I have been managing the technical support team at Journyx, a timesheet software company, for about 7 years. When I began, we were hemorrhaging angry customers, but now we haven’t received a legitimate customer complaint in years.
Since my experience was in sales and retail management, the first thing I did was ask the CEO and VP of sales what they wanted from the tech support team. One of them said, “I’m tired of getting yelled at by customers,” and the other said, “I’m tired of seeing the salespeople doing technical support instead of selling.”
With those marching orders, I fumbled and failed for a while. It took me a few months to hit upon a winning plan and a year to get it running. In hindsight, I see a few key elements that should have been implemented earlier and a few mistakes that I should have avoided. In this three-part series, I will give you that plan as well as advice on how to put it into action.
The first step in redesigning your support system is to decide what case priorities will look like. You can generally get this information from your maintenance contracts, or you can create new categories of case severity and corresponding levels of service. Whatever you choose, make sure that you communicate the final results to your team. They need to know that it is necessary to monitor incoming cases, prioritize them as soon as possible and then treat them accordingly.
The next thing you can do is save time by writing down general solutions and giving them to customers. This allows them to solve their own problems and takes the burden off of you so that you can research new solutions. Eventually, you might opt for a public knowledge base where customers can really help themselves. Here at Journyx, we started with a big text document on a shared network drive that contained about a hundred problems and solutions. After that, we implemented help desk software with a built-in knowledge base. Getting solutions into customer’s hands has saved us a lot of time and trouble.
Finally, it is very important to hire a developer specifically for technical support. Think about the difficulty and conflict involved in asking for bug patches and low-level design changes from a busy development team. Now think about having your own developer who fixes all of your bugs and gives you those design changes, as well as other incredibly useful tools. I, for one, will never again manage a technical support team without at least one full-time developer.
Get Everyone on the Same Page
Making changes will only add value if your team is prepared to embrace them, so you will need to work at encouraging new attitudes. Make sure that they feel responsible for fixing problems and documenting solutions, that they respect customers, and that they refuse to accept abuse under any circumstances. You can promote these ideas by putting up posters, discussing them and using positive reinforcement. You can also lead by example. I once fielded a call from an angry customer in front of my team. He had been abusive to one of them, so I took the phone and attempted to calm him down. He was cursing and yelling, totally out of control. I apologized for the problem. He yelled and cursed at me some more. I then said, politely, “I understand why you are frustrated, and I want to help. If you continue to curse at me, however, I will hang up the phone.” He cursed again. I hung up.
I then called his company and asked if there was someone else I could work with to resolve the problem. There was, and we got the problem fixed in a few minutes. After that, my team all stood up a little straighter, and their work quality increased. Now I tell that story to new team members in order to help them understand the new attitudes from the beginning.
Once you have made your immediate improvements and talked to your staff, you need to think about ascertaining where you are today and creating plans for what you want to achieve in the future. Here are some sample questions to ask and goals to set for improvement.
- Current State
- How many cases does support receive each week?
- How many cases do other departments handle?
- How many customer complaints reach the executive team?
- Short-Term Goals
- Get approval to reinvent the technical support team.
- Choose your tools and implement them.
- Medium-Term Goals
- Keep all tech support calls within the team.
- Fix problems before customers get angry.
- Long-Term Goals
- Lower support costs per product line, product launch, customer and customer attribute (industry, size, etc.).
Keep It in Check
After defining your goals, you will need to find a way to measure all of their components. To do this, you should implement a help desk tool that will give you a set of reports on the number of cases opened and closed per day/week/month, the amount of time spent on each case, and aggregate cases per customer.
You will also need to monitor your workload in order to predict potential problems. Create a graph and plot your number of monthly cases against how fast your team is resolving them. This will help you to understand, for example, the effects of a new release on your department. Generally it will increase the number of cases due to new bugs and decrease the speed of solving them as your staff get up to speed on the new version. Knowing this in advance allows you to hire temps or make sure no one in your team plans for a vacation during a certain period. If you can foresee it, you can prepare for it.
When the long-term trend lines are about to cross, you will know it’s time to hire more staff.
Find the Right People
You will be getting the technical skills, personality quirks, emotional stability, and overall attitude of each person you hire, so you have to spend some time thinking about what you need. Make a list of the minimum technical skills that your team must contain, and then scale it down to include the skills that each individual must possess. Not every person has to have every skill — that’s why you have a team. Your list will likely include:
- OS, DB, and specific application knowledge
- Phone presence
- Problem-solving skills
- Basic spelling and grammar skills
- It is important to choose candidates who are not only well qualified but who are also responsible people you can trust.
Randy Miller is director of services at Journyx, a developer of Web-based time, expense and project tracking solutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.