Customer Support: How to Drive Efficiency and Satisfaction
Post-production support is the final stage in the value chain of your software delivery processes.
Keeping the customer happy can be challenging but rewarding as it’s one step toward achieving Operational Excellence.
In this article, we will go over some practical thoughts on improving your day-to-day operations and what to look for when troubleshooting any operations problems that your support desk might be facing.
3. Why Is Customer Support Important for the Business?
3.1 Maintenance and Support Are Part of the Value Chain
- Customer support and software maintenance were always an integral part of the software value chain and can contribute immensely to the success (or otherwise) of a product and the business.
- As with any team, striking a balance between the number of resources and guaranteed customer satisfaction is crucial.
3.2 Customer Satisfaction Driving More Sales
- A happier customer is willing to do more business with the vendor. This can happen through cross- or up-sales.
- A satisfied customer will also provide great references during vendor assessment exercises and help increase awareness in the market by promoting your brand.
3.3 Customer Support as a Continuous Revenue Stream
- Enterprise software solutions are constantly evolving and require continuous upgrades and bug fixing which usually comes in the form of a maintenance contract at around 20% of licensing fees per annum.
- This is recurring income for the business and presents all the advantages of continuous revenue streams.
- There is no secret here; a vendor can only charge the customer once for a license to use the product (although with subscription this may have shifted a bit) but maintenance exists as long as the product is in service.
4. Challenges of Running a Support Desk
4.1 Resources and Skill-Sets
- What is the minimum number of resources required to guarantee SLA terms across all customers?
- Can this number be optimized with more efficient processes?
- Are there any specialized skill sets required by members of the support staff and their managers?
4.2 Performance, Processes, and Improvement
- What are the metrics used to measure success?
- How to calibrate operations and improve performance?
5. Defining Customer Support
We will try in this article to provide some thoughts from our experience on what might work best in circumstances similar to ours.
5.1 Purpose of Customer Support
In a perfect world, software bugs are resolved instantly and effortlessly… In the real world however, investigating a single defect can sometimes take days and involve a number of senior staff and, although infrequently, major decisions.
A particularly difficult fix might require contributions from architects, developers, testers, support desk staff, and perhaps management (particularly in case of escalations). All this is done through multiple iterations, software drops, hot fixes, and numerous interactions with the customer.
The ultimate goal of Customer Support can be defined as the quick and satisfactory resolution of customer issues.
Perhaps a few notes of what is meant by “issue” in this context.
5.2 What Types of Problems Does a Help Desk Fix
An issue, bug, defect, or any other similar term from the jargon can be one of the following:
- Refers to a system defect or malfunction where the software behaves in an unexpected way or contrary to what is stated in the product’s specifications.
- This is usually a consistent and often reproduceable behaviour of one or more component in the product.
- Not strictly an “issue” in the traditional sense of the word.
- May refer to a simple question around a feature of the product, an inquiry on future enhancements, compliance and regulatory mandates, extra documentation, or anything along those lines.
- It could also be a question on how to resolve a user or configuration error.
- Degradation of Service:
- Commonly experienced as a partial or full outage, interruption, decrease in service availability, or bad customer experience.
- Usually the result of inadequate system resources, poor system maintenance, user error, or improper configuration.
6. Essentials of Efficient Customer Support
Mastering the job of customer support can be quite challenging. Like any other skill set, however, it can be achieved with time and a bit of dedication. Here are a few thoughts on the subject that might help you get the most out of your customer support team.
6.1 Awareness of the Terms of the SLA
Every individual in the Customer Support team must be aware of the terms of the Service Level Agreement (or SLA). This will get the team on board by allowing them to appreciate the customer’s expectations and understand their obligations to the customer.
The SLA is what the customer paid for and what he/she expects to get. That’s not the whole story though. Consistent failure to meet the SLA will ultimately translate into financial losses (which could be immediate in the case of contractual obligations such as loss compensation or regulatory fines) and the erosion of trust between the customer and the supplier.
