fighting the lack of good ideas

the ticket smash, raw metrics, and communication – how to have a successful support organization

When I worked at Opsware, and for a while after HP bought us, we used to try to have once- or twice-a-week meetings for each support group wherein we would bring our most difficult cases (with the difficulty being determined by the case owner), and have an opportunity for everyone on the team to ask questions, contribute, and maybe even solve the problem our customer was having.

Novel idea, isn’t it? The typical Support team is driven by stats – the number of tickets in their queue, age of the ticket, number solved/closed, number escalated, etc. Support is driven by these numbers because managers don’t think of any better way to do it.

All things being equal, if you can close 40 cases in a week, that’s a lot better than your podmate who “only” finished-out 12. But what about the complexity of each of those cases? And how much effort did each engineer put into them? Did the customer come back and ask for it to be closed because it’s either no longer an issue, or they solved it themselves? Is it a question that can be answered with a reference to a specific page/section of a manual? Or was it a problem that took multiple webex engagements, and dozens of contacts back and forth to find a solution because it was a deep bug?

Theoretically, the goal of “support” is to, well, support – get the problem reporter a solution of some kind they can use. That solution may be a bug fix, an RFE, a reference to a tutorial, reconfiguring, or a work around / alternative approach to their problem. A big problem with this setup is that the reporter rarely asks the right question. They ask what they have pre-determined to be what they think is a question – but by biasing their initial report, they can often end-up dragging-out the solution process far longer than it should take. I recently wrote a guide on creating effective support tickets, based on my experience working in support, and interacting with various support organizations both before and since.

Reporter bias is the hardest issue to overcome, in my opinion; engineer bias is easier to get past because (hopefully) there are folks you can bounce the problem off of in the team who can help narrow-down the problem and find a solution … or at least figure out where to try looking next.

Communication is the key to solving problems – when I was at Opsware we utilized internal IRC channels and (gasp!) talking with each other to try to find solutions to customer issues. We also spent a lot of time wording inquiries to the reporter to try to gain as much information as possible on each iteration of the communication process.

Another key to solving problems was to make records of cases with the following:

  • initial reported behavior (or lack thereof)
  • actual problem
  • solution

Those records were sometimes on wiki pages, sometimes in our Plone internal KB, and sometimes got “promoted” out to the customer-facing KB. All of these approaches helped us get problems solved faster – either by offloading the “work” to the customer (via a KB reference), or by being able to apply previous answers more quickly when new-but-similar/identical problems were reported.

The end goal of a support team is not to outdo one another on how many cases one engineer has in his queue, or how many another has closed – the end goal is to solve customer problems. “Works well in a team setting” is a qualification typically associated with support engineering employment listings – but all too often that gets reduced to a cliche that practically means “tries to outdo his cubemates by closing more cases than the next guy”.

I’m as much a fan of personal responsibility and action as the next red-blooded capitalist, so don’t take this next section to imply I’m promoting communalism.

The way a support team should work is the way [good] sports teams work, or the way a Nascar team operates: yeah, it’s the driver of the car who gets the “glory”, but without his pit and maintenance crew, he’d be no better than you or I going to the grocery store. Any given support engineer gets to have his name tagged to the case for posterity – both with the good things he did, and the not so good ones. But since the goal is really to get the customer’s problem addressed, the ego of the engineer needs to be removed from the equation.

Bob Smith might be “the guy” who informed his customer of a solution, but generating the solution involved the other 7 people in his office. He gets the “fame” from Universal Widgets LLC, but he was just one of the [important] cogs in the process of resolving the issue.

The number of cases Bob has in his queue should have [almost] ZERO correlation to his skill as an technical engineer: it’s the 7 people behind him whom he can ask and brainstorm with that get the job done.

Maybe Bob gets to handle most of the “customer” action, but the other 7 are writing bug reports, solutions articles, etc. When evaluating that team, management needs to do just that: evaluate the team first, and the individuals second.