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Resolution Management – Tech Support’s Silver Bullet?
By Bill Rose


The more I study the tech support business, the more I realize that there is no Silver Bullet for tech support.  There is not “just one thing” that you can do that makes all things right, makes customers loyal, and makes your people happy.  The closest thing that I can find is an intense focus on Resolution Management and all of the elements contained within.  It just makes sense that if we can fix issues faster both customers and your people will be happier.  A strong commitment to resolving issues, as a top priority will ensure that everyone involved in the process is aligned.  But, this is not a simple task!  In fact, resolution management can be an all-consuming nightmare if it is not approached in the correct way.  Just have a look at my blog post, “Fifteen Factors that Affect First Call Resolution (FCR) in Tech Support

For example, there is definite difference in your resolution management strategy based on the customers that you serve.  Enterprise hardware customers have opportunities to deploy box-to-box monitoring and troubleshooting tools that consumer hardware companies only dream about.  On the software side, consumer software companies typically deal with less sophisticated customers that can extend resolution times while more and more calls are rolling in.  But, enterprise software customers put immense pressure on their service providers to get complex issues resolved faster.  In each of these situations your resolution management strategy will be dependent on the type of customers you are supporting.

Hang on it gets worse; each “customer type” also brings a certain level of technical expertise to the resolution process.  For example, we would expect that enterprise customers would have very high levels of technical expertise, but this is not always the case. And, if you were servicing consumers then it would be anticipated that they would be somewhat technically challenged.  There seems to be a direct correlation between the technical expertise of your customers and the time it takes to resolve their issues.  The more technical they are, the more likely we are to resolve issues faster.

At this point it is probably a good idea to clarify a few things.  First of all, I am not using the term “customer problem”; instead I classify everything as a “customer issue”.  Although this may seem like a minor word choice there is actually a very big difference between problems and issues.  Our TSIA research tells us that most companies receive over 80% of their support requests for non-defect related issues.  These requests include assistance with installation and configuration, “how to” requests, and non-technical requests.  As you can see, it is difficult to classify these requests as “problems”.  For most of our members there is a very small number of product defects, limitations, and bugs.  Today, most customers call for service to find better ways to use your products and not because the product does not work.  It just makes sense that our resolution management strategy is in alignment with the issues reported.  What changes can you make to your service delivery process that will assist customers in being more successful using your products?  How can services ensure that customers get the absolute most from what they have already purchased and continue to purchase more?

As you continue to think about your overall resolution management strategy there is one area that needs to be considered from the start; how will you measure true resolve time? The decision is a simple one; do you measure the time it takes to resolve issues using elapsed time or do you use work time?  Elapsed time is typically considered calendar time and measures the amount of days that a case has been first opened until it is closed.  On the other hand, work time only counts the actual effort put forth on this case regardless of the amount of time the case has been open.  As you can see, your resolution time will have drastic differences by using one measurement over the other.  For example, elapsed time could indicate that a case has been opened for 30 days but work time indicates that only 2 days of effort have been recorded.  Which measurement do you use?  Elapsed time is the simplest method but it does not tell us how much actual work we have completed on this particular case.  Work time shows the total resources dedicated to resolving an issue but it does not mean much to our customers.  As part of our resolution management strategy we must include both elapsed time and work time as key indicators of our ability to resolve customer issues.

Another important phenomenon that we are seeing at TSIA research is the steady increase in the overall “resolve time” within our industry and a sharp decrease in our ability to resolve issues the first time we talk to customers (First Contact Resolution (FCR)).  So, why is this happening?  Why is resolve time increasing and FCR decreasing?  Why is it taking us longer to resolve all customer issues?  What is stopping us from resolving issues on first contact?  There are several unproven theories out there but one thing we know for sure is that the data does not lie.  It really is taking us longer to resolve issues!  Is this a result of the enormous complexity built into our own products and the environments where they reside?  Does this have anything to do with the people we hire, how we train, and the tools we provide?  The answer to all of these questions is probably “yes”.  In fact, it takes us longer to resolve customer issues, in part, due to all of these reasons stated above.  Our challenge is to understand how much each element of the resolution process affects the final outcome and what we can do to improve.  We need a plan, we need a roadmap, and we need a resolution management strategy to guide our efforts.