A key component in the SLA is the different levels of severity of issues raised and the expected action/response in each case. Below is a list of common definitions, their risks, and their potential impact on the customer:
6.2 Essential Skills and Product Training
Customer support staff should be properly trained on the software products they are trying to support. At a minimum, they should:
- Be well versed in the product’s functional specs (or what the product does)
- Have a rigorous understanding of the business and the industry
- Be able to perform basic troubleshooting
- Have an intermediate understanding of IT systems
The support team should also have have an understanding of:
- The clients and their custom settings
- The stage at which the product is in: implementation or UAT (typically when these are being carried out by partners), production, etc.
- How critical the system is for the business.
Its critical that customer support staff appreciate the impact of time-to-resolution on their customers.
6.3 Leveraging the Organization’s Tools
This seems like an obvious statement but there is no customer support without a proper ticketing system.
Ticketing systems are essential for tracking issues, monitoring performance, and providing the necessary tools to ensure smooth operations.
Some features of the ticketing system might work out-of-the-box, others might require some tweaking. A typical place to start with is the process flow. Its important that this area is quite comprehensive, has not caveats, and ensures quality of resolutions. An example of a workflow can be as follows:
- Ticket has been open by the customer or support staff
- Triage and analysis occur at this stage. The support staff (can be team lead at this stage) checks its urgency, sets its priority, and validates the information provided.
- The next step is to either go back to the customer for more info if required, or assign the ticket to a technical staff for investigation.
- A ticket may also be rejected at this stage if it does not fit a set of predetermined criteria.
- In Progress:
- A technical staff is currently investigating the problem.
- A resolution may be available at this stage if its a configuration problem for example or it may require a code change. The support staff may send it back to the developers.
- IMPORTANT: Keep all internal discussions between support staff and developers hidden from the customer. One reason for doing this is to avoid spamming their inbox with unnecessary notifications from the ticketing systems.
- Apply testing when code changes are made to resolve an issue.
- Regression tests are run on the changes before being delivered
- The customer validates the fix and closes the ticket if satisfied
- The author closes the issue when A) she is satisfied with the fix or B) when the support teams rejects the issue on valid grounds.
6.4 Identifying Sensitive Clients
Not all customers are created equal!
Large customers who have spent top dollars on mission-critical systems would necessarily be your first priority. They are the lifeblood of your organization. They have paid and continue to pay handsome amounts of money for top-notch services and expect nothing short of stellar performance when it comes to support.
Large customers who have invested in your products also present great opportunities for future sales. At the moment, some attention would seem appropriate.
Smaller customers can be quite sensitive when the purchased software is mission-critical for their business.
Customer relationship and trust
A strong relationship built on a long history of trust and dedication can come in handy when you absolutely have no choice but to divert resources somewhere else.
6.5 Mastering Triage and Prioritization
If your team boasts unlimited resources, triage and prioritization would be meaningless. Alas, this will never be the case and efficient processes for time management and triage are essential.
Use the following techniques for efficient time management:
- Use the SLA to determine Urgency and Priority. It’s essential to make the distinction between issues that have a workaround and others that do not
- Keep an eye on the percentage of issues that were unduly promoted to Level 3 (this is where developers and technical staff are engaged)
- Every ticket needs to have an ETA once it has been analysed. If Agile practices are in place, it would be assigned to a release that would be part of a sprint.
Commitment to an ETA
Committing to an ETA on low-priority tickets will prevent them from being shelved and re-shelved while the team attends to the urgent / important ones.
7. Measuring Success
Monitor the following Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) regularly, as these will allow you to determine any bottlenecks or pain points in the process.
- Keep the percentage of tickets unduly escalated to Level 3 at a minimum. This ratio means you can free up your more expensive resources to do the more difficult jobs.
- Are the issues dragging endlessly? Keeping an eye on the time-to-resolution is always a good idea. Fast, efficient feedback to customers is key to success.
- Another useful metric is the number of escalations in a certain time interval. Has it increased/decreased with time?
- The number of public acknowledgments of special efforts your staff gets from their accounts is equally good as a performance indicator.
- Finally, is your backlog under control, or is it spiralling upwards? Is there an explanation for that increase (new project, new client), or is it indicating something is amiss?