Training Support Staff

Support staff who can't help your customers can't help you. They cost money. They take up valuable square footage. They annoy customers with limp or plainly wrong answers. At the same time, you can't expect these people to know every detail of something you've been keeping secret. You have to find a routine way of training them.

I was called in to run the operations side of a Web hosting firm a few years back. The powers that be wouldn't let me train their support staff. The guys came in at nine, picked up the phone, drank coffee and ate lunch at their desks, and left when it was time to go home. They did their best by the seat of their pants, but calls took distinctly longer than they should and turnover among the support team was high.

With a new product, you have to find the best way by trial and error. By the time your product is established, you should have an embryonic training course in place. The training syllabus should include the following:

♦ An understanding of how and why customers will use the program.

♦ Some software houses have all applicants sit in on the support room assimilating what is going on so they get an idea of the issues that concern customers before they join the company.

♦ A thorough acquaintance with the program.

♦ Be familiar with the FAQs, answers, and reasons. If you sit beside a programmer answering users' questions in an alpha test, you will soon realize that the bulk of user questions boil down to a limited set of answers. It's the old 80/20 rule. Keep a record of these. Work your way towards the clearest most satisfying answer for each. Rank questions in order of frequency.

♦ Be able to explain other forms of support to customers and teach them how to use those alternatives. Make sure that classic answers to FAQs are repeated in the program manual, in the Help program, and on the Web site so users can help themselves.

♦ New staff members should take dummy runs with other staff members before they are let loose on customers.

♦ Administer an examination of their knowledge and skills before they take the help seat.

One technique used to shorten the learning process for support staff is to recruit respondents who shine in their newsgroup replies. Give priority to those who clearly know the product well, live locally, and want a job.

How to Deal with Mr. and Mrs. Angry

Every so often you will come across a client from hell who will decide to pick on you. No matter how Teflon coated your product is, they will accuse you of all the failings of other programs, of wasting their time, and unless you sort it out in two shakes of a gnat's whisker they will telephone the boss personally and get you fired then and there.

You will know from the tone of the voice when you have this kind of person on the other end of the line. It's their frustration they are giving vent to, not yours. Do what you would do with any customer. Introduce yourself, and be polite and reasonable. Get them to explain the problem from the start. This will take them time, exhaust them a little, and give you a chance to gather as many facts as you can. Make it clear that you want to get their problem solved. Get it right and these customers will become your staunchest ally. People like this don't just pick on you; they pick on everyone. So if they go around saying that yours is the only software manufacturer with decent support, others will listen.

Unacceptable Language or Behavior

If a customer is rude to you or your staff consider the following approach:

1. Don't take it personally.

2. Ask the customer to stop.

3. If they persist, explain that you are going to cut the support call off and ask them to call back in 30 minutes when they've had time to calm down.

4. If you think the nature and severity of the outburst warrants another voice at your end, ask them to call your supervisor.

5. Log what has happened. Inform your supervisor.

6. Take a short break. Such incidents can be emotionally draining.

7. Get back to work.

Similarly, if an abusive message appears on your newsgroup, withdraw it immediately. Most times, users will flame it down. However, it is your newsgroup; you are the moderator. You must take decisive action. Unmoderated newsgroups are potential anarchy.

Escalating Problems

Some problems can't be resolved by support staff immediately. The problem may be a new one. The staff may not know the answer. If you find yourself in this situation, take the following action:

1. Go over the problem with the caller to make sure you have grasped it correctly.

2. If you can't solve their problem, be honest and tell them.

3. Explain that you know the person who can and you will go and see them and call them back.

4. If you can, give your caller some idea of how long this might take.

5. Make sure you have the customer's name, work designation, and contact details.

Never invent an answer in this situation. If you think you are correct, you may say, "I think I know what the answer is, but I am going to make sure for you." Go and discuss the problem with your colleagues. One of them may have already been through the same hoop. At all stages be clear, coherent, and honest. Go back to the customer on or before the agreed time, even if you haven't got the answer.

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