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Improving the customer’s experience with support The premise, three points of view

This article appears in the issue May 1999 [Volume 8, Issue 5]

Every day tens of thousands of users of technology call for help. We could point to lots of reasons, but fundamentally the usability of technology is not in sync with the needs of its users. The imbalance creates an endless demand for assistance and is a challenge for both the user and the support professionals who are supposed to be able to help. If you have ever called for assistance as a user of technology yourself, you know it is often not a pleasant experience.

The users are frustrated by the technology’s inability to help them do what they want to do and are further frustrated with the unfriendly process of trying to get help. Whether it is searching multiple Web sites or having to negotiate with VRUs (voice response units) through their telephone keypads and then waiting on hold, getting answers is tough.

On the other end of the process is the support engineer who has to deal with repetition, uncertainty and a never-ending stream of frustrated callers. A high percentage of calls are the same issues or questions over and over again. Calls that are not repetitive are likely to involve products with which the support engineer has no experience, causing his or her uncertainty. In the open systems marketplace, it is impossible to identify all the combinations of products that might be involved in the next support call. It is therefore impossible to adequately prepare support engineers with the necessary information and training to handle all the products they might encounter. What we have here is one victim, the customer, calling another, the support engineer, trying to sort things out.

An interested third party in this situation is the support manager who is faced with the challenge of increasing demands from customers and increasing pressure from executive management to curtail the upward spiraling costs of support. Management has a dilemma. What is the reward for being good at handling customer requests for help? More customer requests for help! Customers will seek the path of least resistance and best results. A company bold enough to invest in customer support and provide smooth, painless answers will be inundated with calls. It would seem that if your customers have questions or problems, you would want them to call. As management consultant and author Tom Peters points out, how well you respond to the problems is what builds customer loyalty. Unfortunately with the current support practices, that model is prohibitively expensive. We need a new approach.

KM: basis for new support model

Members of the Customer Support Consortium (www.customersupport.org), who have been working on such issues for the past few years, have developed a vision for a different way to think about and manage customer support. The foundation of that vision is knowledge management.

The consortium, a non-profit alliance of technical support organizations headquartered in Belmont, CA, has developed a methodology for capturing, structuring and reusing support knowledge. It is called Solution-Centered Support (SCS) and consists of a set principles and practices. Implementation of SCS requires an organizational transition from a call-centric model to a knowledge-centric model. It requires the support organization to rethink its culture, business processes and the structure of its content. The benefits of tackling those difficult issues are compelling.

Consortium members who have implemented Solution-Centered Support are reporting dramatic improvements in resolution times, training time, customer satisfaction and support engineer job satisfaction. Members are also reporting substantial savings and positive customer response to providing customer access to well-crafted solutions via the Web. If the support organization is not focused on knowledge capture, structure and reuse, it’s not likely customers will find much value in accessing the support database.

As is often the case, the most difficult things to do are the most worthwhile. There are five dimensions or principles to the SCS model: culture, content, process, quality and technology. The following are examples of some of the concepts behind three of those principles.

The culture shift involves changing the organization’s value proposition for the individual. The rewards and recognition program must change in two ways. First, at the individual level, engineers’ contributions must be based on their ability to solve new problems (not the same ones over and over again). The ability to capture the experience and structure it in a way that is useful to others must be recognized. Second, the culture must encourage a collaborative attitude on the part of many individuals. Managing teams is a critical competency the support organization must acquire to successfully implement SCS. The rewards and recognition programs must strike a delicate balance between the individual and the team so that they encourage and reward the desired behavior at the individual and organizational level.

Content is king in a knowledge-centric environment, and to be useful it must be structured in a predictable way. Solutions in the SCS model have four elements: the situation, the diagnostic process, reference information and the resolution. Most companies today have symptom/fix databases and mistake that for a knowledgebase. The difference between a symptom/fix database and a knowledgebase of solutions lies in the structure of the four elements. Because solutions contain the situation or context as the problem was perceived by the user, they are findable based on the user’s view. The diagnostic element of the solution enables others to follow an analysis process relevant to the situation. The reference information provides access (usually in the form of hyperlinks) to supportive information relevant to the situation, the diagnostic process or the resolution. Finally the resolution might take the form of an answer to a usage question, a work-around, circumvention or fix.

Well-crafted solutions enable just-in-time training. Support engineers with good generic problem-solving skills and access to a knowledgebase of solutions can effectively support products on which they have never been trained. Members report a dramatic increase in the breadth of products the engineers can support. Knowing a solution database is available, the support engineer feels a new sense of confidence about taking the next call.

The workflow or processes must be changed to ensure efficiency in the creation and use of solutions. A natural by-product of solving a customer problem is a well-structured solution. The workflow of a knowledge-centric organization facilitates the capture, structure and reuse activities. Intuitively one would think that support engineers would require more time per call to capture and structure information they do not log today. That is not the case. Consortium members have demonstrated that reusable solutions can be created as a natural by-product of solving a call without any incremental minutes/calls.

Wealth of information

The short-term operational benefits of SCS are substantial. Enabling partners and customers to access the solution knowledgebase via the Web offers great efficiencies. Yet many of the members who have implemented the methodology feel the greatest benefit is yet to come. A wealth of information about customers and products is available as a result of support transactions. Information about how products and customers get along, or don’t, is of great interest to marketing, product management, development and engineering. The opportunity to leverage support knowledge for product improvements and to contribute to the development of intimate customer relationships is the vision consortium members are after. Leveraging the support experience can help bridge the gap between technology users’ needs and the usability of technology.

The product of support is knowledge. It is knowledge based on the customer’s experience with the product. Organizations that learn how to capture and leverage that knowledge through well-structured solutions will be able to contribute to their company’s growth, satisfy more customers, and attract and retain talented knowledge builders. Organizations that fail to capture and leverage knowledge will lack a fundamental competency necessary to develop a competitive advantage through intimate customer relationships.

Also see "Improving the customer’s experience with support: Member results".


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