How Collaboration Is Impacting Support Operations…and the Customer Experience

About 10 years ago, a government study was making the rounds that predicted an end to worker productivity improvements due to the retiring workforce, with a shocking claim that it would take 2.3 Generation Y workers to replace one retiring Baby Boomer. The problem with this study, and many others like it, is a ridiculous assumption that the way we work would remain unchanged, and that younger workers would have to perform the identical jobs in the identical way as the retiring workers. While it is true that the dismal economy slowed the expected mass retirement of Baby Boomers, today's companies are hardly grinding to a halt as a result of a younger workforce. In fact, one major difference between the generations--the move from do-it-yourself to collaboration--has huge potential to improve operational efficiency for customer support, ultimately delivering an enhanced customer experience as well.

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (my age group, I admit) were hugely influenced by Depression-era parents and grandparents, and raised to value self-sufficiency above all. We were the ones that spawned the Do It Yourself movement, complete with Home Depot and HGTV. And when it comes to work, we strive to learn everything as quickly as possible, and privately file that information away for future use. Our reluctance to share our hard-earned knowledge has thwarted many a support knowledge management strategy.

Younger workers could not be more different. Why should they bother to learn something everyone else already knows? Doesn't it make more sense to share--not hoard--information, learn who the experts are on any given topic, identify uncharted territory in which to become a subject-matter expert, and then share that expertise for the greater good? Not only does this approach make more sense, but it also requires an attitude of sharing and collaboration at which the egos of some older workers would definitely chafe.

If you would like to see how this changing dynamic is playing itself out in corporate America, look no further than customer support. Nothing illustrates the old approach to learning and mastering content better than a tiered support organization. Novice workers toil away at boring, repetitive tasks in Tier 1, and only after paying their dues are they allowed to move up the ladder to the exalted levels of Tier 2 and 3, taking on more interesting and challenging problems to solve. This outdated incident ownership paradigm is changing, in what my friend Phil Verghis of the Verghis Group calls, "savvy support" or "no more tiers."

In the new paradigm, tech support analysts are empowered, collaborative, expert generalists. They are empowered to identify repetitive problems and work with product management and development to eliminate them from reoccurring. They are collaborative, in that each tech develops his or her own areas of expertise, so Gina is an expert on printer drivers and Kim knows installations scripts backward and forward. They are experts because they are highly trained in all aspects of the product and are able to tackle complex issues previously owned exclusively by Tier 2 and 3. And they are generalists because each expert manages a customer problem from beginning to end, providing a single point of contact. No more having to start from scratch when an issue is escalated to a higher level and a different employee.

For this expert generalist model to work, companies must also embrace self-service and communities for peer support, as well as expand the use of self-healing technology to further eliminate the old Tier 1 issues. There are some early success stories, with companies such as TSIA member Red Hat claiming reduced support costs and improved customer satisfaction after eliminating tiered support. Obviously customers benefit, because instead of having to navigate Tier 1 novice employees, they work with an expert every time, and stay with that employee until resolution.

As much as I believe in this new approach to incident resolution, I also recognize that some industry forces can inject wrinkles into the plan, and we must embrace innovative technology to assist. In particular, I'm thinking about how remote workers and mobility can impact our ability to collaborate.

It is one thing to collaborate when the entire support team is in one office, in adjoining cubicles, and you are able to roam around and tap the expertise of team members while talking to the customer via a wireless headset. But what happens to this model when some or all of the team works remotely? For real collaboration to work, we must have tools available on the desktop and on mobile devices to ask questions of peers, pull coworkers into a conversation, or share the view of a customer's desktop with a supervisor. Collaborative employees demand collaborative technology.

Luckily there are plenty of tools available to help, with remote control vendors such as Axeda, Bomgar, Citrix, LogMeIn, and NTRglobal expanding their suites to better enable employee and customer collaboration on a wider range of devices. Instant messenger (IM) tools allow you to quickly ask a coworker a question while working with a customer, and you can even invite a peer to join your desktop sharing session with the customer. In fact, some platforms even offer supervisor monitoring, so the boss can see what collaboration sessions are in progress, and listen in secretly to a session that's gone on for too long, even announcing herself and taking control of the session if the employee is in over his head.

Longer term, as collaboration becomes the standard rather than the exception, I expect to see developers, product managers, maybe even expert customers, pulled into the problem-solving session with the customer in real time, with the option of Webcam videos to even keep track of who's who and provide that personal touch to the collaboration session.

As with many areas of life, change is hard, but those who embrace change will overcome challenges and thrive. If you are still using a tiered support model, I would recommend doing some pilots--perhaps with your younger support techs--on moving to an expert generalist model. And be sure they are equipped with enough collaboration technology to easily tap into expert peers and share new ideas and approaches. I promise you customers will love the new approach--neither customers nor employees ever want to be stuck in "Tier 1 jail" again.