Building your resolution management strategy is not rocket science, it is simply a “plan of attack” to get you focused on one specific part of your business.  Get started by pulling your management team together and find a white board where you can document everything that affects your ability to resolve customer issues.  Start with a simple question; “What do we need to do to resolve issues faster?”  The object here is to expose those areas that are holding you back and limiting your overall effectiveness.  Some of these areas could be customer training, support rep skill levels, lack of tools, or lack of proper reporting.  Get to the root cause of each area and identify improvements that can be made in your processes and deliverables.  You will be surprised to find that some very simple changes will deliver substantial rewards. 

ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS FOR DEVELOPING A RESOLUTION MANAGEMENT STRATEGY
  1. Focus all of your attention on just one thing; resolve time
  2. Understand your customers and assess their overall technical expertise.
  3. Evaluate your current data collection methods to ensure that you are measuring everything possible in and around resolve time.
  4. Develop new reports and measurements that provide a clear picture of all efforts to resolve customer issues.
  5. Learn what other companies are doing in their efforts to resolve customer issues faster.
The TSIA has been instrumental in raising awareness about industry-wide topics that our members are challenged with everyday.  The topic of “Resolution Management” is one of those areas where there has been no clear focus, no common terminology, and no industry standards established.  The TSIA has created a community of interest (COI) and started the dialog for this important area.  Please join the discussions at www.techservicesforum.com.  Just look for the discussion titled “Resolve time & FCR”.

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Top 10 Outsourcing Tips for Uncertain Economic Times
By Bill Rose


We made the move to outsource our technology service and support to save money, right?  And we did save money!  But that does not mean that during uncertain economic times that we can’t go back and find additional cost savings with our outsourcing model.  If we dig deep enough and look hard enough the cost savings are there.  Here is a list of the Top 10 things we can do to drive more cost out of our business.

1. REVIEW AND REVISE EXISTING CONTRACTS

As much as we hate the thought of going back to all of those outsourcing agreements that took us several months to put together, now is the time to fully understand what we signed up for and assess the value of each bullet item.  For example, look closely at the expense-sharing components of the contract.  Who is paying the lion’s share of the major expenses?  Can we renegotiate these shared expenses to offset our cost and continue to do business with this outsourcer?

2. EVALUATE THE TOTAL COST OF THE OUTSOURCING CONTRACT

When we initially put our outsourcing agreements together we had to make a strategic decision to either pay per call or per minute.  On one side we could be paying the outsourcer for each phone call or incident that they handle and on the other side we could be paying a flat rate based on minutes on the phone.  Which model is better?  Which one is more cost effective?  Now is the time to evaluate and change the agreement, if necessary, so that we are getting the best possible deal for our outsourcing dollar.

3. LOOK AROUND THE WORLD FOR BETTER OUTSOURCING AREAS
We made our decision to locate with outsourcing partners based on the countries and their low cost labor market.  A lot has changes in the past three years and we are seeing additional locations popping up that seem to be the new low-cost-leader in technology services outsourcing.  Now is the time to scan the globe and determine if yesterday’s decisions still provide all of the cost savings that we need today.  Changing outsourcing locations is no fun but it could be a wise financial decision.


4. GET YOUR EGGS OUT OF JUST ONE BASKET
Another cost cutting measure is to start to distribute your outsourcing work to several different geographic locations.  Hedge the bet against rising costs in one location by sourcing alternatives and start small operations to test the waters. Remember that we are searching for any and all ways that we can reduce our outsourcing expense and that might mean moving our business to several locations around the world.

5. SEND IN THE BULL DOGS
We have learned some valuable lessons from our own customers as they continually pressure us to reduce our maintenance fees that they pay for upgrades, fixes, and tech support.  Some of these customers can be ruthless in their negotiating skills and will not be happy until the expense to them goes down.  We can use the same techniques to get our outsourcers to reduce their fees.  This is not a pleasant exercise so get your meanest procurement “bull dog” to lead the charge and push hard to find ways to decrease the overall expense for each outsourcer you do business with.

