Don’t outsource your mouth, ears and brain

Helpdesk by Scott Feldstein

A call to the support desk

I recently bought an extra service from a service provider who shall remain nameless. I logged into their online account management system, selected the options I wanted, clicked CONFIRM and was promised same-day activation of the options. I got an email confirming that everything I requested had been done. It should work now, but it didn’t.

By the end of the day, the features still didn’t work. The next day, still nothing. Checked the online system: the options were listed as ‘Enabled’, but still they didn’t work.

I called the company’s toll-free support desk. After navigating through three levels of menus of the automated call system, I got through to a human being. I explained the problem. The support technician asked a few questions and had a look in the affected system. The problem was clear: “Despite the fact that their system says the feature is enabled, they haven’t actually enabled it. I’ll send a request so that they enable the option. That usually only takes a few minutes, maximum one hour.

A short while later everything worked as it should. And everybody lived happily ever after. Except…

There’s something wrong here…

The call to the support desk had been fast and efficient. The problem was solved. Why did I feel I had missed something?

I took a while to find the cause of my uneasy feeling: the support technician used the word “they”.

I thought I was calling the service provider. It turns out I was calling an independent support desk who weren’t a part of the company (or who felt that they weren’t part of the company). For them, the work was done the moment the call ended. If the support desk has decent incentives in place, this technician got rewarded for efficiently solving a customer problem.

As a customer (and if I were a manager at the company) I would like to see this call as the start of the work.

Why did I make this call? Because the online account management system says it enables features, but doesn’t actually enable them. Why? I don’t know, but I’d like to know. Does it do this consistently? If yes, that’s going to lead to a lot of support calls. The statement “…that usually only takes a few minutes…” indicates that I wasn’t the first customer to call with this type of problem.

Actually, the online account management system does do something right: if you enable the feature, you will get billed for it. Billing for a service you don’t deliver makes customers unhappy. How often does this happen? How many complaints do we get about that? How many customers have we lost because of that?

I doubt any of those questions get asked. The phone’s ringing again. Here comes another complaining customer. No time to waste, we have to hit the the helpdesk KPI targets!

Wasted brainpower

Companies spend a lot of money on salespeople, because they are the “face” of the company and they bring in the money. Support personnel is as much the face of the company and they have to represent the company when the going gets tough: when the customer has a problem or is unhappy. That’s when you get to see the “real” company. That’s when the company gets great information about unclear features, about what customers really need and about problems with their processes.

Support people are the mouth and ears of your company. They should be trained and rewarded accordingly. They can be the brains of your company, but only if you give them the time and means to find the root causes of problems. And then only if you have the courage  to tackle those root causes.  But helpdesks are seen as a cost center: “we want to get rid of that complaining customer as fast as possible, for the lowest possible cost.”

Well, providing poor support is a good way to get rid of customers. That certainly lowers the cost of the helpdesk. But then you have to pay more for salespeople, to attract new customers.

You wouldn’t outsource your ears, mouth or brains, would you? Why would you outsource support?

What can you do today?

  • Make sure you thank everybody who brings bad news. Thank you for calling in with your complaint! Thank you for finding this bug in my code!
  • Perform root cause analysis on each and every bug report, customer complaint or support incident. Implement Poka-Yoke in your development team or implement ITIL Problem Management in your operations team. I know you think you don’t have enough resources to do this for every case, I’m a bit extreme in these things. The goal is to eliminate the need for a helpdesk and to make all our customers into salespeople by providing an insanely great service or product.
  • Involve support people in root cause analysis and finding solutions, not workarounds! They know the product inside out, they know the customer and are born/trained problem solvers.
  • Let support personnel create high priority, high value requirements for the product because they know what it takes to retain, satisfy and delight customers.
  • Involve the support team in defining the product/service from the start to create supportable products.
  • Provide time, training, tools and techniques to perform root cause analysis for everybody in the company.
  • Reward appropriately. Reward for customer satisfaction, customer retention, problems avoided, quality increased.

What have I learned today? Be wary of that company and their online tools. They seem more interested in billing me than in providing a service. And I doubt it will get better, because they don’t seem to learn.

Photo by scottfeldstein