My first LinkedIn Article: Diversity is key to delivering excellent customer support

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In my first LinkedIn article, I share 5 key factors to the success of the customer support team I lead. Predictably, diversity of workforce and perspectives is crucial to delivering exceptional customer service. Full text below:

There is a wealth of research, data, and guidance on delivering excellent customer service in industries such as hospitality, retail, and IT. Advice is provided regarding how to handle very dissatisfied customers [1], hire the perfect customer service representative [2], tracking KPIs such as Net Promoter Score and First Contact Resolution [3], and dramatically increase customer satisfaction [4].

At BIOVIA, we keep abreast of the state-of-the-art best practices in customer service and definitively some of them are common to all segments. However, some of that advice cannot explain our 10 consecutive years earning a customer satisfaction score of +97% [Data: BIOVIA (aka Accelrys) customer support ticket closure surveys for the period 2009-2018].

To add some context, BIOVIA [5] is a lead provider of scientific innovation enterprise software solutions. Our customers span +2,000 companies in sectors such as Life Sciences, Energy/Process/Utilities, Consumer Packaged Goods/Retail, Transportation/Mobility, and High Technology, as well as academic and government entities.

What are the key principles we consistently apply to deliver excellent support for enterprise and scientific solutions to customers with highly technical and scientific skills from commercial, government and academia?

1.- We don’t believe in a cookie-cutter approach to hiring customer support representatives

Recently, I met a customer support manager in charge of an online travel agency. He shared that they limit their candidate pool to applicants in their 20’s as “older people come with their own habits and they don’t adapt”. I asked him if his customer base matched the same population. After some reflection, he replied that their customer base spans from Generation Z to Baby Boomers and that my question got him rethinking about their hiring practices.

To reinforce this one-size-fits-all approach to customer service, the authors of the HBR article “Kick-Ass Customer Service” [6] advocate controller support representatives – defined as outspoken, opinionated, and eager to demonstrate expertise and direct the customer interaction – provide the best customer service based on a global, cross-industry study of 1,440 support representatives. They go so far as to provide advice on how to teach the controller mind-set and build a controller-friendly service organization.

Our experience at BIOVIA is that we can only support our extensive range of customers, industries, and complex stack of solutions with a workforce covering a wide set of scientific, technical, and soft skills as well as professional and personal experiences. As an example, our talent pool ranges from recent graduates to scientist holding a Ph.D. degree. We have Generation Z, Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers support representatives who bring their academic, government, and industry experience in a broad range of sectors. We also have representation from a vast array of nationalities.

2.- Customer Support is part of the product development lifecycle

For a large portion of software companies, the support tasks can be categorized in three buckets: (a) helping customers with the installation of the product, (b) entering bugs, and (c) creating knowledge base articles for self-service.

At BIOVIA, 80% of our support tickets are about methodology. That means answering questions such as How do I implement? How do I optimize? How do I automate? How do I analyze? These questions can be as complex as troubleshooting an installation. They also provide key information about how customers use the products and which functionalities can be added or cause frustration. This knowledge is complementary to the feedback from the field teams and the vision from the product management and R&D divisions.

In summary, we don’t believe that one department has the exclusivity of innovation. To ensure we capture our customers’ voice and deliver exceptional products, BIOVIA has set up one Product Team per solution stack. Those teams are integrated by the product manager, the R&D leader, and one representative from customer support, services, and pre-sales. Product Teams meet regularly to discuss bugs, enhancement requests, current functionality being implemented in the code, and ad-hoc customer feedback. The upshot of this collaborative software development lifecycle is best-in-class solutions.

3.- Time is important, quality is paramount

As mentioned above, everybody in the customer support business dreams of first contact resolution and minimizing time to close. Agreed, that’s a noble aspiration. However, it can also get in the way of delivering outstanding customer service for complex enterprise and scientific solutions that require gathering multiple streams of information and the expertise of several support and development engineers.

In my experience, the majority of our very savvy customers do not expect a first contact resolution. The reason is that often our customers contact us after careful consideration of the issue and a search through the product help documentation and BIOVIA knowledge base. They know the issue is not trivial and their expectation is that we get to the root cause of the problem and share with them the best answer, rather than strive to clean our inbox.

It’s not that we ignore the effort spent per support ticket – we do monitor time to close. The nuance is that time is not a KPI that we let drive the behavior of the support team at the expense of customer satisfaction.

4.- Collaboration across silos

Solving complex scientific and enterprise issues can take a village: other support colleagues, R&D, professional services, training, pre-sales. What has worked for us at BIOVIA is to enable support agents with tools and processes to directly reach out to those that can help to build a solution for the customer, minimizing the cycles spent in laborious managerial approvals across different support teams and departments. If necessary, support managers may facilitate coordinating resources but do not monitor or sanction each interaction among groups.

5.- Accountability and independence

Collaboration can lead to lack of accountability, a group where everybody participates but nobody assumes responsibility. Two strategies help us to drive accountability:

(a) At BIOVIA, support engineers don’t “handle” support tickets, they “own” tickets. Although this distinction may appear a matter of semantics, it is not. It drives accountability. Say it aloud and you will understand: “I own support ticket #123-ABZ” vs “I handle support ticket #123-ABZ”. Does it sound the same to you?

(b) Our standard operating procedure is that support agents regularly scan the incoming calls and assign themselves to the support tickets as a function of their level of competence, bandwidth, and closeness to the customer’s time zone. Whilst we know that other support centers heavily rely on managers – or AI systems – assigning each support ticket to the most appropriate support agent, we believe our self-triaging system is better for us because

  • Enables access to subject matter experts from the first customer contact. Support agents typically pick up tickets they know they can handle.
  • Provides a sense of autonomy among the support agents. Autonomy is one of the pillars of motivation [7].
  • Fosters a growth-mindset among support agents by giving them access to tickets covering solutions beyond their core area of expertise.

Your turn: Do these strategies resonate with you? Which ones definitively are not applicable to your sector?

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