6. REDUCE COMMUNICATIONS COSTS ONE CALL AT A TIME

It is essential to communicate with your outsourcers but do we really need to spend this much on phone calls, Internet access and shipping? Are there any pennies to pinch in the methods we use today to communicate half way around the world?  A complete audit of the cost of communicating with your outsourcers needs to be scheduled and the outcome should identify cost leakage and develop corrective actions.

7. KEEP SQUEEZING THAT TRAVEL BUDGET

In poor economic times, the first things that CFOs attack are travel related expenses.  It is essential that we reduce the total number of face-to-face meetings because they are just plain expensive.  Airfare, lodging and food are budget killers so cuts here will be seen in the bottom line. This is not all bad because all of those trips to all those countries have been wearing on your staff and taking a break can be a true relief.

8. TAKE A LOOK CLOSE TO HOME

Even though we have established outsourcing presence in the cheapest labor markets we can see that there are still a lot of hidden costs associates with doing business with any company far, far away.  An alternative is to take another look at near-shore options.  The labor costs may be higher than other locations but the overall cost to outsource may end up being less.  At this time, it is worth a second look at those outsourcers located either onshore or in near-shore locations.

9. SHARING TECHNOLOGY CAN BE CHEAPER THAN PAYING FOR IT
And IT evaluation needs to be completed to see if there are any ways that the technology solutions that you are paying for now can be changed to more of a shared approach.  For example, if you are paying a fee for the outsourcer to use their CRM tool to log and track your customer issues, can you simply provide access for the outsourcer to your own CRM system in place of this expense.  Typically, additional seats on your CRM are less expensive than technology usage fees offered by the outsourcer.

10. HELP YOUR OUTSOURCER STOP THE BLEEDING
Most outsourcers are having difficulty retaining quality people.  In fact, employee turnover in some countries is three times what we see here in the States.  Turnover means more cost and that expense is typically seen by rising rates for outsourcing services.  We know a lot about retaining tech support people and have lived through years of 35% turnover rates and the revolving door of people coming in and then leaving the support center.  One way to ensure that your outsourcing rates do not increase is to lend a helping hand to your service partners.  This can be done by coaching and educating outsourcers on employee wants and needs and can result in a slowing of the flow of talent out their doors.  Share what you know about the people side of technology services and help your outsourcers keep more trained people in place.  

So, here are ten things that you can do to reduce outsourcing expense in a downturn economy.  Not all of these will work for you but each one is worth the effort.  Remember that our objective here is to find additional pennies to save and we must look at every possible option including our outsourcing partners. 

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Freezing Tech Support... Again!
By Bill Rose


Ever get that feeling that something really bad is about to happen?  You’re not quite sure what it is but you know that it can’t be good.  With all of the economic bad news that we see every day there is one thing we know for sure…..there will be a freeze on tech support spending.  It is true and it happens every time that there is the slightest mention of an economic downturn.  Get ready to freeze tech support spending because here it comes again.  You can be sure that there will be a hiring freeze, a travel freeze, and an overall spending freeze in your not-too-distant future.  So what can we do about it?  How do we continue to deliver top-level services when we are financially hamstrung?  

First of all, we should be used to this by now.  Tech support spending has been the target of every CFO on the planet earth who is looking to make a big number a smaller one.  We have seen techniques to reduce headcount, eliminate technology purchases, and limit our ability to get out to see customers, but, we still have to push forward and deliver great service.  My simple message is “get over it and get on with it”.  This “accordion effect” of squeezing dollars out of technology services and then releasing the pressure until the next financial threat shows up is something that we have seen over and over again.  Managing tech support is a difficult job but doing it with pennies is even harder and a lot less fun.

Today, based on the current financial news, we should be preparing for the worst and putting a plan together to either down-size or reduce our future hiring.  We will need to figure out how to do more with less but we are experts at it after all of these years.  For example, one way to manage a hiring freeze is to shift resources within the company into tech support.  Yes, I can hear you saying  “sure that will work…NOT!”  But, it is an option and if you are going to maintain your service levels you will need people and they can be found in product development, training, sales support, and other technical departments.  You can survive a hiring freeze by looking for help within your company.

