IT

Better Tech Support in 3 Easy Steps, Part 2

Part 1 of this three-part series looked at assembling the best possible technical support team. Part 2 covers how to reorganize your company in order to take full advantage of your new and improved group.

How well does it normally work when you tell someone to do something? It depends upon your relationship to that person. A complete stranger will ignore you. An acquaintance might tell you “no” before they ignore you. A friend will probably explain to you why they aren’t going to do what you told them.

A sibling will hit you. Your spouse will laugh. Your kids will pretend to obey while they secretly do exactly the opposite behind your back. Or they will do it and whine incessantly. People who work for you will sometimes do you the honor of attempting to do what you tell them to. That, frankly, is as good as you will ever get.

When trying to influence someone at work who does not report to you, you need to sell your idea to them. Start by explaining the benefits that they receive from your new technical support system. Give them incentives to try it out and allow them to build their confidence in it. Finally, reinforce their new habits in using your system.

The Reality of Perception

Have you ever been served a plate of food that looked exactly like it did on the commercial? Did you lose the weight that the health club promised you would? That’s marketing. You have to focus on the ideal case, the goal. I know that is probably not in your nature as a technical person. You might want to set absolutely correct expectations, but don’t. Just talk about the good stuff.

Don’t shoot too high. Avoid using the terms “guarantee,” “promise” or “perfect.” These will definitely come back to bite you. On the other hand, don’t shoot too low, either. Avoid phrases like “hopefully,” “eventually” and “if we are lucky.” These are weak phrases that will undermine you from the start. Your best bet is to phrase it like this: “We have made some major changes. We are better organized and better trained. We are monitoring and measuring ourselves to ensure that we consistently perform at a high level. You can trust us.”

Sell the Benefits

You are doing a ton of work — learning, inventing, thinking through problems and predicting roadblocks. That is all hard work, but don’t tell them about it. Instead, when you are talking to salespeople, talk about salespeople. When you are talking to developers, talk about developers.

Don’t write procedure documents unless someone forces you to; rather, write collateral as if you were selling it to them. You’ve probably never done that before, but you have undoubtedly seen plenty of it.

  • “This is going to save you time.”
  • “This is going to reduce the number of angry customers that you talk to.”
  • “This is going to increase the number of customers who will serve as a reference for you.”
  • “This is going to help you tighten up those abs in just minutes a day.”

Okay, maybe not the last one, but you get the idea.

Departments on Your Side

Part of why you must market yourself to the rest of your company first is so that you can include other departments in your eventual customer marketing effort. You will need to get this done quickly, however.

If your customers discover the new technical support system for themselves before you tell them about it, then it loses some of the impact and you get less credit for it.

Getting Hands-On With Sales

Salespeople probably curse you behind your back and play darts with your picture up on the board. This is a lot to overcome, but at least they are keenly aware of the problems and the consequences, so you can dive right in and talk about solving them.

Salespeople, generally speaking, are focused on money. You need to explain to them how they will be able to close more sales.

  • “You are going to spend less time on the phone troubleshooting problems, which will help you close more sales.”
  • “When you call in to existing customers asking for more business, they won’t have big thorny problems to overcome, which will help you close more sales.”
  • “You will have happy customers at your fingertips to serve as references, which will help you close more sales.”

You also need to give the salespeople a new support transition script. It will go something like this: “Yes ma’am, I understand that this issue is important to you. I’m going to get the experts right onto it. We’ve just spent a lot of time and money reorganizing our technical support system. They are actually faster at figuring out solutions to problems than I am. I trust them to take care of this.”

The salespeople will need processes for how to give you a support case. Keep it simple and set your expectations low. If you give them a checklist of information to gather, they won’t bother. An e-mail to the helpdesk with the customer’s name, however, is perfect. If they can give you some indication of the type or severity of the problem, then that is gravy. If they call you personally, you can take down the information and create the case yourself.

