The HotLine Magazine Archives
For The Profession of Cloud/SaaS Product Support
By Mikael Blaisdell

Traditionally, technology companies have often used their customer contact centers as an entry-level proving ground. The operational pattern is to hire young people as cheaply as possible, toss them to the phone lions and then transfer those that manage to survive and show some promise into “real” jobs elsewhere in the company. There are two costly effects of this strategy that don’t appear on the financial statements, but are nonetheless damaging to the company’s long term profitability. The first is that if you constantly transfer out the “best” of your team, the service provided by the center is necessarily handicapped. The second is that while training isn’t listed as a cost item, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a significant amount.  Using the contact center in this manner makes a very powerful and unmistakable statement to two important groups of people. To the employees, it necessarily says that the company regards the work of the contact center as of low status and priority if the only way to truly succeed is to leave. At the same time, such a policy says to the customers that their needs for support/service are of little importance to the company. Neither group will miss the significance of the message being given them.

Before a Customer Service/Support Representative (CSR) can be productive in the contact center, they must acquire competence in three essential skills and knowledge groups. First, they need to know the company and its products well enough to be able to comfortably handle a wide range of potential questions and issues. (While the contact center technology suite can help, there is a minimum of knowledge that must be in the CSR’s head to enable them to make effective use of the tools.) Second, the CSR must have a familiarity with the customers, to know how they perceive and use the company’s products and services, and to be able to talk to them easily and effectively in language they will understand. The third group is that of the profession itself: knowing how to use the tools and, most importantly, the soft-skills of managing effective and productive communications with people of all types.

In a technology company, where the products and services being supported are powerful and complex, it will take at least between 6 and 9 months for a new hire to acquire enough experience and expertise to be considered competent. (“Competency” for a CSR is defined as being comfortably able to handle 80% of the service requests that come their way in the course of their duties.) The first three months of that Time To Competency (TTC) represent a dead loss to the company not only for the salary of the new hire, but also for the substantial drop in the productivity of at least two other reps around them from the distraction of having to help the new person. As the new CSR comes up the learning curve, they will begin to earn their keep and finally to be profitable for the company — after they cover the costs of the training investment made in them.

The average duration of a CSR’s career in a center is about 24 months. If the center deals in high volumes of short calls, and keeps the CSR on the phone more than 6 hours per day, that average career duration can drop sharply. The result is that the CSR “burns out” and either transfers out of the center or leaves the company — taking all of the company’s investment in training out the door with them. What’s worse is that the company then must duplicate the loss to the center’s training inventory all over again for the replacement.

While the true costs of this scenario, financial and lowered customer satisfaction, are never truly tracked or reported, the effects are pervasive. It’s no mystery why the high technology industry historically has had such an abysmal reputation for support and service. What remains to be seen is how long it will be before the sea-change of Software As A Service begins to impact the customer contact center.

August 2, 2007