Expense freezes are a different matter.  In fact, if there is one department within your company that knows how to do more with less it is tech support.  We have been pinching pennies forever so not being able to purchase that next piece of technology is a pain but not the end.  If we can’t spend then we are going to have to get creative and use the resources that we have in our support centers.  If we can’t buy it then we are only left with the option to build it.  Using the technical expertise of your support staff and some help from product development and IT there is virtually nothing that we can’t build.  Set up a special task force to design and develop your technology solution that can’t be purchased due to a spending freeze.  Building any service solution is a real pain but remember, we have no choice here.  The alternative is to just do without but if you really need that web to CRM interface or a knowledge management database or a service dashboard then build it.  Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t think that you should ever build technology solutions if you can afford to buy them but remember that we have no money to spend.

When tech support gets frozen it is a different kind of business…a lot less fun!  But, we have all been here before and we know how vital our work is to the overall success of the company.  We can and will survive an expense freeze or a hiring freeze or travel freezes.  We just need to be creative and get busy planning out our efforts when the knock on the door comes.  And trust me, it will come.

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Fifteen Factors that Affect First Call Resolution (FCR) in Tech Support
By Bill Rose


There are three distinct areas that have the greatest impact on customer satisfaction for technology services customers; Response time, Resolve time, and Status updates.  We define Response Time as ‘the time it takes for a customer to reach a qualified support rep” and Status Updates is defined as “keeping the customer informed about the status of open cases in a timely fashion”.  Although these are simple definitions we can almost always understand what their true meaning is.  Where we run into problems is in defining “Resolve time” and agreeing upon that definition.  One example would be “the time it takes to resolve a customer’s issue to their satisfaction”.  This is not a bad definition but there are so many different interpretations of “resolve”, “issue”, and “satisfaction” that we sometimes get confused about how we can measure resolve time.

One thing that we know for sure is that measuring our effectiveness at resolving customer issues gets a lot easier if we can fix problems the first time the customer requests assistance.  This “First Call Resolution (FCR)” could be the single most important thing that we do every day.  Think about this for a moment, if the customer calls, or emails, or submits a case via the web, and we jump on the issue and fix it the first time, everyone’s life gets easier.  There are no callbacks, no passing of cases back and forth, and no need to constantly provide the customer with open case status updates.  The problem here is that this is easier said than done. In fact, first call resolution is extremely difficult to achieve.  So why is this?  What are the reasons that it is so difficult to fix a customer’s issue the first time?  Well, it is a complex question with plenty of complex issues so let’s take a look at the fifteen factors that affect FCR.

1. Logging each and every case
If we don’t log and track each and every customer request then we will see false FCR results.  For example, if a customer calls in with several unique issues, do we really open up separate cases for each request?  Probably not!  When we do not log the simple, easy to answer requests we do not get credit for multiple first contact resolutions.

2. Complexity of the environment
The more complex the environment, the more difficult it is to isolate the issues on first contact.  If we end up having to re-create the issue then it becomes almost impossible to resolve anything on first contact.  If your products reside in a complex environment then you should anticipate lower FCR results.

3. Complexity of the product
If your products are extremely complex, there is a good chance that your focus is not on FCR.  Complex products typically require complex responses and this takes time and resources that may extend out of your direct control.  Complex products that run in complex environments create even bigger challenges but that does not mean that we abandon the FCR metric.  We still need to measure and monitor our effectiveness in this key area.

4. Definition of a “fix”
Based on your internal definition of a “fix”, you could have a built-in impossible situation for success in FCR.  Is a fix an answer to a question?  Is a fix only defined as some type of coding solution?  Your definition will determine when you consider the issues resolved and affect FCR measurements.

5. Metrics – When do you start and stop counting?

The issue of the day has everything to do with how FCR is measured.  If we are trying to count the times we effectively resolve a customer issue on first contact, then what do we consider a contact?  What if we receive the service request via email? How about web-generated requests? What if a customer talks to a non-technical person?  Should we count that as a first contact?  How we measure FCR determines our overall effectiveness.  Today there seems to be about a dozen ways that our members are using for FCR calculations.  We need to reach some agreement on how FCR is measured.

