The FT Word – September 2010

By Technical Support

The FT Word

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Welcome to the September 2010 edition of the FT Word. Please forward it to your colleagues. (They can get their own subscription here.)

Topics for this month:

  • Support marketing surveys – talk to your customers about what they want
  • Training is a process – how to move from the event to a full transformation (and a new FT Works workshop, Managing Commitments)
  • As always, an invitation to attend the upcoming Third Tuesday Forum breakfast, which will welcome John Belanger of Yahoo! on September 21st.

Support Marketing Surveys

A lot of support marketing decisions occur behind closed door: brainstorming sessions are held, cost modeling is performed, recommendations are hatched, and then – the announcement is made to customers, sometimes to loud criticism. What went wrong? Well, perhaps a small-scale test with customers would have been in order. Here’s how to get customers involved in decisions about new support offerings or changes in existing support offerings.

1. No one knows what customers want better than the customers

Of course you want to use the data you already collected through formal and informal means. Of course you should listen to salespeople and support staffers. They all have valuable knowledge of customers’ needs, wants, likes, and dislikes. But their input is by definition limited to the customers they interact with (who, perhaps, at the most vocal rather than the most important or the most representative). Also employees have their own biases and political preferences. For instance sales organizations can be a little leery of technical account management features included in support portfolios, since they feel that the sales organization should own customers, not the support organization.

2. Plan the revolution from inside

While customers often have keen instincts for improving existing products (support offerings, in this discussion), their input is often incremental rather than visionary. So they will easily suggest tightening response time but may not think about implementing an automatic monitoring system, for example. So the task of the support marketer is to come up with the large-scale change ideas that customers may not even consider.

3. Identify the right target audience

If you are planning to roll out a new super-premium support offering don’t bother speaking with small customers. They will never sign up for a super-premium level of support so their feedback won’t make much sense.

4. Speak in tongues

Many of my clients are based in the US and for convenience they survey only US customers. That’s fine – if you’re planning to roll out the new offering only in the US. It’s difficult to interview customers many time zones away, and Japanese doesn’t come naturally to many of us English speakers, but an effort must be made if you want to avoid unpleasant surprises during an international rollout.

5. Structure the interviews

I say interviews because I strongly believe that you need to hold phone interviews rather than rely on impersonal email or web surveys so you can catch the nuances of the feedback and capture more detail. (In person discussions are even better, if you can arrange them!) While brainstorming with customers is always a possibility, I find that it works best to do the brainstorming in-house and come to customers with a structured questionnaire. Include two sections, one about features and the other about pricing.

With features you can list the ones you are thinking about and ask for that particular customer’s rating on them (do not ask whether other customers would rate them highly: they don’t know and you can guess as well as they can). If you have a particularly long list of features it’s a good idea to ask customers to highlight the top three or four, in their opinion. For pricing ask for customers’ reactions to various levels of pricing.

And keep the interviews short. I like to ask for 30 minutes and be done in no more than 20, unless the customer is obviously engaged and enthusiastic about speaking more.

6. Ask for the sale

A customer who loves the new features and thinks the proposed pricing is reasonable will buy the new support package, right? Sorry, wrong! So a key question is to ask whether the customer would purchase the package as defined – and carefully record the reasons, caveats, and fine print.

7. Target decision makers

If you are selling to businesses you should speak to the person who signs the check, and who may not be the support contact. The goal is to test whether buying behaviors can change, not whether the consumer of support would enjoy extras.

8. Gather and study the nuances

So feature A garnered an 8.2 approval rating and feature B got an 8.0. This means A is in and B is out, right? Not necessarily. For one thing, marketing survey samples are small so confidence intervals are large (that is, 8.0 = 8.2, perhaps!) Also, averages can be deceiving. If that 8.0 average stems from a steady stream of high ratings but the 8.2 averages some very low ratings with some high ones, perhaps you have a more complicated situation in which some customers just don’t value feature A at all and feature A should instead be packaged as an option. This is another reason why you want to talk to customers for this type of survey. The comments may matter more than the ratings.

