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Management Tips From the Experts

Make sure support reps can attend company meetings: "Often, service staff are the only people in the company who do not have an opportunity to attend company-wide meetings. This perpetuates a second class citizen status for the support operations," says Brian Bartel, vice president of Service Management International, a technical support consulting firm.

"Many managers recognize that their staff will feel cheated if they are not allowed to attend company functions. In some companies, managers shut down the phones for company meetings so support employees can attend." But that's a bad solution: "In one case, the phone lines were shut down for over two hours during the peak customer calling period. This action sends an inappropriate message regarding the value of customer satisfaction."

There are several better solutions, he says. "First, ask your team for volunteers to staff the phones during the meeting," says Bartel. "If there are not enough volunteers, you'll need to schedule the appropriate staff. When setting up the schedule, at least one person staffing the phones should be a manager."

For people who can't attend meetings, Bartel says, it's a good idea to tape the proceedings. In addition, a senior manager should get together with the reps who missed the meeting and review key issues (followed by an e-mail summary of those points.) "And make certain that any trinkets handed out during the meeting are distributed to the people staffing the phones."

[Brian Bartel, vice president, Service Management International, 86 Railway Ave., Campbell, CA 95008; 408/378-4075. E-mail: smibpb@aol.com.]

Score job applicants on their technical know-how: "Create and define a standard list of technical questions to ask each candidate during the recruiting process," suggests technical support manager Allison Babb of Mathworks. "Each technical question should equal one point so that you can get a total score in each technical area. By using this method," says Babb, "you ensure that all candidates are being assessed using the same criteria. At the end of each interview, have each interviewer complete a candidate assessment sheet." It should include the "candidate's score for each technical area discussed and the interviewer's own rating on issues like assertiveness, work ethic, problem solving, and other aspects that are important to the job. The final assessment sheet makes it very easy to compare candidates in deciding which one to hire."

[Allison Babb, technical support manager, Mathworks, 24 Prime Pkwy., Natick, MA 01760; 508/647-7302. E-mail: ababb@mathworks.com.]

Focus on process and product quality, not just call statistics: David Sawicki of Pro CD points out that "call center technology allows a manager to measure practically every aspect of an agent's performance. They can tell you, to three or four decimal places, an agent's average call length, number of calls handled per hour, average wrap-up time, and resolution rate. How well your agents perform in these areas will have a direct impact on the traditional measures of service quality. From the customer's perspective, average wait time impacts the perception of service quality most," Sawicki says.

"So why are customers being subjected to hold times of 10-15 minutes when they call for support on their shrink-wrap software? Is the technical support staff taking too long to answer questions? Are they spending too much time off the phones with follow-up work? Or, are you simply understaffed? Run the numbers from your ACD," Sawicki suggests, "and you'll only find part of the answer. While it's tempting to focus on improving those factors that we can easily measure, it's imperative for the technical support group to be empowered to influence the ultimate cause of long hold times and poor product quality."

Most importantly, he adds, technical support agents should be valued as "internal product design consultants. Their feedback on product changes, enhancements, and customer suggestions should be actively collected and acted upon on a continual basis."

[David Sawicki, customer support manager, Pro CD, 222 Rosewood Dr., Danvers, MA 01923; 800/992-3766. E-mail: dsawicki@procd.com. ]

Warn job candidates about the negative side of support work: David Silversmith of Capital HLC.internet recommends that managers should give copies of help desk horror story articles with other handouts to prospective employees. "We include articles telling about the stress of the job and silly user questions. We've had several candidates read all the material and then opt to leave before the interview. From our perspective, this just means that we have more time to interview candidates who really want and can do the job."

[David Silversmith, customer service manager, Capital HLC.internet, 1953 Gallows Rd., Vienna, VA 22182; 703/883-9555. E-mail: dsilver@hlc.net.]

Create your own training manuals: "Much of what we need to train people on is not in any textbooks," says Dave Galloway of Crystal, a software development company. "We periodically sort all our faxes into topics, find out what is most common and use this material for the basis of a training module. The groupings tell us what is most important and the actual questions provide employees with real world exercises." This training procedure is "very low tech and low cost, but quite effective," he adds.

[Dave Galloway, technical support manager, Crystal, 400-1095 W. Pender, Vancouver, BC V6E 2M6; 604/893-6317. E-mail: daveg@crystalinc.com. ]

Use handouts to make employee interviews more productive: "Recruiting for the help desk, especially a large help desk, can be time consuming," warns David Silversmith of Capital HLC.internet. "We've developed handouts that candidates read prior to the interview. When the candidate shows up we have them spend twenty to thirty minutes reviewing this material. We include things such as company history, detailed job descriptions, criteria used in evaluating staff, description of products being supported, and sample questions that the help desk answers. Since you have educated the candidate, you can now ask more detailed questions."

[David Silversmith, customer service manager, Capital HLC.internet, 1953 Gallows Rd., Vienna, VA 22182; 703/883-9555. E-mail: dsilver@hlc.net. ]

Encourage telecommuting for weekend e-mail coverage: "If you do e-mail support and are not open at nights or weekends, allow employees to do e-mails from home," suggests technical support manager Allison Babb of the MathWorks. "Set an appropriate minimum number of e-mails that have to be completed at home. Employees like it because they save commuting time. Customers like it because they get responses on the weekend and at night."

[Allison Babb, technical support manager, Mathworks, 24 Prime Pkwy., Natick, MA 01760; 508/647-7302. E-mail: ababb@mathworks.com. ]

Train everyone as broadly as possible: Dave Lauby of 800 Support points out that investing in broad cross-training of technicians can produce some unexpected cost savings. For example, "rather than three technicians servicing one queue and four technicians servicing the other at lunch time, we now have seven technicians servicing them both, which results in much better scheduling efficiency." Moreover, by increasing the sense of competition, "techs in both queues are placed on a new and equal footing. Like the merger of the NFL and the AFL, the highest producers from each queue now have to struggle all over again for dominance in the meritocracy."

[Dave Lauby, project manager, 800 Support, 18277 SW Boones Ferry Rd., Portland, OR 97224; 503/684-2826. E-mail: dlauby@support800.com.]

Encourage creative employee brainstorming: "We challenged our employees to come up with a plan for making our organization the best technical support organization it could possibly be," says Allison Babb. "This yielded fantastic new ideas, most of which got implemented. It helped improve our support organization and provided enhanced services to our customers."

[Allison Babb, technical support manager, Mathworks, 24 Prime Pkwy., Natick, MA 01760; 508/647-7302. E-mail: ababb@mathworks.com. ]