so. There’s nothing more discouraging to the bereft support staffer juggling three irate customers than to see a couple of project managers lollygagging in the hall.
Special note to highly seasonal support centers: I work with some retailers who experience huge spikes around the holidays (up to 10 times the regular volume.) There’s no way that putting all hands on deck can solve such a huge challenge. The good news if you have that type of seasonality is that you have nine months of the year to prepare for the insanity! Start by carefully reviewing the hot issues from the last season and resolve as many as you can. Do nix vacations and projects during the spike. Suspend training and system changes during that time. Since you will have to add staff just for that period, create an effective training program targeted towards frequently-asked questions only: assign regular staff to handle anything a little complicated. And good luck!
If you experience short-lived, unexpected spikes, create a targeted recovery plan that may involve pulling in managers or other resources to help during the spike. It’s important to respond quickly to the spikes so they don’t turn into full-fledged disasters.
5. Don’t jettison essential processes
While you want to deploy all the resources you can to help customers during spikes, don’t neglect essential long-term tasks. For instance
- Putting the VP on the phone may be a good PR stunt, but it won’t help justify the budget for next year, which could bring permanent relief through better tools or more staffing.
- Why review metrics when everything’s so chaotic? Metrics are your lifeline during emergencies. Make time to review critical ones such as root cause analysis.
- Knowledge management becomes even more critical during spikes so that you can feed your self-service tools (see step 2) and your support staff. Don’t slack off on it.
Bottom line: during a short spike you can slack off on everything else besides customer assistance. During longer spikes keep your core processes working.
6. Keep an eye on backlog
It’s a fact that productivity increases during spikes. (And no, it’s not a good argument to have more spikes!) The problem is that the productivity “gains” are with the easier requests that can be satisfied quickly – especially if you happen to get a lot of similar requests. The more complicated cases will sit until the end of the spike and beyond. Monitor backlog and ensure that progress is made on more complex issues as well as the easy questions.
7. Take care of people
I’m always amazed at the capacity of support people to rise to the occasion during volume spikes. I guess spikes feed our bend as helpers. That same bend also leads us to neglect ourselves in favor of customers so coddle the team during long spikes – and try to avoid the usual candy and coffee… Don’t let anyone burn out.
8. Expect a recuperation period
One of my surprises when I started in Support (coming from the Education side of the house) was the lack of breaks in the action. Writing curriculum or teaching can be a lot more intense than helping support customers, but when a project is done there’s always some slack time and a clear feeling of accomplishment, however short-lived. In contrast Support seemed like an endless marathon to me. After a tough spike, schedule a celebration and recognize particularly prolific contributors with a day off. They will remember the favor.
Adding Account Management to your Support Offerings
Are you wondering whether to add an account management feature to your standard support offerings? Here are some qualifying guidelines to help you decide whether to take the plunge. They focus on your larger accounts since they are the ones who may benefit the most from account management, as well as the ones who will bankroll it.
1. What’s the size of your largest accounts? If less than $100k in support revenue, full-blown account management is probably not viable.
2. What’s the profitability of your large customers? It should be significantly higher than your average customers.
3. What is the strategic importance of the larger accounts? Define strategic importance how you will, you must focus on the customers that are the most important for your business.
4. What’s the cultural fit between you and the large accounts? Success is most likely when the fit is good. Note that you can have good cultural fit but a lousy relationship at a particular moment in time.
5. Are there competing offers for owning account management? If, say, the Sales team thinks it owns account management you will need to clear up responsibilities before you take the plunge. If no one else is doing it chances are you will find great expectations – and pressure – for your ideas.
We’ll discuss what to include in the account management offering next month.
Towards better Email Communications
Does something as basic as email need a how-to manual? If you’ve ever regretted sending a hasty message (I have!) or wish there were a reference book for this everyday activity you will enjoy this gem of a book, Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (Knopf 2007.) Written by New York Times journalists, Send is a readable and enjoyable guide to email etiquette with funny (made-up) examples in American and world history, covering how to compose and email, whom to copy and why, and many other sensitive issues. Highly recommended for support organizations where so much communication with customers is electronic.
Email and many other topics are covered in the Technical Support Skills workshop for technical support staff and the new Customer Service Skills workshop for non-technical service staff. Contact us if you’d like to schedule a session for your team. We are now scheduling into Q4.
FT Works Smarter Support LibrarySM
Want to improve your and your team’s support knowledge? FT Works offers 17 different books and booklets covering all aspects of running a successful support organization. Starting this month we are releasing updated and augmented booklets, starting with the classic Managing Support Strategically – just in time for the 2008 budget planning season. Managing Support Strategically includes FT Works’ Five Layers’ of Support ArchitectureSM, our comprehensive view of the interlocked components of successful support centers as well as practical suggestions for successful strategic planning for the support function.
You can read a detailed description and purchase the booklet 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.
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