If you are like me, you spend too much time trying to fix the problem in a vain attempt to avoid making a call for technical support. Why is this? Because the technical support experience is most often both frustrating and time consuming. I won’t mention, or maybe I will, that the chance of a satisfactory outcome is vanishingly small.
And the sorry state of technical support is a serious problem because products and services increasingly depend upon technology as a critical component in their ability to deliver the value that is promised to their customers. All too often the technology is fragile and fails in difficult-to-diagnose ways. Consequently, the issue is not going to go away, it is going to get worse, much worse.
So why is it that companies cannot seem to support the technology underlying the products that they sell:
- Generally, the technical support function intimidates/bores company managers who are more likely to have come up through the sales or product development organizations than technology. More specifically many top managers do not understand technical support which includes two dimensions: 1) technology and 2) support. Neither of these disciplines are part of their core competencies. So, it does not get the attention, funding or talent it needs to be successful;
- Because they do not understand it, company management generally do not see technical support as being a critical component to a robust, complete and well-defined customer service offering;
- Technical support is not sexy. This is another reason that top management does not give it the attention it deserves. And, or should I say as a result, ambitious employees do not see it as the most direct route for advancement within a company. That said, not being “sexy” does not mean that it is not vitally important;
- The pool of technically competent candidates is small and the players that have the skills necessary to be successful generally take engineering jobs which are perceived as more prestigious—see previous point;
- Good technical support staff need to be both technically competent and good communicators. For whatever reason these two skills often do not seem to be found in the same person. So, the good communicators don’t know what they are doing, and the technically competent individuals cannot interact with the client in the most productive way;
- Products, specifically their software modules, are not as robust as they should be. Quality assurance for the software components is not nearly what it is for manufactured components of the product. This is the reason that they fail and thereby generate demand for technical support; and
- Finally, I want to emphasize that technical support can not be optimized unless the solution includes training for support staff, an established process for the delivery of technical support and technology to support delivery. And that just is not being done. Sometimes a company will get one (or part of one) of these items right, but I have never seen a company nailing all of them. That said, even getting one of them right has a tremendously positive impact.
Does your company have a technical support issue? There are several questions you need to answer:
- How integral is technology to the success of your product or service? If you are a computer (hardware or software) company, it surely is. If you sell furniture, it likely is not;
- Are your products well-designed, i.e. is it obvious: 1) how to use them; 2) what is wrong when they are not working; and 3) how to get them operational after a failure. Poorly designed products need more technical support;
- Do your customers make a lot of calls to your technical support line and if they do, what is the NPS for that service? A “yes” answer to this question is likely driven by the answers to the first two questions, but also speaks to how well your technical support organization handles the failures implied by a positive response to the first question and a negative one to the second.
Further to the second bullet point directly above, a quality product does not fail and when it does, it is obvious what is necessary to affect a recovery. So well-designed products mitigate a lot of the need for technical support. That said, even the best designed products are going to need support and even the best designed products have complexities that need to be sorted by qualified resources. As a side note, it is not a bad investment to have your product development team members (all of them) spend time taking calls for customers, it will give them a real feel for how their efforts affect your customers and will make them better (more empathetic) product development players.
Big Ass Fans and eero are examples of products that depend on technology, are extremely well-designed products that work well, are designed to be easily deployed, and are easy to remediate when things go wrong. They also have exceptionally high performing technical support organizations, so when something does go wrong and it does, they are capable of quickly getting things back on track.
These companies have somehow figured out how to build quality software (which means fewer calls) and deploy knowledgeable staff, which fixes two of the issues I see in the provision of technical support. And, their success in these two areas results in good outcomes for their customers.
There is a business opportunity here and I am surprised companies like Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are not all over it. First, they all have internal need for tools that can support the provision of technical support for products that they sell to their clients. Second, once the technical frameworks for are developed, they could be deployed as a cloud service to companies that are looking to build their own technical support capabilities.
I believe that technology will be a key component in improving this situation. It will solve two problems. It will make it easier for companies to provision expertise and it will allow companies who use it to better leverage the scarce staff that is available. And I believe that AI should be the technology of choice. AI is extremely good at detecting patterns which is exactly the skill that is needed in doing diagnostics—the second step in resolving an issue. There are numerous examples of systems that have been trained to identify/diagnose/predict problems in mechanical devices (e.g., jet engines) and the human body (certain types of cancer). I can imagine AI software designed to explore and diagnose failed systems and recommend solutions or even implement fixes. This would require building and implementing processes to capture training data. This is no small task but given shortages of technical resources that are likely to be persistent, the return on investment could be substantial.
I can also imagine an implementation plan that is incremental. This would speed the delivery of features that provide the biggest marginal return and allow for the development of a sound (tested) foundation before more difficult and risky components are tackled.
A company like IBM has the capability to both develop the tools and provide consulting services to develop technical support processes and assist in the deployment of the complete and well-defined solution. Companies like Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon are certainly capable of developing the technology and providing a cloud-based deployment of that component of the solution. They could use third party consultancies to configure the software to each of their client’s needs, develop processes and deploy the solution.
Further, the market is big and growing. Everyone from home appliance suppliers to car manufacturers are incorporating technologies that are both integral to their products and complex in their implementation and operation.
So, why isn’t progress being made on this front? A couple of reasons:
- It is a hard problem to solve.
- It is a multifaceted issue (see list above) that requires a systematic approach by a multi-disciplinary team—I said it is a hard problem!
- It will take considerable resources to bring a solution to market.
- It is a risky venture. There is no guarantee of success.
The upside is that I do not believe that it will be easily replicated. So, a business provisioning technical support infrastructure and consulting assistance, should have a sustainable competitive advantage.
In the meantime, there are several things that you can do to improve your technical support capabilities:
- Develop a plan to improve your technical support capabilities. Focus on figuring out how to improve the quality of your technical support staff (it is possible) and make sure that you adopt a service level commitment that is appropriate to the reputation you want your company to have;
- Put the proper management in place. That would be management who is capable of formulating and implementing the plan;
- Focus on process, training and staff; and
- Never forget to have enough resource to support your customer base. Do not be fooled: A bad customer service experience has costly consequences. They may not be immediate, but it will cost you.
Finally, and this should have come first, place an emphasis on quality. Because quality code is a lot less likely to require technical support and when it does, a well-designed product will be easier to diagnose and fix!
Copyright 2022 Howard Niden
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