A Conversation with Sharon Pettigrew: Support Center 101–Back to Basics

In our last public webcast, we surveyed members asking with what topics they most needed assistance, and the answers surprised me. No mentions of what TSIA views as ‘strategic’ issues like support margins and Value Added Service; the list was very tactical, with the top issues being how to better train support techs and what organizational structures work the best. This is yet another reminder to me that while looking at the ‘big picture’ is important, you can’t overlook the basic blocking and tackling that can make or break a support organization. And with rising complexity, shorter product cycles, global customers and a myriad of other factors, companies are constantly re-evaluating what ‘best practices’ are and making adjustments to core operations.

To learn more about core operational best practices and how they are changing, I sat down with industry guru Sharon Pettitgrew, founder of The Call Center Group, with over 25 years of experience in reengineering sales, support, and service operations at Apple, Sprint, and multiple start-ups. Sharon will be presenting a professional development workshop on Monday, October 18th as part of our TSW Conference in Las Vegas, “Support Center 101: Back to Basics Bootcamp.”

John Ragsdale: Sharon, I’m glad we were able to schedule time to talk about your workshop and what you see going on in the industry.

Sharon Pettigrew: John, it’s great to be here.  Thanks for the opportunity to share my perspective on the rapidly changing landscape in the support industry.  The members of TSIA are at the forefront of a massive change in the role, delivery and measurement of support organizations.  Support managers are being asked to expand their channels, reduce costs of support and improve Customer Satisfaction.  With these competing demands, the array of technology promising to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the support organization can be  confusing and intimidating.  With many failed massive CRM initiatives in the recent past, executives want to identify the few key initiatives and enabling technologies which will actually produce improved outcomes for their customers.

Tom Minick and I have a combined experience of over 50 years, mostly with high growth, high tech clients.  We always have our eye on  emerging technology which can change the support model.  Our focus on design and implementation trends toward the “industrial strength” solutions that will provide real results and enable organizations to achieve specific, measurable goals in support.   Due to the shift to Software as a Service (SaaS) Solutions, many vendors now offer an on demand model which reduces both the risk and the cost of innovative technology for Support Operations.

The industry trends that we believe offer the greatest benefit for Support Organizations center around the Cloud Based Computing Models and shared infrastructure.  If the support team is able to focus on People, Process and Technology as the cornerstones of their operation, they can assess their issues and opportunities to create a road-map for achieving specific outcomes.   The good news in the industry is that Support is getting greater visibility in the corporation as Customer Retention and Loyalty are critical in a tough economic climate.  The limelight is on Support to deliver an experience that meets or exceeds the customer’s expectations.  How can we as Support Professionals achieve these goals?  How can we align our People, Process and Technology to deliver an excellent customer experience across multiple channels?  What is the role of Social Media and Communities in delivering the support message to our customers and creating meaningful dialogues?

John: I’m thrilled you are offering a Support Center Bootcamp at our upcoming conference. Considering call centers and support operations have been active now for a couple of decades or more, why do you think there is still such a struggle to successfully manage tactical operations? Why is there so much ongoing interest in blocking and tackling?

Sharon: You are right, John, that designing and managing support operations has become increasingly complex.   Support Teams are actively owning and managing the Customer Experience for many TSIA member companies.  What has changed over time is the complexity of the support requirement – phone, web, chat, social media & communities – and the technology which enables this array of offerings.  In addition, customers have become more demanding in their definition of an excellent support experience.  Many of our support organizations have grown dynamically as companies grew and product lines expanded without an integrated support mission or strategy.

We need to begin again – with People, Process and Technology as our starting points.  Most support organizations spend 70-85% of the  budget on People.   How to hire, train, manage and deploy staff is the core of any support operation.  Whether internal, outsourced or a combination of both, the efficient allocation of staffing to resolve support issues drives support success.  Workforce management software can provide optimum schedules for staffing based on demand and channels of support.  Intelligent routing will find the best available agent for any specific customer or support issue.  The idea that you can find not just any agent – but the best, qualified available agent is driving interest in sophisticated virtual contact center solutions and workforce management as well.

Your findings that TSIA members wanted to focus on the basics for successful call centers and support operations reassures us that they want to drive improvement in a structured and measurable manner.  Exactly the approach that we know works well!

John: As you know, a lot of our members are enterprise support, i.e., B2B companies. Over the last few years I’ve seen a lot of best practices and philosophies from high volume consumer call centers moving into the B2B support world. Is this a trend you are tracking?

