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The New and Improved Technical Support: Part 2
December 22, 2008 12:00 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: The first article of this series is titled, "The New and Improved Technical Support: Part 1"

By Randy Miller
Randy Miller
Director of Services
Journyx

Hiring processes and management styles are the key in improving technical support.  The people you employ and the way you choose to manage them will ultimately point you towards either success or failure.  Here are some tips to consider when you are about to begin the process.

Transitions
Your current staff might be doing a decent job, but they aren't going to help you rise from the ashes.  Don't fire them-firing people is messy and unpleasant.  Fortunately, this problem will probably resolve itself for you.  Simply rely on the existing turnover rate, and then hire better the next time around. 

Management: Start to Finish
Hiring is critical, but it is only part of the process, so it is important to have a holistic view of how you will deal with potential staff from the moment they interview up until they are working for you.  I'm far from perfect, but here is my general management plan: 

1. Hire the Right People
Each person you hire brings with them their technical skills, personality quirks, emotional stability and overall attitude, so the choice you make is not a small one.  Make a list of the technical skills that your team must contain, and then sort and prioritize it down to the skills that each individual must possess.  Not every person has to have every skill-that's why you have a team.  Core skills will include:

  • OS, DB, and specific application knowledge
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Problem-solving skills
Next, break down the skill list by job so you know what each particular person needs to have.  This is the only part of your new staff qualifications that varies from job to job. 

The remainder of the qualifications are based on character traits and apply equally to all staff members:

•    Trainability - The people you hire will not arrive knowing everything they need to know-you will have to train them.  Some people learn faster than others, and thankfully, this is something you can test for in an interview.  Find a few puzzles that build upon each other in complexity.  Show the candidate the first two and then ask him/her to solve the third.  Can they digest the information you have given them and apply it?  If not, you probably have the wrong candidate.

•    Responsibility - A person who is responsible in his/her personal life will likely be responsible at work.  Strong connections to family, for example, demonstrate an undercurrent of responsibility.  You can also ask for a story of a time when a mistake your candidate made hurt someone else.  Probe for his/her feelings about that event.  Someone who doesn't have a strong emotional reaction to telling one of those stories is a candidate to be avoided.  Someone who has regrets, but has taken no action to rectify a situation, should also be avoided.

•    Empathy - I usually ask references, "Would you describe _____ as an empathetic person?"  You can also ask candidates to take a Meyers-Briggs personality test.  ‘F' personality types tend to be more empathetic than others.  I didn't give my employees personality tests until after they were hired, but they all turned out to be F's.  (I'm an INTJ and I overanalyze everything.)

•    Curiosity - Technical support is essentially a long series of rational problems to be solved, so someone who is naturally curious will do better than someone who is not.  One of the ways to measure a person's curiosity is to see if they have active hobbies.  One of my people was taking a welding class when I interviewed him.  I asked him why, and he said, "I have some projects I want to do that require welding and I was curious about how it worked."  I have never been disappointed with his internal drive to figure out technical problems.

•    Logic - A logical person will approach any complex system with the assumption that somehow it all makes sense and he/she can figure it out.  I test for logic during interviews using some logic puzzles I found online.  I make them multiple-choice, print them up and give them to the candidate. 

2. Hire People You Can Trust
Imagine you are going to take a month-long vacation and the person you are interviewing is a friend of yours who is willing to take care of all of your business.  They would have to get your mail, check on your house, feed your pets and pay your bills while you are gone.  Would you trust this person to do all that?  If not, don't hire them.

3. Train Them Right
Technical support will always be out on the fringes, trudging through features that don't get used very often.  It therefore comes as no surprise that these features aren't tested as well as others and, consequently, have more bugs.  For this reason, it is hard to train new staff members on those fringe features, so do the best you can.  Also keep in mind that you can't train new staff on precisely what they will be investigating.  If you hire a person who has no experience on Linux, for example, don't ask them to troubleshoot Linux problems until after you train them on Linux. 

4. Outline Goals and Boundaries
Make sure everyone understands what their goals and boundaries are, and be sure to recognize them when you praise, correct and review each person.  Goals are simple so long as they are SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Based.  Boundaries, however, are talked about less often.  My father once told me that when he worked in the contracts department of a large company, he knew exactly how much money his signature would cover.  That is a well-set boundary.

I usually explain boundaries to my people like this: "It's not a matter of trust, it's a matter of knowledge and responsibility.  You don't have time to know everything and you shouldn't have to be responsible for everything.  Right up to the boundary, do what is right for the customer and the company.  Talk to me when you are asked to cross a boundary or when you feel like it is the right thing to do."

5. Listen and Help
Imagine the management process as a military supply system.  There are two ways that you can arrange the supply lines: either the soldiers on the front line leave their posts and come back to the supply depot to get the supplies they need (a ‘pull' system) or they call the supply depot to come deliver their supplies (a ‘push' system).  The push system leaves the soldiers on the front lines longer and allows for a slow-and-steady long-term campaign.  As a manager, you can think of yourself as a supplier for your people, enabling them to be as effective as they can be.

Technical support people will always need help and advice, so make sure that they know your door is open and your cell phone is on.  If I am going to be unavailable, I always let my staff know, and I also tell them when I will be back around.  If I am going to be out for very long, I make sure that they know who will be leading in my absence.

6. Review Their Performance
Let your staff members know how they are doing by praising in public and correcting in private.  In fact, my personal rule of thumb is to praise publicly twice for every time I correct.  In addition, you must give regular performance reviews and keep up with each person's individual goals throughout the year.  If you want to keep your people long-term (and you do), you will also need a job growth plan. 

The team must know how it is doing as a group, so hold regular team meetings.  For example, if your staff is burning through cases twice as fast yet the incoming case load has tripled, then the team has a problem.  This is why communication is so important.  At Journyx, we have gained tons of insight by allowing the whole team to participate in conversations about our processes.

7. Get Out of the Way
If you have done everything else in the plan, then it is time to let your staff members do their jobs.  It might be emotionally difficult if you are the kind of manager who likes to micro-manage, but they need the self-confidence that comes from being trusted.  Let it go.  Get a hobby. 

When you do need to intervene, approach it as a supply mission.  Remember that you are the supply ship that must support the troops on the front lines who look like they are losing the battle.  Your attitude should be, "What can I do to help you here?"

Boosting Morale
The management style above will go a long way towards setting a good morale, but in addition, you should find little things to do to boost morale on a regular basis.  I make sure that my technical support team gets lunch more often than any other department in the company.  Not only that, but whenever someone hears a compliment about the support team, I ask them to write it up and send it to the entire company.  These might seem like minor things, but they will really make your team feel valued.

Staff Retention
Retaining good employees is much more important in a technical support team than anywhere else because some problems can never be fully documented and trained.  Good technical support people might think to themselves, "This problem is similar to the one I ran into two years ago."  You can't train a new person to think this way.  I guarantee that other departments in your company will have an easier time training a new employee than you will in technical support, so use standard retention tactics such as raises, bonuses, vacation and plans for promotions to keep the best people on your team.  I would much rather pay more, train more and do more with my current people than have to deal with hiring and training someone new.  The overhead costs and ramp-up time are just too big to overcome if you have poor retention.  That's also why hiring is important-you are going to want to live with the consequences of your selections for a long time.

Check back next week for the third and final part of this series, in which I will discuss how to reorganize your company to take advantage of the new technical support system as well as how to market it to customers.



Randy Miller
Director of Services
Journyx

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 and can be reached at randy@journyx.com.






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