Using Feedback

The positive side of a complaint is that you can learn from it, and if you don't, your competitor will. Support is the most reliable yet most under-used area of user research. Every time someone phones and reports a problem, note what the problem is. Note what you did to help the client and what you did to make sure you don't get any future calls of this nature. Note anything else of any significance.

Each week the support manager should collate the call sheets and summon the team. The entire team should discuss the issues and produce a feedback report that compares the following with the prior week:

♦ The total number of calls

♦ The principal bugs by number

♦ Issues that need to be addressed urgently

♦ The updated wish list

The support manager should also keep a record of generic problems so that when you deal with the next generation of products you don't repeat the same mistakes. This provides a ready-made feature list for your next release. It also provides a record against the corporate memory loss that often accompanies departing personnel.

The product development manager should give the support manager an indication of when these problems will be addressed (if 80 percent of the calls concern a new bug, the priority is to fix it immediately) and report on progress with previous issues.

Always keep your support team in the loop. When they are cut off from the mainstream development, they will feel they are only being used to keep customers quiet. If the result isn't a riot, it's demotivation, and neither of those options is appealing.

Take a Tip from Sage

With more than 3 million users and a turnover in excess of $800 million, Sage is a familiar name to everyone who handles payrolls and accounts in the United Kingdom. In addition, Sage has recently acquired a number of U.S. accountancy software firms. So how over the space of 20 years did four men sitting in a Newcastle pub build a business that now employs over 5,500 people worldwide? Ian Wright, who is the General Manager of Sage's Customer Division (with over 300 support people), says quite simply, "Sage offered firstrate support from the start."

The founders knew that the bulk of their customers would be accountants, and once they bought the program, support would be the only recourse back to the firm. So there was never any possibility of building a business by being anything less than professional.

Sage provides support free for the first 90 days so purchasers and their staff can learn to use the program in every circumstance that occurs in an entire trading quarter. Afterwards, when they need support, they already know that prompt effective help is available.

Sage levies only modest charges for subsequent help. Because of this Sage can't afford to take on support gurus who are fully qualified accountants. They have to be able to train ordinary people. The secret is a long thought out, unhurried induction. Initial interviews, though relaxed, are probing to assess the general competence of candidates and see how they handle others under pressure. Over the years Ian Wright's staff have built up personality profiles that match successful supporters. Selected candidates spend their first week learning about customers and business so they can appreciate the problems of financial accounting and be sympathetic to those who turn to them for help. Only when candidates have a sound understanding of Sage's customers do they learn about Sage's products. When these newcomers are ready, typically after a month, they are gradually eased into Sage's support team. Initially they just sit and listen to how veterans deal with things.

When they are sufficiently knowledgeable and at ease, they are paired up with an experienced buddy to answer customers' calls on a closely supervised basis. The one-to-one bud-dying trials last at least a month. Then the new employees are moved into a working trio, where one experienced member buddies two new ones. After six months under close supervision, each team member is evaluated to make sure that both the firm and the team are satisfied with his or her progress.

Sage views support as their best medium for market research. With 300 staff taking 20,000 calls per day, they literally have the ear of their market. As Ian said, "There is no point in listening to your customers if you don't take any notice."

In addition, always let your testers know that you are aware of their problems and are working on a solution, and never set a date for release until a satisfactory number of issues have been resolved, tested, and found to work robustly.

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