Confessions of a Support Center Professional


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This paper explores simple ways that support managers can dramatically improve performance, ranging from the latest technology, support channels, management practices, and more. Based on survey research, industry best practices, and recent advances in support technology, this white paper will help you form a knowledgeable game plan to improve your contact center.

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Confessions of a Support Center Professional

  1. 1. Confessions of a Support Center Professional: 7 Ways Expectations Differ From Reality - A White Paper - Sponsored by:
  2. 2. Confessions of a Support Center Professional: 7 Ways Expectations Differ From RealityIntroductionWhat would customer contact agents tell their managers if they were being totally honest? A lot. With contactcenter turnover estimated at 30-50% or more1, tighter margins, and higher performance pressures than everbefore, your front line has quite a story to tell. This white paper is designed to help you see, as your agents do,where your organization and your industry need to improve.This paper explores simple ways that support managers can dramatically improve performance, ranging fromthe latest technology, support channels, management practices, and more. Based on Supportindustry.comsurvey research, industry best practices, and recent advances in support technology, this white paper will helpyou form a knowledgeable game plan to improve your contact believes that your support agents - the people with the best ground-level view of bothyour customers and the organization - have a lot of valuable things to tell support managers. Here we profileseven common concerns of front line agents, together with recent evidence or survey research behind theseissues. All seven areas bear on productivity, customer satisfaction, or morale and turnover of your customercontact organization. Lets examine how their perspective of your support professionals can boost the success ofyour support team.1) We do what you tell us, even when it drives your customers away.We care about our customers. We always want to do the right thing for them. But if we get rewarded - or worse,punished - for things like how much time we spend on the phone, how little we escalate, or how much weupsell, then by golly, you will get what you want. Even it if means pushing people off the phone with pooranswers, refusing to get experts involved in tough cases, or exaggerating what we are selling. We mean well, buthuman nature is a tough taskmaster.Take many of our performance metrics. If we are graded on first call resolution, we will think twice - no, makethat three times - before we escalate a call, even if a customer asks for this. And even if it would be the bestthing for the customer, or our organizations overall productivity. We do have the very best of intentions, but it isvery hard for us to intentionally make you - our bosses - unhappy with our performance.Metrics are like a genie that, once out of the bottle, are hard to push back in, even if they have a negativeimpact on support performance. Once you start measuring things, it can be difficult to convince your uppermanagement not to measure them - for example, how do you inform a vice president that you no longer wish tomonitor your own productivity? And at a deeper level, how do you keep your support operation from becominglike a "university without grades"?1 Cornell University Global Call Center Project, United States National Country Report, 2005. Page | 2
  3. 3. Consider the example of people like American Express, who base 85% of a customer contact agentsperformance on customer feedback score nowadays2. Early adopters who have shifted away from over-measurement have found that it often boosts performance in the long term. As a reasonable first step, considermanaging people public against "primary" metrics that matter to everyone such as sales, retention, andcustomer sat, and reserve "secondary" metrics such as performance measures for those who vary far from thegroups norms.There is a deeper motivational issue to consider behind your metrics as well. When you measure people againsttoo many criteria, you risk creating an environment where everyone fails at something, rather than simplybringing unique talents to your support operation. Try managing more from your gut instead of your numbers,and see what a difference it might make with your team.2) Dont try to change our attitudes - teach us skills and give us resources.You and your upper management constantly preach to us about customer service. You have "attitude" postersfestooned strategically throughout our customer contact center, and we have periodic meetings designed torally the troops around good service. During events such as Customer Service Week, there are balloons, banners,and slogans reminding us to treat customers better. And to be honest, it doesnt really change the way we doour jobs at all.Here is the problem: we are already nice people. Bringing in motivational speakers to tell us to work harder, benicer, or have a better attitude will not change the way we work. In fact, when you do this, it is about aseffective as parents telling their grown children what to do on a Saturday night.Do you know what will improve things? Teach us specific skills. We are always open to learning how totroubleshoot technical or customer issues more effectively, how to calm down an upset customer, or how towork more productively. Do this and the attitude part will take care of itself.Customer contact operations are a little like customer service on steroids. They involve intensive interpersonalcontact, strong troubleshooting skills, and frequently the ability to deal with high volumes of unhappy people.For example, when a new software release causes problems for lots of customers. Motivating people to be"nicer" will have little effect on their performance, but research below shows that teaching them new skills willimprove customer satisfaction levels. More training is also likely to make for happier and more capableemployees.2 Hagen, Paul, "Nine Ways To Reward Employees To Reinforce Customer-Centric Behaviors," Forrester Research blog, Page | 3