6. Skill set of customers
Based on the knowledge and experience levels of your customers, FCR can swing drastically up or down.  The more skilled your customers are, the more likely they have done their homework before calling for service.  If customers have already started the problem isolation process the entire resolve time flow is shortened and FCR is improved.

7. Skill set of your people
Having the correct technical skills in place shortens the FCR process.  It just makes sense that the people with the best possible knowledge of the issue should be the ones that work with the customer through resolution.  But, this is not an easy task. Even with Skills Based Routing in place it is virtually impossible to get the exact match of technical skills applied to every issue that comes through the door.  The more effective we are at skills matching the more we will see the FCR rate increase.

8. Effectiveness of self-service
There is a strong argument within our association that one reason for the drop in FCR over the past five years is due to customers using self-service via the web.  Essentially, customers go to the web and get the “easy” issues resolved through self-service.  This means that the “hard” issues are handled via the phone and the FCR is reduced because of the degree of difficulty of these more challenging problems.

9. Customer usage of “outside” forums and sources
This FCR Factor is similar to the one above with one exception; customers are using online forums that are not supported by your company.  These forums could be peer-to-peer, informal networks where technical information is exchanged about your products.  The greatest risk here is that your customers could be getting some really bad advice and when they mess things up they call you for help.  Unsanctioned forums can be very useful but they also have a downside when your company does not control reliable data.

10. Tools available to your people
Technology in tech services has made us more efficient and effective and the better our tools are the more likely we are to resolve customer issues on first contact.  By using knowledge management tools and “closed case” databases, we are certain to quickly find known issues and pass the fix on to customers when they first reach us.  There is a direct correlation between the reliability of our service tools and the effectiveness of FCR.

11. Training on tools usage
Having great service tools does not mean much if your people don’t know how to use them properly.  CRM tools in particular are becoming more and more complex and loaded with features and functions that your people don’t even know how to use.  With the proper training on the service tools in place today, first contact resolution rates will increase rapidly.

12. Problem solving & trouble shooting skills
The best technicians use proven methodologies for isolating and resolving technical issues.  Why is it that some of your tech reps are better “fixers” than others?  Well, experience has a lot to do with it, but developing problem solving and troubleshooting skills will ensure that problems are resolved in the most efficient manner possible. The good news is that these skills can be trained into your people and there are plenty of methodologies and approaches to problem isolation that can be adopted to increase FCR.

13. Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) for response & resolve times
Most Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) in customer contracts have wording that is focused on your guarantees about response time and not resolve time.  You usually guarantee how long it will take you to address the customer issue but almost never commit to how long it will take you to fix it.  So why is this?  Why don’t you make a firm commitment to fixing things in specific time limits?  The answer is simple; we just don’t know how long it will take us to fix every possible issue that might come our way.  But, if you are using resolve time SLA’S, they will directly affect FCR as management monitors the effectiveness of your contractual commitments.

14. Expectations of management
Management can pressurize the service environment by placing emphasis on certain parts of the delivery supply chain.  We see this clearly when we push our people to handle more calls and to get off the phone quickly.  The result is that customers feel rushed as your techs are looking at their watches and trying to move on to the next call.  The same thing can happen to FCR.  If we push our people to fix every call the first time, they will spend hours on the phone trying to do exactly what we have asked them to do.  Management expectations need to be balanced between realistic resolve times and expectations of FCR.

15. Matching customer experience levels to tech experience levels
This FCR Factor may seem to be the same as one I discussed earlier but there is a major difference.  We are not talking about a customer’s technical expertise, but rather, the amount of experience that they have in their current position.  When we get a “new” customer and pair them up with one of our most experienced technical support reps we are just asking for trouble.  In a perfect world only experienced customers would talk with experienced support reps and new customers would talk to junior reps. This match up rarely happens so FCR suffers because the customer and the support rep are not speaking the same language based on their experience levels.

At this point you should be about as confused as me about First Call Resolution and the numerous factors that contribute to the complexity of fixing customer’s issues the first time.  This is a very complex issue and requires more in-depth research to really understand what is going on in your company and in our industry.  To that end, I am putting together a focus group to start the process of studying resolve time in general and FCR in particular.

If you are interested in joining me just drop me a note at BillRose@BillRoseINC.com.

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