Sharon: Many companies are finding that the support organization is the primary contact point for customers after the sale.  Especially in the B2B Support World, adapting some of the best practices from the high volume “consumer call centers” can  differentiate them from their competitors.  Effective first call resolution relies on CRM and Knowledge Management Systems which are aligned with processes which empower the representative to deliver satisfaction to every customer.   When a technical support representative has the broader view of the customer, a cross-sell or up-sell opportunity may be the best solution for a customer.  The customer gets a timely resolution and may benefit from value added services because the Support Technician was able to map their needs to new solutions or services.  This thinking outside the box to propose additional services or solutions is now becoming a critical element of the Tech Support Agents job – both in B2B and consumer centers.  Driving both customer satisfaction and loyalty is central to the value of today’s support organizations.   When a support interaction results in new or expanded services for an existing customer, that is an accomplishment that should be recognized and rewarded.  This ongoing relationship with the customer can drive maintenance revenue – which for technology companies can be their most profitable revenue stream. We strive to ensure that Support Representatives realize that they are in a unique position of trust and should be able to suggest appropriate upgrades – whether in maintenance services, technology or value added services.

John: I’m TSIA’s technology guy, and I’m happy to see that your workshop is going to include a focus on support technology. Could we talk about workforce management tools for a minute? My inquiries on this topic are way up, with more B2B companies evaluating tools to manage the staffing process for the first time. What about scheduling has become so complicated that more sophisticated tools are required? How do you see companies getting the most from their workforce management investments?

Sharon: John, we are getting more inquiries regarding Workforce Management Technology as well.  Since I began my Call Center career in the telecommunications sector, I am a huge advocate of WFM tools to improve call center efficiency and optimize staffing.  With the introduction of a range of WFM solutions for large and small contact centers, every support organization should be using this technology.  At the simplest level we can use Erlang C Calculators to provide staffing schedules that map to call demand.  Some simple calculators are available free via the web.  As you add web, email and chat to call demand, a more sophisticated tool is necessary to provide a centralized staffing model across all channels, languages and multiple contact centers.  WFM solutions provide staffing schedules that increase utilization so that you are using your resources most effectively.  With some of the advanced “what if” scenario tools, contact center managers can predict what the impact on customer wait time, abandonment and CSAT will be of various staffing scenarios.  This has been invaluable in translating the dollars for staffing into a customer experience model which executives can clearly understand.  As you work with outsource partners, it becomes increasingly important to understand their utilization assumptions to ensure that everyone is working from an optimized staffing model.

John:  The satisfaction scores for the technology categories covered in my annual TSIA Member Technology Survey range from a low of 2.88 to a high of 3.82—all under the customer satisfaction industry average of 3.92. While there are many excuses (service managers are tough customers, IT sometimes forces technology on business users, aging CRM tools and infrastructure), the fact remains that service technology is not meeting or exceeding customer expectations for average satisfaction scores to be so low. What do you see as common problems keeping companies from achieving the desired business results with their support technology?

Sharon: I have to agree with you that our support clients have some pretty demanding standards of performance!  But getting grades which are below the industry average of 3.92 is not acceptable.  Business customers are very busy.  We must find ways to improve communications with them based on their preferences, not our convenience.  We need to put the customer first – in choosing their preferred channel (phone, email, chat) – and providing an update at the expected time.  Some clients have successfully created advisory boards to provide feedback and improve their performance.  Your customers are always comparing your performance to their best support experience.  We strive to find the best support experience, then add those elements which will improve your customer’s  experience.  Their priorities must become our priorities in support!

John: Could you talk about how the workshop is structured? How will the attendees spend their day?

Sharon: We are planning to focus on our three main building blocks: People, Process and Technology throughout the day.  Here are the topics we will address in our modules:

  • Support Center Basics – resources, benchmarking & continuous improvement
  • How to calculate the true cost per resolution across all channels
  • Hiring, Training, and Coaching for Peak Performance
  • Voice of the Customer – CSAT Measurement & Actionable Data
  • Technology Assessment – Tools, Selection, Deployment, Outcomes
  • Workforce Management Tools – options for small to large operations
  • Reporting & Analytics – Driving change in the organization

At the end of our professional development session, we want our participants to identify a specific initiative or  tool  which will  improve their support operation.  This is a seminar on improving the practice of support centers – pragmatic and practical!  Get it done!

John: Sharon, it has been a real pleasure talking to you! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, and best of luck on your workshop, “Support Center 101: Back to Basics Bootcamp.”

Sharon: Thanks, John, for having me on your blog.  I am always eager to discuss new trends and solutions in the Support Center Space.

If you have any questions or comments for Sharon, please add a comment or drop me an email. And as always, thanks for reading!

Explore posts in the same categories: Consumer Support, customer experience, customer satisfaction, Enterprise Support, Technology

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