  4. 4. According to results from SupportIndustry.coms 2010 Service and Leadership Trends in Customer Supportsurvey, three training factors correlate strongly with increased customer satisfaction: (1) training supervisors aswell as frontline employees. (2) simulating actual support calls, and (3) measuring performance outcomes. Ofthese factors, there is a measurable jump in usage of the latter two among organizations with customersatisfaction levels over 90%, as shown in the figure below. This means that the recipe for effective supporttraining is often as close as your CRM system, guided by the input of the agents themselves.Training approaches used by survey respondents with customer satisfaction levels over 90% (, 2010 Service and Leadership Trends in Customer Support) Page | 4
  5. 5. Strength-Based Communication: The Science Behind Soft SkillsThe term "positive psychology" has little relation to the concept of "positive thinking." Rather, it is a seriousbranch of behavioral psychology, with an Ivy League research center at the University of Pennsylvania and agrowing base of research literature.Strength-based communication, where you structure dialogues in ways that benefit the person you are talkingwith, are a proven way to create higher customer satisfaction and shorter transactions. Compare these twoexchanges:ExampleNot so good: "Youll have to wait at least three days before we can respond to this issue."Better: "We will do our best to have a response to you within the next 72 hours. In the meantime, we dontmind at all if you check back with us on the status of this issue."Strength-based communication also serves as a basis for how to effectively coach people. For example, thebusiness bestseller Now, Discover Your Strengths, based around survey research from the Gallup organization,puts forth the radical notion that coaching people to uncover and play to their strengths is much moresuccessful that trying to get them to improve their weaknesses3. This approach has become a watershed in areaslike athletic coaching and psychotherapy in recent years. In a support operation, it means that leveraging skillsand professional growth opportunities is a much better way to "turn around" performance versus logging andcorrecting problems.3) You hover over us too much.If parents constantly critiqued how their children performed, would this motivate them or simply make themsullenly go through the motions? According to marriage and family therapists, the answer is often the latter -and the same principle is true with the grown men and women who come to work every morning in a supportcenter. We feel that there is one rarely-used management technique that would dramatically boost ourproductivity and morale: less management. Trust us more, and we honestly believe you would be rewarded bygetting more from us in return.That said, there are times we do need you. When we are struggling with tough customer issues, for example,your backup means the world to us - not only in the context of helping the customer, but in helping us feelcomfortable and supported when we have difficult transactions. And despite the best of intentions, wesometimes need your help when there are interpersonal conflicts within the team: telling us to "go resolve theseissues ourselves" often lets problems fester until they are untenable.3 Buckingham, Marcus and Donald O. Clifton, Now, Discover Your Strengths, New York: Free Press, 2001. Page | 5
  6. 6. According to personality psychologists, nearly 40% of people - and support agents - fall into a free-spiritedpersonality type that is well suited for creative problem-solving, but hates being told what to do4. And yet thetrend in many support operations is toward increased accountability and micromanagement. See where this isheaded? Look for ways to manage to outcomes instead of process, and see if it improves morale andperformance.On the other hand, handling difficult technical and interpersonal situations remains a weak spot in many supportcenters. SupportIndustry.coms 2010 Service and Leadership Trends in Customer Support survey showed thatover a quarter of support managers felt their agents were only "somewhat confident" when faced withchallenging support transactions. Addressing confidence as a skills-building process, with role-playing andrealistic scenarios, can increase the confidence level of your team in any customer situation.Interpersonal conflicts are a different kind of skills-building process, where people need to learn tocommunicate with different personalities, and use strength-based approaches to negotiate issues effectively.Sometimes it also requires a dose of leadership: for example, it is not fair to expect team members to addressissues such as performance or hygiene problems among their co-workers. Getting the balance of autonomy andintervention right can take time, but doing so will result in happier staff and happier customers.4) It gets stuffy here in the silo.We like our jobs, but most of us spend far too much of our time on inbound cases. Meanwhile there are critical,strategic areas of the organization where our ground-level view of customers would be extremely helpful. Ourperspective can inform marketing, development, training, and many other areas, if we only had the time andresource to connect with them. And for us personally, working cross-functionally can go a long way towardreducing burnout.In the opening scene of the 1980s movie Conan the Barbarian, children are led off into slavery and chained to atreadmill. Many years later, a strapping young Conan is still chained to the same treadmill, but breaks free, andacts like, well, a Barbarian5. Your workplace may have pleasant cubicles instead of treadmills, but when peopledo the same job over and over without end, many of them risk turning into Conan the Support Agent.Getting your very best out of agents often involves variety and change. Here are some creative ideas for turningyour support center into a cross-functional team: Let your agents get off the phone to do periodic training, and leverage your trainers for peak period coverage in the support center. Both groups inherently know your product well, and the experience of interfacing with live customers versus support transactions can be beneficial for both groups. In some organizations, this can also provide travel opportunities for your best support agents.4 "Demographics from the Personality Questionnaire,", 2012, Conan the Barbarian (movie), Universal Pictures, 1982. Page | 6
