In praise of technical support
I’ve been doing technical support for the last 13 years and still do it today, I love it. I love it so much that I’ve now got friends all over the world. I used to have a map of the world in my office with pins that located them. I’ve even been invited to the wedding of one of them on the other side of the planet, which I attended with great pleasure. This is invaluable experience and just for that, I’ll continue for the next 13 years in the exact same way.
But in addition to the social aspects that are obviously linked to my personal interest in multiculturalism, technical support is a real opportunity to grow for both developers & business owners. Support connects you to your users and it’s one of the best channel of gratification you may have. The comments and suggestions you receive positively from it help you improve your products, skills or strategy. If you are doing great at support, there is a great chance you are or will be great as an entrepreneur or lead developer.
There are many motivational theories and they are not universal as we are all different. We are all driven by both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation at different levels. A good example of extrinsic motivation is salary or threats (the donkey, the carrot and the stick). You do support because you are asked to do it or only for money (or because potential loss of money), or both. Intrinsic motivation on the other hand is the motivation you get from just doing the task. You are aware of your own performance and you are not specifically seeking for extrinsic motivation. In fact, that kind of motivation often comes naturally afterwards.
“Many, many thanks Pierre for helping me out [...]. It’s rare to get such service and I really appreciate it. [...]. I owe you a beer or three next time I am in Brussels!” A customer from UK
Because technical support agents are often at the very bottom of the hierarchical pyramid, it is likely to be perceived as a low profile job. Many technical support guys try to do the bare minimum and hope they will be promoted soon to get out of that awful situation. I believe it’s the exact opposite. The essential skills needed to be a great technical support agent are the same you need to be a brilliant developer or successful entrepreneur. Great developers & great entrepreneurs have strong interpersonal skills.
Strong interpersonal skills include being genuinely interested in your users and being able to put yourself in their shoes. Empathy through social awareness is one of the core element of emotional intelligence. If you don’t understand your users, you will face strong problems. Some users have difficulties expressing their needs or feelings. Your great ability to decode what your customers need or want will not only make them happy, but also help you improve your products and overall company strategy.
“I must say Pierre that we are very impressed so far not only with the product but with your overall attitude and all the assistance you have given us. I can’t thank you enough but hope to thank you soon as a customer.” A customer from US
Because support is an integral part of your product, support is also one of your main sales & customer relationship channels. A study conducted by RightNow® Technologies has found that 46% of Australians declared they would leave their current internet provider because of poor customer service. The same survey states 21% already left a previous provider for the same reason. How many customers can you keep or get with a great support? In software development, support is often the first human to human contact your customers get and how it will goes will be weighted in their overall perception of your product. In fact, your product is not the bits that get downloaded and installed on your customers machines, your real product is the whole experience your customers will get with your company.
Since your product is your company, including its support, any assistance you give to your users should be free and optimized. To make it painless for both our users and ourselves, we try to use the following procedure once we receive a request:
- If it’s a reproducible bug, we add it into the backlog and give its ID to the customer/user. We also take the ID of the customer/user to notify him of resolutions and releases personally. This is easy if you collect his email directly.
- If it’s a problem using the software, we take this as an opportunity to improve the documentation. Any answer is written like a knowledge base article that we add in our database afterwards. It takes triple the time to write, but we don’t have to repeat ourselves later (most users prefer browsing in KB).
- If it’s a feature request we connect the user with the product owner directly. This is very valuable. Of course we use systems like uservoice.com, but talking with the user directly is a lot better.
- If it’s a complaint we try to manage that outside the process. People that complain like to be considered as important (even if the complaint is trivial).
Support is your free & perpetual market research. Support is one of your main sales channels. Support is your opportunity to learn how to improve your social awareness.