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March 24, 2010

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White Paper: Three Perspectives on Customer Support

Working in technical customer support for over 15 years, I am constantly amazed at the dichotomy between customer and vendor.

I’ve held roles with networking infrastructure providers and services, did a brief stint in a $100m dot.bomb (from which I am still recovering), held positions in large and small corporate environments, and have traveled the world performing training sessions on network design.

As diverse as all of my professional positions have been, there is a core truism: customers and vendors do not always see eye to eye.

My own driving force in customer service is the desire to help those who require it. Computers are interesting, but humans are fascinating. For me, resolving someone’s technical problem is a great accomplishment. Leading an agitated customer down the path of tranquility is even more rewarding.

My goal here is to discuss the relationship between customers, the products they use, and their product vendors, and to offer tips for each. I’ll speak to the point of view of the company, the tech support staff and the customer. For each party, I’ll offer their perspective and their responsibilities for better customer experience.

-- Brian Doe, Solutions Engineer, Enterasys;
former Sales & Support Manager, Glance Networks

The Company

Support can be a costly proposition to companies. But good support will stop customer erosion and add long-term repeat customers.

Some argue that only small companies can supply a high level of customer service; that high levels of customer touch “don’t scale”. But supporting your customers well is a company commitment. If the corporate culture believes in strong customer relations, quality customer service can scale to the largest of companies.

Suggestions for better customer service:

  • Not sure if your customers are being well supported? Call them.
  • Not certain what good support should look like? Look at any customer service interaction you have experienced yourself. Separate the good experiences from the bad. Now mimic the good. You know what your customers want. Just do it.
  • Don’t use the lack of local talent as an excuse for less than stellar support staff. Think creatively. Hire a small, talented core group. And then use the mentor system. Divide the staff into units of expertise. Create a tiered system of talent. A well thought-out escalation path can resolve problems quickly while using the resources of existing staff. Scaling the support staff to remain equal with business growth will form naturally with this support model.
  • Don’t use scripted product resolutions. It just doesn’t work. Computers and the Internet are complicated animals with endless possible problems. One symptom can have dozens of different causes. If the problem doesn’t get solved, you are putting your rep in a bad spot. 
  • Use remote support tools like Glance.net. It is so much easier to see and fix the customer’s problem when you can see their screen, rather then trying to describe and diagnose the problem blindly over the phone.
  • Teach your support team to have patience and compassion. Let them know what your company’s moral core consists of and teach them how to portray that image consistently. When working with a customer, a positive attitude should be considered as important, if not more so, than technical accuracy.
  • Empower your customer service department. Allow them to “do the right thing.” If they occasionally overstep the desired bounds (e.g., length of call), who cares? A little bit of rule-breaking today will result in a long-term happy customer.
  • Let your Support reps rant to you. It’s a good way to let off steam. In addition, your support staff is your company’s eyes and ears into the customer psyche. From these rants, you can validate product direction, determine missing features and find existing product weaknesses.

Tech Support Staff

The life of a tech support specialist can feel bipolar. We are required to maintain the satisfaction of the customer base, yet we also need to maintain the values of our respective companies. There are times where this may seem impossible. We are techies. We are sales people. We are also psychiatrists. This career path is not for everyone.

 So how do you know if you are right for the gig? Sometimes it’s more about personality than a specialized skill set. You need to understand technology, ideally the technology your company is attempting to sell. But you do not need to be an engineer. In fact, I believe coming from an engineering background hinders your ability to connect with the customer. Engineers tend to look for the most difficult root cause of a problem rather than the obvious.

You should be an extravert by nature. You will be communicating with people all day, every day. If you are an introvert, you will go mad. You must be driven by the desire to help others. If solving technical problems is what turns you on, try IT or QA instead. This must be the secondary focus of a technical support rep.

You need to be of the personality type that does not require scheduling control. The ring of the phone drives your schedule. If you attempt control, your stress levels will rise to astronomical proportions.

Finally, you need to accept negativity in stride. No shocker here. Most of the people that call are fairly irritable, and no matter how good your product may be, they clearly have found a flaw on this day.

Suggestions to make your daily support calls easier:

  • Understand your company’s values. If they do not match your own, you are in the wrong place. You have to feel good about the battles you wage.
  • Treat your customers well. If you say that you will call them back, then call them back.
  • If you do not know the answer, say so, and ask for help “up the food chain”.
  • Understand that you cannot fix every glitch. This can be your biggest challenge. You will continually run into technical snafus that only peripherally relate to your product. For myself, consumer grade routers, consumer grade Internet connections and Spy Ware infestation are my “white whales.” 
  • Fight for your customer. That is your job. Help management understand your advocacy approach. But do not be afraid to irritate management on occasion. If you believe in the cause, make them listen. 
  • Don’t take it personally, and don’t become a victim of the negativity. If you have 100 customer issues in one day but you have 10,000 customers, remember the other 9,900 have not had any problems!

The Customer

As a customer, your sole desire when buying a new technology is simple: You just want things to work.  While this is a great goal, it may never be a reality in technology. So this should lead to your secondary, and more rational desire: You just want to be able to contact Technical Support and get accurate and decisive resolutions to your problems.

When I pick up a tech support call from a customer, I am able to determine in a matter of a few seconds if they have recently had a negative experience with someone in tech support. When calling tech support, positive interactions are remembered fondly -- but conversely, negative interactions with customer service become lifelong baggage. Not unlike a bad relationship, the damage can be permanent. In my role, I witness two consistent symptoms of this phenomenon:
  1. The customer starts the conversation with a “shoulder chip”. Because of a past negative experience, all customer support reps with whom they come into contact, will have to earn the right to be treated with courtesy and respect from this individual.
  2. If, in the past, the customer received an obviously wrong answer with the goal of ending the call quickly, customers may have taught themselves to lie. The lies are designed by the customer to avoid the support “blow off”. They do not want to hear “Ummm…that is not supported.”.

For customers, I offer the following suggestions to improve future technical support experiences:

  • Do not lie to your support rep when asked a question. If you end up with a knee jerk reaction designed to get you off the phone, let it slide. This rep clearly does not know the answer. If they knew what it was, they would be already correcting the problem. Hang up and try again. There is a dud in every batch.
  • Don’t be rude to the support rep. If you would not say these words to their face in a bar, think how silly you sound yelling over a phone.
  • If the support from a company is poor, end the relationship. Life is too short for that hassle. It likely will not get better any time soon, and ultimately this is the only power you possess with this company.
  • (Techies, please move to the next bullet item) Computers are hard. Computers are complex. Computers break. Computers are hard. If the sales person tells you otherwise, he/she is lying. If you are a small business owner, your money will be well spent having an IT professional on retainer. You do not need expensive furnishings. Corporate art will not enable your business to grow. But a good tech in your pocket can save the day and improve long-term productivity. 
  • Buy only the features you need. Bells, whistles and shiny moving parts do not make a good product. The more moving parts, the higher likelihood of a breakdown. This is the Glance Networks mantra. The KISS (keep it simple stupid) approach to the web demo market has been well received by our customer base.

As long as humans and technology remain flawed entities, the customer-vendor dichotomy will likely never go away. Remember that when technology works, we are all able to perform amazing tasks without the bounds of distance or time.


About Glance Networks
Glance is a simple, quick-connecting screen-sharing tool designed to help sales pros maximize every conversation within all steps of the sales cycle; prospect, demo, close and support. The Arlington, Mass.-based Company’s technology is used by thousands of companies worldwide. For more information, or to sign up for a free, 7-day trial, visit www.glance.net or call 1-888-945-2623.

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