  7. 7.  Involve your agents in the onboarding process for new employees. Some support centers will have their most recent employees turn around and train new employees as a means of consolidating their own knowledge, while others will turn this over to more experienced agents, particularly with complex products or services. When you delegate some of the training responsibility to the team, you make them part of the process of building the teams overall quality. Leverage the skills of your best agents as peer coaches within the organization, in areas such as monitoring transactions and teaching new skills. This can be a win-win situation for everyone: agents are often much more comfortable getting feedback from peers versus "the boss," and peer coaches learn to think like a manager in looking at the skills and talents of the team. Use agents as liaisons with other departments. Letting agents interface with other departments such as development, product marketing or quality assurance allows them to serve as the "voice of the customer" while embedding supportability into your products and services.5) The debate is over about using the latest support technology.We have always done our jobs better with the right tools. You often want to keep new capital expenditures to aminimum. Today, however, current support tools make financial sense as well as supporting our jobs. Listen towhat we need to work more productively, such as screen sharing, web chat, and real-time access to knowledgeresources. Keep yourself educated on bringing affordable new capabilities onto our desktops and devices.The past few years have been a watershed in support technology. Once upon a time, it seemingly involvedmassive budgets and a cast of thousands, but now tools ranging from CRM systems to remote support toolsinvolve inexpensive, scalable component technology that are often embedded cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications.This trend has become a great equalizer in the support profession. A comparison performed forSupportIndustry.coms 2010 Service and Support Metrics Survey showed surprisingly little difference betweensupport channels used by small organizations (less than 500 people) versus large ones (over 10,000 people).Tools such as web chat, electronic case submission, and knowledgebases are found equally in supportoperations of all sizes.The growing role of web chat, rising quickly to be used by over 37% of organizations in SupportIndustry.coms2011 Service and Support Metrics Survey, is a particularly important trend, because it multiplies the number ofsimultaneous live transactions an agent can handle. This, in turn, is fueling a trend toward more rather than lesslive support over time. Page | 7
  8. 8. Utilization of support channels by large (>10,000 employees) versus small (< 500 employees) organizations.Source: 2010 Service and Support Metrics Survey.The issue of using appropriate support technology is particularly pronounced in the area of remote support, withremote control, screen sharing, and remote diagnostics in particular becoming ubiquitous in support operations.According to figures from SupportIndustry.coms 2011 Service and Support Metrics Survey, over two-thirds ofsupport operations offer at least some level of these capabilities, and a majority of these sites report that theyprevent in-person support or site visits a whopping 50% or more of the time. With the advent of inexpensive,scalable products such as Citrix GoToAssist, there is little reason nowadays not to handle support issues live onthe customers own screen where possible. Page | 8
  9. 9. The Death of Telephone Support?Beloit Colleges Mindset Survey (, which catalogues the cultural perspectives ofentering college freshmen, describes the class of 2014 as "a post-email generation for whom the digital world isroutine and technology is just too slow." As this generation enters the workforce in just a few short years, it isbecoming harder to imagine them sitting in front of a personal computer, cradling a telephone receiver as theycall for support. The 2011 Service and Support Metrics Survey by found barely half ofsupport operations now use the telephone for 40% or more of their support transactions.Another 2011 survey showed the growth of mobile devices as a support channel as beingone of the biggest trends in the industry. For example, more than half of support sites either having a mobilesupport strategy or planning to implement one6. With products such as Citrix GoToAssist, pictured below, it isnow easily possible to remotely support from any location from an mobile device. Citrix GoToAssist live remote support on an iPad (Courtesy Citrix).6, The Biggest Paradigm Shift in the History of Customer Support and Service: How Support Behaviorsare Changing for Mobile and Social Media Environments, Page | 9