In the past, I have had my staff walk through the sales offices once a day and ask for technical support problems. They carried a notebook and talked to every salesperson that they could, saying “Things are light over in support. Do you know of any customers that I can call and help?” This allows the salespeople to see the technical support staff as people. Eye contact and conversations build trust. In addition, have your support staff follow up with thank you notes to sales after they solve the customers’ problems. They might bristle at the thought at first, so you will need to sell them on the whole vision.

The last hurdle with the salespeople is technical support for prospects. You will not get this until the salespeople really trust you, and even then you will never get all of it. There is simply something about the situation where the prospect hasn’t yet committed that makes them an entirely different case in the minds of salespeople.

Your policy toward prospects must be that you will support anyone the salespeople recommend. This might depend upon the details of your product and market. My company, for example, gives away our product for free to small companies, without technical support. That makes it more difficult for my team to determine whom to support and whom not to. If you are in a similar situation, you will need to work that out with sales, but err on the side of supporting too many people.

Mixing With Marketing

It might seem like marketing thrives on new product, but that’s not the case. Marketing thrives on happy, referenceable customers. Once they understand what you are doing, they will want to follow behind you to dig for quotes and references.

It is important for the company that you help enable them to do that. Marketing feeds sales. Those quotes and reference customers are your long-term marketing program and will reinforce this new behavior in sales.

Crunching Numbers With Accounting

All of the accountants that I know really do count things for fun, and the most fun thing to count is deposits. Perversely, the second best thing for accountants to count is costs. You are going to help them with both.

The first thing that they will ask for is cost accounting. They will want to get information from you to help them allocate support costs to each customer. Right now, they are probably just spreading the costs of technical support across each customer based upon the amount that the customer has paid. If you can provide data to figure out how much time it takes to support each customer, then they can account these costs much more accurately. This level of understanding of your costs per customer is a tremendously powerful profit-maximizing tool. Upper management and product planning will use this data to target products to more profitable segments of customers, and you will use it to argue for raising the support billings on the least profitable customer segments.

Your accountants might not see it at first, but the data about how much time you spend on each customer helps them get the invoices paid. Customers who are using a lot of support time are clearly using the service and will pay the full invoice price. The few that don’t should easily succumb to collection calls that threaten to cut off their technical support.

If the help desk tool doesn’t let you track your time spent per case (and by aggregate, by customer), then get a timesheet program. Either way, you will need your accounting staff to coordinate with you on the customer list. Unless you have only a handful of customers with completely different-looking names, you will need a computerized mapping between the customer list in your help desk or time system and the customer list in the accounting software.

A Foot in Development’s Door

You don’t need to engage the development team directly until you start planning to hire your own developer. The head of development will almost certainly react skeptically, so buy him/her lunch and pitch the idea. You need buy-in because you will need the development manager to interview the candidate you want, train your new support developer and do code reviews of this person’s work. They will have to accept this person as a developer and invite them to the meetings. You can’t force that, so gently suggest it once and then don’t mention it again. If your developer writes good code, he/she will eventually get invited.

Before lunch, informally gather some data about how much time the developers spend working on bug fixes. Ask them how big of a pain it is and if they enjoy it or not. Sell this new system to the head of development in terms of fewer interruptions and fewer headaches. If you are getting some sort of performance bonus for improving customer satisfaction, offer to share some of it. It’s worth it.

The head of development might have just the right candidate for you. This person is almost certainly the wrong candidate. Smile, thank them and accept the candidate. Do your best to make them successful. When they get mad and quit, you will get to hire your own candidate. Giving them an out from firing that non-performer just might be your cost of admission. Even though the person might not fit the profile I gave you in my last article, their experience in the code base and acceptance among the core development team are tremendous bonuses. They will establish work patterns that your replacement candidate will greatly benefit from.


Randy Miller is director of services at Journyx, a developer of Web-based time, expense and project tracking solutions. He can be reached at [email protected].


Better Tech Support in 3 Easy Steps, Part 1

Better Tech Support in 3 Easy Steps, Part 3

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