Whole Company Support

by: Derek Jones on: 1/31/2014

Whole company support. We didn’t invent that phrase, nor are we the first company to try it. I’m thankful to the companies who came before us and brought it to our consciousness, as it gave us confidence to give it a shot ourselves. We’ve been trying it since just after the ExpressionEngine Conference last October and I thought I’d share some of our experiences.

In mid-October one of our support team members left for a network administration job that was closer to the type of work he was looking for when we hired him for support. The vacancy would typically have prompted us to post an ad and hire a new support team member. This time we stopped to ask if that was really the best decision. Were we handling support staffing correctly? Are there better ways to address the challenge of finding people who can be experts with our software while also providing a great support experience for our users?

We had discussed using an all-hands approach in the past, but mostly just in passing. This time we took a closer look and did some research into how it might work and how it might help or hurt us. Would our support costs increase? How would we keep productivity high while borrowing time from design and engineering? Ultimately we decided to give it a try before automatically hiring a support agent to see if our concerns were real or just hand-wringing.

So everyone on staff (starting with me, no one should be exempt!) rotated in to the support team for a week at a time. Doing it for a week meant the person rotating in could have a consistent work week without requiring a lot of context switching, but also have enough time “off” of support before their next turn.

The benefits were immediate. Within the first few weeks we were able to observe some inefficiencies in queue management and improve continuity of care for people seeking help. We identified some things we should start doing, and just as importantly some things we should stop doing. Unexpectedly, it seems to have given additional focus to the engineering team because we no longer have engineers “on call” for escalated tickets. Typically the person who rotates in to the team can answer any questions that normally would have resulted in a call for help to an engineer who was in the middle of something else.

There were also other pleasant gains:

  1. It brought back direct interaction between everyone on our team and our customers. Engineers and designers who do not interface with customers can easily lose a sense of how their work impacts the people using our software. They can either hear about it from management, or they can live it and experience it with our customers. Identifying which of those two options is best is a no-brainer.

  2. Developers hate repetitive tasks. When a skilled support agent recognizes a repetitive issue, they become efficient at solving that problem, perhaps even automating it to help them handle it quickly when it comes up again. When a designer or engineer recognizes a repetitive issue, their inclination is to make a change to the software so the issue or problem doesn’t ever come up again. I really like how Emily Wilder at 37signals referred to this_phenomenon: “Putting designers and programmers and everyone else in direct contact with customers isn’t about putting out fires; it’s about fire safety. It’s about having the kinds of conversations that lead to better products in the first place.”

  3. Bugs are more readily revealed and fixed. A support agent may resolve an issue successfully without catching a bug being involved. A developer is not only more likely to identify something as a bug instead of user error, but frequently can just fix it on the spot instead of adding it to a bug tracker.

  4. Customer satisfaction with support is at 96% and our average ticket response speed has improved. And it puts a big grin on our faces when we hear things like this:

    I need to tell you and Seth and whoever else has been part of my EE support experience that you folks are awesome! Your helpfulness, expertise and response time are the best I have experienced. It makes me grateful that many years ago I chose pMachine when I wanted to start a weblog. EE has evolved far beyond my ability to use all its features, but it is the foundation that has allowed me to teach myself how to develop and manage our site that is now 3000+ pages. Kudos to the EllisLab team.

Our experiment with whole company support has worked so well that we’re making it official policy. So when you see me, Seth, or Sam answering your support tickets, it doesn’t mean we’re covered up. It means as a company, we recognize the benefits to us and you of having everyone get their hands dirty so to speak in order to help you succeed.

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