  10. 10. 6) Want to hire the right people? Ask us.Lots of people can talk a good game of support, or put the right things on their resume. But if you want to reallyknow how well employment candidates solve problems, handle tough customer situations, or workcollaboratively within a team, use our knowledge. More often than not, we can spot a diamond in the rough orkeep you from making a bad hiring mistake.This is particularly true if you make hiring decisions based on credentials on a resume, or focus mainly on howpeople communicate during an interview. Have you heard the saying, "Hire for attitude, train for skills?" Guesswhat: you cannot teach someone to have an aptitude to solve difficult problems. And the candidate who talks agood game of support, and has a great degree, may not be able to solve their way out of a paper bag. Unless youleverage our experience and our "radar" to assess a persons real support skills, you are practically guaranteedto guess wrong with a certain percentage of your new hires.Of course, attitude does matter as well. Some people are natural collaborators, while others have a penchant forcausing drama. We can often spot these differences, no matter how nice someone may act during an interview.Simply and frankly, if you arent making your team part of the hiring and interviewing process, you arecontributing to your turnover problems. Their input and observations about candidates can add valuable data tothe hiring process. More importantly, recruiting efforts help people step away from their support ticketsperiodically and share their expertise, and it helps build group morale to give the team a say in who ultimatelyjoins "the club."7) We arent as change-resistant as you think.We know what your biggest complaint is with us: we often arent on board with change. Whether it is theintroduction of new technology, initiatives to improve productivity, capturing better data for strategic purposes,or other areas, our reactions sometimes range from sullen compliance to open hostility.It would be more accurate to say that we often resist changes that we had no say in creating. Especially whenour insight could have helped you, in areas like new support channels, reducing case volume, or better internalcollaboration. Granted, we probably wouldnt have told you to lay a bunch of us off. But if you consistently gaveus a voice in the larger organization, there is a much better chance you wouldnt have to. And if we have even asmall role in co-creating the future of the team or the organization, we are dramatically more likely to buy into it.One of the more subtle but important benefits of the other improvements suggested above - particularly givingagents more of a voice in the future - is an increased sense of partnership regarding growth and change. It haslong been a truism that people accept change much better if they are part of the decision-making process.Engineering greater agent engagement into your business processes can have a measurable impact on theimplementation of new tools, technologies, and approaches for doing support. Page | 10
  11. 11. An Actionable Game Plan For Effective Support TeamsYour agents have a great deal to tell you about how to create a better support center, in every dimension ofyour operations - from morale and turnover to long-term strategic direction. Lets boil down this view of theworld into an actionable game plan for effective support, and how making your agents part of the process canimprove productivity, control costs, and lead to a much better customer experience. These four steps can helpyou put this feedback into action:Step 1. Accomplish more by doing less. The past decades rapid increase in measurement, monitoring, andsupport processes have increased the visibility of a support manager, at a cost of becoming Big Brother andleading teams of adult employees who feel treated like children. Experiment with reducing the bandwidth ofbeing a support agent, and create an environment where most agents can play to their strengths without fear,and watch what happens to your performance, morale, and support culture.Step 2. Become a learning organization. Research is increasingly showing that "over-trainers" get betterresults in customer satisfaction, while building the professionalism of your organization. Seek ways to build skillsand incorporate more training, coaching and learning into the rhythm of your support operationsStep 3. Invest in the right tools. Enabling technologies increase productivity and job satisfaction. Many ofthese tools have become less expensive and more scalable than ever before, particularly with the growth ofcloud and SaaS applications. More important, the growing adoption of these tools means that not implementingmany of them risks putting your customer contact operation at a competitive disadvantage.Step 4. Leverage the voice of your agents. Over a generation ago, the management classic In Search ofExcellence preached the value of being close to people on the front line, maintaining that no one knew how todo a job better than the people doing it. Beyond getting valuable intelligence from your agents, there is an evenmore subtle benefit to giving them a voice: it creates a culture of ownership that, in turn, can have a positiveimpact on morale, turnover, productivity, and overall customer satisfaction.Beyond these specific issues, consider organized ways to capture to voice of your agents in your regular streamof business. For example, have regular meetings designed to expose agents to the larger strategic issues, orbuild their input into future decisions. By leveraging this voice - which is, in turn, the voice of your customer -you can truly become a customer-centric support operation that succeeds even better. Page | 11
  12. 12. About the White Paper Sponsors:About provides senior-level service and support professionals with direct access to informationon customer support, including enterprise strategies, people issues, technology, trends and research. This dataenables support professionals to benchmark and improve their customer support operation. Members areresponsible for the help desk and customer support operation of their company. More information can be foundat CitrixCitrix is transforming how people, businesses and IT work and collaborate in the cloud era. Its portfolio of GoTocloud services enable people to work from anywhere with anyone by providing simple-to-use cloud-basedcollaboration, remote access and IT support solutions for every type of business. Learn more at www.citrix.comand GoToAssist remote support and monitoring tools empower IT professionals and support teams to providetechnical assistance and easily manage everything IT from anywhere. Learn more at by Rich Gallagher, contributing editor, Page | 12