Finally, be open to surprises. You and everyone else in the support marketing and sales teams may be convinced that customers need and want assigned support engineers or faster response times and you may find that, in fact, what they want is regular webinars on new features. Accept the feedback (as long as you properly structured the questionnaire and engineered a good sample of interviews!)

Want a little more guidance to create new support offerings? Contact me.

Training is a Process

September is a prime month to think about training, prompted by the start of the school year (at least in the Northern hemisphere!) and the start of budgeting season for many companies, so I get a lot of inquiries about the workshops we offer at FT Works. I welcome them, always, but they bring to mind that training is a process and not an event. If you really want to change the way your team works with customers (or manages time, or troubleshoots issues, or handles escalations), you really need to think of the entire environment, above and way beyond the otherwise wonderful training event you can organize. Think about:

  • Integrating training and business practices. There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all training. Your training must model the specific behaviors and processes that you use every day. If you support consumers, training should address the concerns of consumers. If you support complex products, training should be tailored to complex-product support. At a more granular level, the training (and the instructor) should address the specific sticky situations that occur in your organization, whether advising naïve users or waiting not to patiently for the Engineering team to advise on a bug fix while keeping the customer happy. This means that customized training is ideal, and it also means that you should insist on sharing your processes and challenges with the instructor ahead of time.
  • Refreshing regularly. A one-time event is soon forgotten. Make it a habit to revisit key points of the training during staff meetings, perhaps, or schedule short refresher sessions.
  • Applying and reinforcing the training. Most training sessions are fun and inspiring and attendees make great progress on shaping new behaviors. But the very next day they go back to the routine and all that new thinking and learning can fall by the wayside. Keep talking about the training and the new skills after the event. Ask attendees to create a personalized action plan and have them check progress regularly with their manager or a buddy. It’s not easy to change established behaviors so provide plenty of feedback and encouragement. This means that managers should be well aware of the content of training programs, ideally attend them or at least be briefed on the content.
  • Reporting progress. It’s very easy to gather a “smile sheet” for training programs that simply reports whether attendees liked it. What you really want is a way to measure the effectiveness of the training. You trained on customer skills. Did customer satisfaction go up? Did the complaints about not keeping in touch properly go down?
  • Celebrating success. Catch someone doing something right: calming an upset customer, using “fogging” appropriately, or deftly separating needs from want. Praise and recognize on the spot. And if soft skills are important enough to fund a workshop, it makes sense to give awards for high customer satisfaction ratings.

After you reflect on your training process, we’re happy to supply the training event. Our offerings are listed here and range from Tech Support Skills for support staffers (our most popular workshop) to Managing Support for managers, which covers everything from staffing models to coaching. This month we are officially launching a new workshop called Managing Commitments that focuses on making and receiving strong promises when working with customers and with internal organizations. It’s suitable to both support staff and support managers and uses our usual heavy blend of role-plays and practices to start the application of the new skills right away.

FT Works in the News

Winners of the ASP 10 Best Web Site Award

ASP has announced the winners of its 10 Best Support Site Awards and I’m delighted to find that Websense, an FT Works client, is among the winners for the Small Company division. Congratulations!

Jive Software, which was one of the case studies used in my book Selling Value, also won an award.

I am an enthusiastic judge for the awards, which gives me a unique window into the cool web support initiatives under way in dozens of companies. This year, as well captured by Jeff Tarter in the introduction to the report, the focus is turning to makeovers. Since support sites are now mature there’s a lot of renovation going on, and along it the usual headaches of dealing with legacy systems, untangling navigation knots, and sanitizing decades of old documents. You can see the full list of awards and order the report here. Webinar

Last month I delivered a very well-attended webinar for this month on the topic of World Class Support: Designing Best Practices from the Ground Up. If you missed it but would like to hear a recording go to, scroll to the bottom and click on my name.

Third Tuesday Forum

Are you based in the San Francisco area (or will you be there on Tuesday September 21st)? 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. Our presenter will be John Belanger from Yahoo! To register or for more details, click here. Space is strictly limited to ensure an interactive session.

If you cannot make it this time but would like to be on the mailing list, sign up. You will be the first to know about new events. You can also join the Third Tuesday Forum groups on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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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