Technical support personnel routinely find themselves wading through the unknown waters of increasingly complex and heterogeneous applications and hardware platforms. Customers are promised the convenience of whatever, whenever and wherever, yet little thought is given to how the promise will be fulfilled.
Incident management and troubleshooting activities can become a blame game of “theirs, not ours,” firefights, personal best guesses or problem escalations by irate customers. Problem resolution becomes a probability — not a certainty.
Using increasingly connected yet disparate technologies, customers expect their business to be supported homogenously despite the complexity of their IT infrastructure. Organizations that are oblivious to the realities of their customers’ complex, interconnected IT environments are at risk, as are those that think they can outsource this complexity.
A common theme that reverberates across our client landscape is that technical support personnel live on the edge. Can they do so and still be in control? I believe they can — if they receive the right training.
Improving Support: Approaches That Fall Short
While the good news is that managers and decision-makers within the customer support function now realize the support world is increasingly complex, the bad news is that the success of skill-improvement initiatives is sporadic. Even in the best organizations, initiative success plateaus quickly, and ROI falls below initial promises. Here is what has not worked well:
Ironically, these seemingly “right steps” follow a logical sequence that drives organizations in an endless loop of ineffective reforms and new initiatives that sap resources and frustrate customers. Here’s why:
In my experience, the best long-term solution for help desk and technical support functions is to provide support personnel with a clearly defined thinking process they can use to troubleshoot all customer problems —independent of technology, platform, language or geography.
We have seen many companies use this type of training to achieve stellar results in their support environment.
Representative metrics achieved by companies such as Sun Microsystems, Dell, Cisco, and EMC include:
Superior knowledge and understanding of customer issues and their resolution is possible by using a rational-process approach to obtaining data about the problem and analyzing that data. The successful use of this logical approach to resolving customer problems requires providing support personnel with skills in structured questioning techniques, improving their capability to use these skills in real time and building competency through repeated use.
A rational-process approach to troubleshooting mission-critical problems begins with an appraisal, an assessment of the customer’s situation. Appraisal uses logic to assemble data and define the problem. This is followed by a resolution, a process of identifying possible causes, testing them against the problem specification, and then selecting and testing the most likely cause.
Appraisal: Getting the Facts
Driven by the urgency to seek the quickest resolution and close the trouble ticket, appraisal is often the missing piece in a typical support environment, but taking the time at the outset to do a thorough appraisal of the presenting situation can dramatically accelerate resolution by preventing these common pitfalls:
Appraisal is the keystone to effective troubleshooting. It is a dialogue among customers and front-line and back-line support. It is a collaboration that leads tech support from a complex, often obscure reality to actionable steps. When carried out correctly, appraisal overcomes confusion at the crossroad of adaptive solutions and effective resolution.
Resolution: Finding Root Cause
The search for a quick solution to customer problems often leads tech support to jump to cause, take an educated guess, take a shot in the dark and hope for the best: “We had a similar problem last week — it was caused by X, so maybe this one is, too.” But jumping to cause in this way can lead support personnel down one blind alley after another, wasting precious time and alienating the customer.
Following a sequence of logical steps to develop possible causes and test them against the facts can actually get you to root cause much faster by keeping you from falling into these common traps:
The Value to Customers
Application of a logic-driven appraisal and resolution process has a profound impact on customer interaction and satisfaction.
When customers recognize that they are being listened to, and that the analyst is asking a logical set of questions and not reading from a script, they are far more likely to have confidence and trust in the analyst and the vendor company.
Troubleshooters’ use of rational process is also of great value in escalated problems. Escalations occur when the front line is stretched to its limit of knowledge and experience, and the ticket must be handed off to the more expert back line. This often results in the customer having to describe the problem a second and perhaps a third time, answering the same questions over and over, and becoming increasingly frustrated and angry. When the front line and back line use the same structured, logical process to collect data, customer frustration is minimized. The front line hands off a ticket that contains all the information in the right sequence and format to quickly bring the back line up to speed, allowing for a seamless transfer.
Another major advantage of using a common problem-resolution process: Any member of the help desk, not just the product specialist, can take a customer call and follow the same logic to make significant progress in the right direction.
When introducing the use of a rational-process approach to troubleshooting, it might help to focus the effort on identifying and defining the few critical areas that need improvement. You might begin by just having support personnel apply the process to escalated cases, which typically take longer to resolve. Or you might want to focus first on cases that need to be resolved quickly because of the severe impact they might have on the customer’s business. When the focus is on the critical few, the customer support function achieves rapid results and begins to realize lasting value.
It’s a Journey
The decision to apply rational problem-appraisal and problem-resolution skills to customer problems is the first step in the journey toward increased employee and customer satisfaction, higher resolution rate, shorter time to resolution and fewer escalated problems. Ensuring that the process takes root involves three steps:
In my experience, companies that make the investment in these three steps reap substantial rewards. A rational process that is independent of a specific product or technology enables customer care to cut across products, platforms and technologies. It provides a solid framework for supporting the customer’s business by managing the growing complexity and continuous change of the technical support environment, and it can be scaled up to manage the most complex challenges of the help desk and customer care landscape.
Arun Shukla is a practice leader for Kepner-Tregoe Inc., which with organizations worldwide to meet complex business challenges and achieve measurable results. Shukla’s expertise extends to customer service and support, process coaching and skill development, performance-system redesign and cost management. Shukla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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