On the Edge and In Control: A New Kind of Training for Technical Support

Organizations that are oblivious to the realities of their customers’ complex, interconnected IT environments are at risk — as are those that attempt to outsource the complexity.

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:

  • Increasing technical training.

    • Relying on script-based support.

      • Adding more knowledge management tools.

        • Using performance averages as a key measure of success.

          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:

          • Technical training is critically important for the effective management of the support process. Typically, training accounts for 5 percent to 6 percent of the support center budget, and support center staff spends an average of three work weeks a year in skill-development sessions. Most training takes place during employee orientation and new product launches. Even with the best intentions, training falls short because of people’s limited capacity to learn. A support person can be certified in two, three or maybe four products, but that certification does not bring expertise. No technical-training manual can simulate the configuration complexity and dynamics of a customer’s unique IT infrastructure, and the analyst is left to improvise. This results in inconsistent support, the leading killer of customer satisfaction scores. Technical support folks swim expertly in known waters, but when exposed to situations where they lack knowledge and experience, they sink. Ask any support analyst: The biggest job hazard facing analysts is the near certainty that the next ticket will fall outside their expertise.

            • Script-based support is used by management to improve the performance average and is the founding principle of the outsourcing model. All one has to do to shatter the belief in scripts is listen to a scripted attempt to resolve a mission-critical ticket. Front-line folks have no problem following the script, often to a fault. Scripting works for a well-known or routine situation, but the moment the situation deviates slightly from the script, or the customer raises a complex issue, the script falls apart. The customer, sensing the scripting and the failing logic, assumes that the issue is outside the analyst’s bandwidth and questions the honesty of the help desk — trust evaporates. With the growing complexity of support, a script is dated the day it’s created, and its utility is diluted from then on.

              • Management often falls back on knowledge management (KM) tools when training and knowledge sharing are not working, and the cost of service is escalating. Management comes under pressure to minimize the human element and install KM tools. Service technology accounts for 6 percent to 7 percent of support center budgets, and nearly 70 percent of organizations undertake KM projects every year. KM seldom facilitates quantum leaps in customer satisfaction scores. On the contrary, more technology exposes and accelerates support failures. Consider a typical scenario: Analyst A solves a problem and puts the solution into the KM-solutions database, and Analyst B comes across an identical or similar problem but doesn’t use A’s solution — B considers his way the only “right” way to troubleshoot. B adds his version of the solution to the database or erroneously assumes both problems are identical, finds A’s solution and sends the same patch —even though it’s not the right one — causing more problems for the customer. KM tools, regardless of their sophistication, are probably the most misused pieces of technology in support organizations.

                • Performance averages disguise the failure of scripts to improve satisfaction scores and of KM tools to fill these gaps. An organization can report a reasonably good MTTR (mean time to resolve), but hidden under this statistic are the extreme tickets. These are the problems that drag on, devour energy and resources and damage customer satisfaction (extreme scores that are buried in mean customer satisfaction scores.) Mean-based reporting creates a cycle that rewards the “fix first, solve problems later” attitude. Once the ticket is open, there is hardly any emphasis on appraisal and process. Instead, the goal is to meet the service-level agreement and bring down the severity of the situation, rather than troubleshoot the problem to a close. The case logs become endless e-mail threads of requests for log files that create wasteful dead time, when nothing is done to resolve the case.

                  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:

                  • 40 percent reduction in backlog

                    • 58 percent reduction in average time to close

                      • 41 percent improvement in first-time fix rate

                        • 25 percent reduction in case escalations to product development group

                          • 12,000 days a year cut from customer waiting times

                            • 37 percent reduction in incident/dispatch rates

                              • $10 million reduction in cost of critical account referrals

                                The Process
                                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:

                                • Overgeneralization: Information overload in voluminous case logs and data dumps obscures the specifics needed to take effective action. Beware of terminology that obscures intents and reality.

                                  • Assuming cause-effect relationships: The urge to chain together events in wished-for relationships undermines efficiency and leads down the wrong path. Watch out for the prevalent tendency to jump to cause and statements such as “caused by,” “due to and “… is causing.”

                                    • Reality Confusion: With support personnel working on a 24×7, follow-the-sun model with customers from anywhere on the planet, perceptions lead to confusion. Be suspicious of multiple versions of the same event.

                                      • Emotions seizing rationality: Strong feelings at each troubleshooting step cloud the way data is interpreted. Don’t accept irrational statements delivered verbally and in case log e-mails, as well as a refusal to provide specifics.

                                        • Overwhelming size of the mess: An issue becomes too big to be handled by a person or even a group. Keep an eye on the participation count and frequency of tech-support bridges.

                                          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:

                                          • Slapping on a Band-Aid: Trying to get rid of the symptoms without taking action against the cause. Resist the client’s desire for a quick fix and insist on first finding root cause.

                                            • Poor or inadequate definition of the problem: Too much irrelevant data or very few facts. Watch out for repeated and ambiguous data requests and ever-changing facts.

                                              • Biases override troubleshooting logic: The urge to prove but not test the assumptions behind hunches. Be skeptical of possible causes that have weak, fact-absent, unreasonable assumptions.

                                                • Closure before confirmation: Allowing the MTTR metric drive closure. Don’t close a ticket without first proving it to the customer.

                                                  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.

                                                  Getting Started
                                                  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:

                                                  • Skill Development: To ensure customer support team members have the skills and coaching support needed to be successful.

                                                    • Process Integration: To ensure there are clear links between skills acquired and business processes.

                                                      • Performance System Integration: To ensure the work environment (expectations, measures, tools/resources, consequences and feedback) is conducive to using the new skills and the process.

                                                        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 ashukla@clomedia.com.