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Staffing Your New, More Effective Technical Support Team - part 2 Print

By Randy Miller, Director of Services, Journyx

In my last article, I discussed the mechanics involved in designing a new and improved technical support team.  This time, I am here to tell you that if you successfully execute all of those mechanics but fail at staffing, you will fail in the end.  Hiring and maintaining the best possible staff is the most crucial part of improving technical support.  Here are some tips and suggestions on how to do it effectively.

Starting Point
The staff members working for you right now are probably not the people you need to reach new levels of success.  You don't want to fire them and, fortunately, this problem will often resolve itself through turnover.  Those who do stay will simply have to meet your new standards.  Your main focus should now be on improving your hiring process and management style.  

Effective Management Practices
Some of my success with technical support has come from my entire management style.  Hiring is critical, but it is only one part of the puzzle.  Here are some important things for managers to consider going forward:

Hiring
List the minimum technical skills that your team must contain and then decide which employee must have which skill (specific to their position).  Not every person will have every skill, but that's why you have a team.  Your skill list will probably include items such as:

- Database knowledge
- Specific application knowledge
-  Interpersonal skills

After you complete this list, think about the kind of qualities that would be most effective in a support team.  First of all, your staff must be highly trainable.  The way to determine how quickly a candidate learns new concepts is to bring a few puzzles to the interview that build upon each other.  After demonstrating how to solve the first two, ask your candidate to solve the third, and see how well he/she applies this new information.  

An effective technical support person must also be responsible, as he/she will constantly be fixing other people's mistakes.  You need someone who will be able to deal with angry customers who might be blaming them for the problem.  Over time, this can wear down even the best employee.  You can fight this, however, by hiring people who demonstrate a strong sense of responsibility in their personal lives.  Ask them about their connections to family, or how they are paying off their student loans.  Ask them to tell you about a time when they hurt someone else - how do they feel about that?  The way they answer these questions will help you determine how responsible they are.
 
Technical support will also need staff members who are empathetic and can relate to the frustrations of the customers they deal with.  It can be difficult to test for empathy in an interview, so I just ask references if they would describe the candidate as empathetic.  Personality tests can also be useful if you want to make the effort.

A curious person is more likely to do all they can to figure out complicated problems than others, so curiosity is another important trait to look for.  I often ask candidates what their hobbies are, because curious people often have hobbies that involve figuring things out and learning something new.  When I interviewed one of my current people, he told me he was taking a welding class because he wanted to know how it worked.  Ever since, I have not once been disappointed with his drive and curiosity in technical support.

Another important character trait is logic.  Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and it takes a logical person to approach "magic" knowing that somehow he/she will figure it all out.  Here is another area where some simple puzzles can help you test candidates in an interview.  I grab a few logic puzzles from the internet, make them multiple-choice and hand them out at the beginning of every interview.  

Lastly, make sure you are hiring someone you can trust.  Just imagine that you are going out of town for a month and are thinking of letting this person house-sit for you.  Would you trust him/her to feed your pets and get your mail?  If not, you should not be hiring them.  

Training
Once you have hired the right people, you will have to train them.  Technical support is difficult to train for because you can never know exactly what problems your staff will face or what fringe features are going to give them trouble.  The objective is simply to do the best you can.  Also, remember to be realistic in your expectations.  If a person has no experience on Linux, for example, don't ask them to troubleshoot Linux problems until after you train them on Linux.  

In addition, your current staff is probably not sufficiently trained, so as you go about improving your team, schedule real product training for them and make ongoing training a priority.  

Goals & Boundaries
Every person has goals and boundaries, both of which are very important.  For this reason, you need to be sure to tell everyone what their goals and boundaries are.  You should also refer to them every time you give praise or correction.

When setting goals, make sure that they are 'SMART'-Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely.  Boundaries are slightly different and may require a bit of internal marketing so that your people don't misunderstand the intention.  I usually explain boundaries like this:  "This is a matter of knowledge and responsibility, not trust.  You shouldn't have to be responsible for everything, so these boundaries are in place to keep you from overcommitting the company."

Communication and Assistance
Think of the management process as a military supply system.  There are two basic ways to supply troops on the front line: make them leave their posts and return to the supply depot (a 'pull' system) or have them call the supply depot to deliver supplies to them (a 'push' system).  The push system is often the preferred method because it allows soldiers to remain on the front lines longer.  As a manager, you need to be willing to supply your people.

Technical support people will need help and advice, often more than other types of workers.  Consequently, they have to know that your door is open to them and that they can call you on your cell phone.  If you are not going to be around, let them know and tell them who will be in charge in your absence.

Performance Reviews
Giving regular performance reviews and keeping up with each person's individual goals throughout the year is very important.  In fact, if you want to keep your people long-term, you will need to have a job growth plan in place as well, affording them opportunities to move up in the company.  

Regular team meetings are also important.  The team needs to know how it is doing as a group-sometimes it might not add up to the sum of its parts.  These meetings also present great opportunities for feedback from your team.  I have found that hundreds of useful little improvements have come about by letting my entire team participate in conversations about how we escalate cases, how we close cases, and other support-specific issues.

Trust
If you have done everything else in the plan, just trust your people to do their jobs.  They need the self-confidence, so find something else to do with your time.  When you do need to intervene, approach it as a supply mission.  You are the supply ship visiting the troops on the front line who look like they're losing the battle.  "I've heard a report of a problem.  What can I do to help?"

Maintaining Long-Term Staff
Once you get the right people and processes in place, you will want to retain them.  The first thing you should concern yourself with is boosting morale.  It is very easy for morale to slip in a technical support department, so don't wait.  Do nice things for your people like buying them lunch and telling everyone in the company when they are complimented by a customer.

In addition, raises, bonuses and vacation time will help you retain good staff.  This is essential because the overhead costs and time spent on hiring and training new people is enormous.  It is much more efficient to do what you can with your current people, whether that means more training, more investment (raises), etc.  That is why hiring the right person is so important-you are going to want to live with the consequences for a long time.

Randy Miller (c) 2008

About the Author:
Randy Miller has 11 years of customer-focused experience in sales and services delivery. Prior to joining Journyx in 1999 as the first Timesheet-specific sales rep, Randy spent five years in the Corporate Sales and Retail Management divisions of leading electronics retailer CompUSA. Since then Randy has held many different positions at Journyx, including: Sales Engineer, Trainer, Consultant, Product Manager, Support Team Manager, and Implementation Manager for Enterprise Accounts. Randy has personally managed development and implementation efforts for many of the company's largest customers and is a co-holder of several Journyx patents. Randy was named Director of Services in 2005. Randy can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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