Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On the subject of support and "relationship management"

While I was digging for some old lyrics, which I couldn't find, I stumbled upon this draft I was asked to submit on behalf of my boss, or more precisely, my boss's boss, at my previous gig. The assignment was to present my thoughts on "four pillars" of relationship management. The pillars were spelled out to me and I ran with them from there. I guess it's my best expression of what I've been doing in one day gig or another for a bit now. And I feel proud to have injected the term "mouse fart" into what otherwise is probably boring reading for the majority of humankind. So for that reason I will submit this to you, dear reader, in all of its glory and splendor:

Effective Relationship Management
Bill Swan – Technical Account Manager, [The previous company I worked for that dare not speak of]

Four pillars:

Responsiveness

Engagement

Prioritization

Follow Through

An organization is only as good as its support, and great support begins with managing relationships with customers effectively. There are many components to this, but today I want to talk about four: Responsiveness, Engagement, Prioritization and Follow Through.

Responsiveness

First and foremost: Show your customers you have a pulse. I think it’s important to respond to requests as quickly as you can, even if it’s only to let them know that you’ll get back to them shortly after you’ve had a chance to review the query. There is the auto-response in the CRM, of course, but I believe it is more important to respond with an additional message suitable to your personal style. First impressions are important, and there’s no reason to keep your customers waiting needlessly, or to allow them any inkling that their question or issue has entered an automated black hole. Yes, there are Service Level Agreements that can dictate the expected time of response based on specific tiered levels of support (As in: How much money they pay for support), and those levels should be set to a realistic target that accounts for spikes in customer activity, resource allocation etc. But then you should do this: Proceed to blow these targets out of the water every time. It is better to undersell the response time and consistently over-deliver than the other way around.
As a member of support, how do you do that, especially if you are getting backed up with customer requests? Consider this: It doesn’t take much to simply let them know you’re there, that you are indeed a living, breathing human being and you will be with them shortly. More often than not, the recipient will thank you for such a quick response. Once you’ve got them hooked, you can reel them in when you’re ready.

Engagement

Responsiveness leads to engagement. And engagement can mean a number of different things. You are essentially at the stage of coming to an agreement with a client to be with them at an agreed upon time to tackle the issue with your undivided attention. And as you are engaged, you are feeling out the customer and getting to know their communication style (this can be written or verbal). You engage in a meaningful conversation about the issue at hand, and the goal should be that, within reason, you can be yourself and not rely on canned responses. Some of this comes more easily as you gain the experience with and knowledge of the products or services you are supporting. There’s nothing like knowing the answer to give you confidence in dealing with customers, especially demanding ones. However, you can still establish a rapport with them by staying relaxed and focused, and being willing to tell the customer if you don’t know a particular answer to an issue or a specific component of the issue, that you will be able to find that answer. This tells that customer you are engaged. If it’s apparent the user has a sense of humor, don’t be afraid to tap into it (assuming you have a sense of humor too). Finally, engagement also means honoring your commitments. If you’ve set a deadline or goal and you think the timeline might slip, engage and let them know. That should be common sense, right?

Prioritization

Tackle the critical issues first, of course. But during your engagement with the critical issues, you can simultaneously cherry pick the low hanging fruit. In other words, if you’re in a long troubleshooting session on a challenging issue, inevitably there will be lulls (such as a re-installation or reboot). And during those lulls you can either sit and watch the paint dry, log onto facebook or you can lop off some easy questions or engage with clients that you know aren’t in a big hurry to let them know you’ll be “on it” soon.
After the critical issues, I usually engage first with any client that hasn’t been in touch for a while. If you’ve been in support for any reasonable length of time, you come to learn that the old adage “No news is good news” ain’t so. No news is no news, and while that could mean anything, it won’t hurt to summon a little paranoia and make sure you keep the quiet clients happy when they re-engage. It may be a client who is perfectly happy or unusually competent and only thinks to contact the vendor when there is an issue of real significance…but it also could be a client who is thinking of switching vendors. Think of these erstwhile quiet clients as a new customer. If you keep the mindset that you want to give this customer a great first impression, then you’ve done your job.
While we are boldly moving into a brave new world of collaboration and communication outlets that purportedly will supplant email, the simple fact of the matter is: Email isn’t going away tomorrow. Manage your inbox. Different people have different styles, but I am a filer. Personally I think it’s much more manageable if you create a system of categorization for incoming messages based by client, priority, product or other topic, whatever makes the most sense. Part of good prioritization involved getting into the habit of being highly organized. Knowledge work is all about organization: It’s what we do! Have some process of categorization, though. You never know when you’re going to need to know your History.

Follow Through

Once you have an engagement, it goes without saying that you need to back up your promise for elaboration or getting back to the client. Use any means necessary to keep yourself to it. Calendars and reminders are there for a reason! Even if there is an issue that you believe to have been resolved with a client, follow up and make sure no other questions have come up and to confirm that the issue is indeed closed. There are processes that can be built for this based on SLA, but I would also add the personal touch here.
Proactive communication is also part of follow through, especially if you are managing a set group of clients. You’ll want such communication to be meaningful and consistent. A new product release announcement is one example, and another is a periodic check in to make sure the client is doing okay, particularly with clients who haven’t been in touch. I would contact these clients individually, based on their communication style. Email is okay for some clients. Others like to chat on the phone, so be mindful of what method best suits each client. Do not send an email blast to all clients in the bcc field or through a canned CRM message all at once. Not only does it lack the personal touch I’ve been talking about, but it might just end up in the recipient’s SPAM filter.
Finally, document everything you do, every message, call or other means of communication should be put into whatever CRM you are using in a clear, organized and easy to read fashion. Even if you think it’s a mouse fart, document it. Think of how you would want to pick up a case where someone else left off, or what would happen if you were suddenly hit by a truck. Document, document, document -- rinse, repeat. You’ll want to cover yourself, too. If anything regarding an interaction with a client ever comes into question, you’ll be able to cite when, where and how the information was originally conveyed. Make sure there is a date and time stamp included in any documentation, such as if you are copying an email message or thread. Including the message header has saved me a number of headaches over the years (Hint: forward the email and then copy/paste from that message so you get the top header. If you were the last one to communicate, go to your sent items and get the header from there). Good documentation is probably the most important element of follow through. You can save this part for down time if things get busy.

Summary

The world of support is often reactive, that is inevitable. It’s human nature for clients to contact you more frequently as a member of support when something bad has happened. You don’t often get a message out of the blue from folks telling you what a great job you’re doing (except maybe during the holiday season), but if you keep these four principles in mind --Responsiveness, engagement, prioritization and follow through—chances are, when your clients get asked about the quality of support they receive, they’ll have nothing but kind words to say. And if they’re still unhappy, they’ll probably blame the product or how much it costs. But you can go home at night and sleep well knowing you’ve done your job.

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