04016 The Sport of Support

Of the many activities at a software company, customer support or customer care is one of the toughest to provide. Sometimes I think that to avoid burnout, you need to approach the whole business the way an athlete deals with a sport. Realize that it’s a team effort, and that you will win some and lose some. In fact, you may lose by falling flat on your face some days. But a losing game is just one part of a longer season, and the support of teammates helps you pull through.

This doesn’t sound like the kind of function towards which people gravitate, does it? So it is with most Product Managers. They understand the necessity of customer support, but breathe a big sigh of relief that they’re not the ones who have to provide it.

Yet when a Product Manager participates in customer support, right on the hotline with struggling users, it can bring tremendous value to the product. Manning the support lines is an intense way of living the customer experience, with no watering down of the struggle, time expended, and confusion that comes with working with a software product.

Read below for some guidance on how you can enrich your understanding of the customer experience by actively participating in the customer care effort at your company, and as a result develop great requirements for new product capabilities.

With the tips provided below, you can have the confidence to go outside your comfort zone into the customer service trenches (a war zone if there ever was one).


Know the People You Are Dealing With

Before you man the phones or answer emails, make sure you understand the type or types of users who are using the product and will be calling in. As Product Manager you may have been involved in pre-sales discussions with the executive team deciding to buy and implement the product. But it may very well be that none of the people on that team are active users. Active users may be one, two, or three levels down from the buyers you know.

The key is to understand the job duties and priorities of those users.

It’s also likely that different types of users may be working with the product. You may have non-technical end users who call, or who have reported a problem to their own support person. There may also be internal IT resources that call, highly technical, in charge of system administration and troubleshooting. Each of these groups has a different focus and set of priorities.

It will be important to speak to the concerns of the callers, at the level of detail they need to get their work done.

Feel Their Pain and You Will Gain

If you can’t be out in the field, sitting right next to a customer, building up your exposure to the customer experience, the next best thing is to be on the other end of the support hotline when a user calls with a problem.

More than any second-hand account from a trainer or consultant, or even a customer support rep, about a customer’s problem, hearing about a difficulty directly from a customer will bring it home to you. You will gain a much clearer understanding of the problem. You will gain a wider perspective on the extent and significance of the issue as you hear about it from different customers.

This kind of insight is invaluable. It’s like a concentrated version of experience working in your customer’s industry. You get to hear the problems, all the problems, and find out just what kind of impact they’re having.

Your Job Is Not to Solve the Problem …

The very first rule to understand when you’re manning a support hotline is that your job is not to solve the problem, at least not then and there. Believing they must solve the problem while the customer is on the line is what trips up so many customer service reps, and leads to angry customers. A rep who believes he or she must solve the problem tends to become defensive or tries to find an easy way to present the problem as solved. “Well, if you didn’t try to use that feature, you wouldn’t have the problem.” Or again, “That’s not how the report feature is supposed to work, so of course you can’t get it to do what you’re trying to make it do!”

Trying to solve the problem often leads to very unhelpful responses on your part. Of course, if the answer is cut and dried and you can actually solve it, all of it, when the customer calls, you just scored a big win. But usually you will need to restrict your ambition to thoroughly understanding and recording the problem or problems, and perhaps solving some, but not all, of the issues right away.

… It’s to Care About the Problem and Respond

In fact, your job on the customer hotline is to care about the problem and respond to the customer. Listen and talk with the caller until you understand. Understand the impact of the problem until you sympathize, or better yet, empathize, with them. Make sure that the customer sees that you understand the importance of the issue.

Then tell the customer what you are going to do and when you will get back to them. More than anything, the customer needs to know that you are working on an answer, and needs to hear status reports by the deadline you gave them for news.

With the customer a little calmer and reassured, break the problem into pieces, solve it one piece at a time, and communicate the resolution to the customer as you fix each piece.

Win some, lose some. Some days the customer will not get any calmer or less upset, and you can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face before they thank you. But generally, if the customer feels respected and understood, they are ready to wait a reasonable period of time to get the answer to their problem.

Pass The Baton – Every Time

If, as a Product Manager, you spend some time working active customer support issues, it is absolutely critical that you do not let the ball drop when you step off the hotline to go back to your regular work. All open issues must be handed off to a customer service rep, with complete communication of the issue, and ideally communication of the handoff to the customer.

If you don’t do this, you have just contributed to a guaranteed increase in customer dissatisfaction with you and with your company. Mostly it will be your company that gets blamed.

Analyze Call Statistics

The other side of understanding customer support issues is stepping back to look at trends and categories of issues.

Whatever system is in place to handle support calls (hopefully an automated one with the ability to generate reports, but that’s not a given), look at different issues and categories of issues. Compare them relative to the number of calls, length of calls, and cost to resolve.

The results of this analysis provides priorities for requirements aimed at improving or fixing customer care issues. There will be certain issues that predominate. If you fix issues that occur most often, you can cut down on the support workload. If you fix issues that demand the most resolution time, you also cut the workload. Both of these improve productivity and therefore profitability.

If you focus on issues that are the costliest to resolve (not just in time but other resources such as materials or shipping costs), you can develop a list of requirements that will improve product profitability.

Practical Needs Versus Strategic Direction

Be aware that the level at which you are dealing with product issues on a support hotline is a much more day-to-day, practical versus strategic level. This bears pointing out, because one of the biggest dangers for a product is to be entirely successful at improving the many mundane tasks that bother end users, while failing utterly to expand into new strategic directions that are essential in the eyes of the marketplace and the managers who make the decision to buy the software.

When prioritizing requirements, you don’t want to ignore mundane and practical improvements for the majority of end users, but you need to balance these against new capabilities that broaden or advance the overall product vision.

Cutting Support Costs Boosts Profitability

If you can implement requirements that cut support time and other support costs, you are improving the profitability of the product.

The cost of customer support usually has an important spillover effect, where a leanly staffed department of customer service reps has to rely on specialized help from other departments such as installation, implementation consulting, engineering or custom programming. While it’s easy to measure customer support rep time, the cost of resources from outside the department may ultimately be the greater cost.

It’s this hard-to-measure spillover effect that makes it so hard for customer service managers to get across to others the actual cost, usually higher than anybody realizes, of product problems.

A Self-Sustaining Product

Armed with a familiarity with customer support issues, you as Product Manager can devise a continuing stream of requirements, some involving minimal development effort, that make for a more self-sustaining product. And the more your product can sustain itself, the more licenses you can sell without having to staff up your customer support area accordingly. Combined with the reduced spillover effect of support demands on other departments, your profitability increases.

The idea of a more self-sustaining product also hits home with today’s trend of wanting to buy products requiring an absolute minimum of IT support on the part of the customer. A reputation for minimal support will net you significantly more sales.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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