The Path to Revolutionizing Your Technical Support – Part 2: StaffingThursday, June 19th, 2008
By Randy Miller, Director of Services, Journyx
The first part of this series discussed how to introduce positive changes and new methods into your technical support department. This second part will focus on staffing and management, which are often seen as the most critical parts of the operation.
Evaluating Your Staff
Take a look at the staff you have today. They might be doing a decent job, but are they the people who will help you rise from the ashes? If the answer is no, they will need to be replaced by people who will. You probably don’t have to fire them, as support people tend to leave on their own when they are sick of customer complaints. The important thing to do is focus on improving your hiring process and your management style.
How Do You Manage?
Hiring is critical, but it is only part of the puzzle. I’m far from perfect, but my management style has helped me revolutionize the support department at my company, Journyx. Let’s take a look at hiring in context of my complete management style.
- Hiring the Right Person for the Job
Each new hire is a complete package that comes with his/her own set of technical skills, personality quirks and overall attitude. This makes your decision a very important one, especially if you want to retain staff long-term (more on this later). I inherited a staff of four when I took over the technical support team seven years ago. I eventually replaced those four with three whom I chose and hired. Fortunately, I haven’t had to replace any of my three. Here is the criteria that I used to judge my hires.You have a team, and you have individuals on that team. Make a list of the minimum technical skills that your team must contain, and then sort and prioritize that list down to the skills that each individual must possess. Not every person has to have every skill—you have a team for that. Your list will probably include OS, DB, and specific application knowledge, phone presence and problem-solving skills.Next, break down the minimum skill list by position. These qualifications will vary from job to job.Finally, decide which character traits you want all staff members to have. I recommend the following:
- Easy to train
I’m not looking for perfection, although that is nice. I’m looking for someone who has the right skills and personality to handle the challenging demands of technical support. If you don’t have such people on your team, you will never succeed.
- Training the Team
Your technical support team will be dealing with features that don’t get used very often, aren’t tested as well and have more bugs. Such features are hard to train, but that is alright. You don’t have to train everything. After all, there will always be a functionality that the support representative doesn’t understand. Your goal is simply to minimize this as much as possible.In addition, don’t put new people into unfamiliar systems and ask them to demonstrate proficiency right away. This is simply unrealistic. If you hire a person who has no experience on Linux, train them on it before you ask them to troubleshoot Linux problems.Finally, don’t let this be a one-time-only process. Give your people effective ongoing training, especially around new releases of your product.
- Setting Boundaries
Every employee needs to have boundaries. At first, you might think that boundaries are limiting, but this is not the case. People need to know what they can promise on behalf of the company and what they cannot. This frees them from responsibility on tough decisions. I usually explain boundaries like this: “Such a decision requires a context of information that you don’t have. It’s not a matter of trust. You don’t have time to know everything and you shouldn’t have to be responsible for everything. I’ll take the responsibility for making the hard calls.”
- Helping the Team
Even more so than other types of workers I have managed, technical support people will need help and advice. As their manager, you have to make it clear that your door is open to them. They have to have your cell phone number and not be afraid to use it. If you are going to be unavailable for a period of time, let them know when you will be back and who will be leading in the interim.When your people call, you have to stop and help them, but that doesn’t mean you should wait for them to call. Be proactive in seeing how they are doing and asking if they need anything.
- Reviewing Performance
Performance reviews are essential in motivating employees and letting them know how they are doing. When they do something well, praise them in public. When they make a mistake, correct them in private. Also, you should give regular performance reviews and keep up with each person’s individual goals throughout the year.Team meetings are also necessary in order to keep everyone on the same page. The team needs to know how it is doing as a group—sometimes it will not add up to the sum of its parts. For example, each person might be burning through cases twice as fast as they normally do, but if the incoming case load has tripled, the team has a problem. You have to keep an eye on that and address it in a timely fashion.I approach such situations without identifying problems or assigning blame. I generally tell my team, “I’m not sure that this is the right process, or that we’re following it like we should be. I’d like to talk about the process and get some suggestions on how we might tweak and improve it.” In my experience, hundreds of improvements have come about by letting the whole team participate in these conversations.
- Letting Go
If you have done everything else in the plan, then it is time to step back and trust your people to do their jobs. At first, it will be emotionally difficult. (I think that most managers just want to micro-manage.) It is, however, essential. They need the self-confidence that comes from being trusted. Let it go. Get a hobby. Find something else to do with your time.
The management style that I have described above will go a long way towards setting a good morale. In addition to that, find some little things to do to boost morale—buy them lunch, spread the word about their successes, etc. I’ve finally figured out that I don’t need a reason to do this. The staff on the front lines of the complaint department will get enough reasons to lose morale. If you wait until you know that morale is low, then it is too late.
Staff retention is much more important in a good technical support team than anywhere else. The reason for this is that so much of technical support involves fringe features and low-level problems that can never be fully documented and trained. Good technical support people can say to themselves, “Hey, this problem looks similar to one I ran into 3 years ago.” You can’t train a new person to have this kind of expertise.
If there is one magic bullet in my whole staffing plan, it is retention. I would much rather pay my current people more than have to deal with hiring and training someone new, with its associated overhead costs and ramp-up time. Your best bet is to find quality staff members and then keep them happy.
About the Author:
Randy Miller has 11 years of customer-focused experience in sales and services delivery. Prior to joining Journyx in 1999 as the first Timesheet-specific sales rep, Randy spent five years in the Corporate Sales and Retail Management divisions of leading electronics retailer CompUSA. Since then Randy has held many different positions at Journyx, including: Sales Engineer, Trainer, Consultant, Product Manager, Support Team Manager, and Implementation Manager for Enterprise Accounts. Randy has personally managed development and implementation efforts for many of the company’s largest customers and is a co-holder of several Journyx patents. Randy was named Director of Services in 2005. Randy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.