Dan's Blog

July 21, 2010

Transferrable skills and attitudes

Filed under: Customer Service,general,job search,Product Management — ddswanson01 @ 12:29 pm

I am interested in two different types of positions, Manager of Customer/Product/Software/Technical Support and Product Manager for Software Products and Services.  I keep running into people who don’t quite see how closely related the two positions are, and how the attributes of a good Support Manager transfer to Product Management. I am looking for a position as either type of Manager; I’m hoping this post will highlight some of my skills and show how they transfer…

I am a very good Manager of Support (actually, I’m outstanding, but I’m too modest to say that – oops, no I’m not!, I have references to prove it, too) and I am certain I would be a very good Product Manager. At my last job I actually received an award for filling in for a Product Manager in the development of 2 software products, so I have potential!

Here are a few attributes that I believe make a good Manager of Support, related to attributes of a Product Manager.

  • Ownership of the Product. Support is a product. It is mostly a ‘service product’ as opposed to a physical product, but it is one of your company’s products and everyone who contacts your support organization will add their impression of your support to their evaluation of your company. The Manager of Support is responsible for the quality of the support content, the quality of the delivery of the content, the infrastructure required to deliver the content, the relationship between support and other stakeholders and insuring that the overall Support product suite is current and meets customer needs and the company’s business objectives.  As well, the Manager of Support needs to work with the business office to develop a sustainable long term support strategy that aligns with the goals of the company.Product Ownership is an attitude. It means ‘I am interested in everything that relates to my product, and I want everything that is related to be the best.’ Successful Support Managers have to have it; successful Product Managers as well.
  • Uncovering and documenting stakeholder needs.  As Manager of Support, I dealt with customers and internal stakeholders, all of whom needed something from my support group, on a daily basis. Determining their actual needs, rather than what they originally expressed, is extremely important, as working on the wrong issues is very unproductive.Documenting the needs and making them into action items is even more important. The people or groups who will take action are usually less familiar with the operation of the software than a support agent (or the Product Manager) and the universal response to a poorly-documented action item is ‘I can’t figure out/replicate the issue; I need more details and a better explanation – and I’m not going to do anything until you give me a better description.

    Product Managers work with the same product stakeholders as those who support their products. The issues are the same – uncovering the real issues and documenting them concisely and accurately.

  • Developing Product Strategy. A good Support organization requires a long term strategy, which acknowledges and integrates with the company’s business strategy and the product strategies of the various Product Managers. It is important to offer valuable support products, adding new products and perhaps sunsetting older products, as time goes on. The strategy should be reviewed every year (or more) and adjusted as required to accommodate new technology (for example, how is social networking going to be integrated into support?), changes in the user base, and changes in the vision and/or mission of the company.The Manager of Support is responsible for the development, implementation and maintenance of Support strategy, just as the Product Manager is responsible for the Product Strategies.

In addition, both types of managers are intimately familiar with the software development process, often having worked as a developer or closely with developers in a prior position.

There are a lot more similarities, but I try to stress these ones.  Nobody goes to school to learn to be a Product Manager or a Manager of Support (this is changing, so it might not be ‘nobody’ now, but the number is very few); everyone who does these jobs learns on the job. It seems to me that the skills learned in either one of these positions is a very solid background for the other.

March 12, 2010

Good service

Filed under: Customer Service — ddswanson01 @ 1:26 pm

Almost every position I’ve held has been in the customer support/service area, and quality of service is important to me. To me, the customer’s perception of quality of service is almost always dependent on the customer’s interaction with an individual service agent. If the agent is good, the service is perceived as being of good quality. Who is a ‘service agent’? My definition is “Anyone in a company or organization who deals with customers on a regular basis”. In my case, I managed Product Support agents, and everyone has dealt with Customer Service agents. But Sales Representatives, receptionists, cashiers, and wait staff are service agents as well.

If your company is in the customer service business (and almost everyone is, no?) there are some corollaries to the observation that the agent determines the customer perception of service quality:

  • If a particular customer almost always deals with the same agent, then your company’s reputation, in the eyes of that customer, is in the care of a single agent. You can’t afford to have a bad agent in this situation. This is one reason why two customers might have widely differing perceptions of your company’s service quality.
  • If a customer’s first experience with one of your agents is bad, it is very difficult to repair your reputation with that customer.
  • If your agents consistently provide a customer with good service, that customer is usually willing to overlook an isolated instance of poor service, but it is not easy to overcome a poor start.
  • If a customer regularly deals with several different agents, and one of them is good and the others are not as good, the customer is going to try to contact the good agent, regardless of the issue. So if you have a poor support rep and a great sales rep, your customers will tend to take their support problems to the sales rep. So a ‘bad’ agent, in almost any department, can make the job tougher on a good agent, even in a totally different department.

Again in my opinion, good agents:

  • Are pleasant, easy to reach, and good listeners
  • Know how to uncover what the customer needs. Customers don’t always say what they need or need what they say. A poor agent solves problems the customer doesn’t really have.
  • Never say “That’s not my job.” The customer’s issue might be ‘not an issue I (or even ‘my group’) can resolve’ but it is ALWAYS a service agent’s job to help the customer. Helping the customer reach someone who can resolve the issue is part of the job. Following up later is also part of the job, and that customer contact is open until the issue is addressed.
  • Usually have the right answer to most customer issues, but when they don’t, they are empowered to say “I don’t know, but I will find out for you”. And then follow up, find the answer, and get back to the customer. It is never acceptable to knowingly give wrong answers to customers to avoid the work of finding out the right answers.

When I was first hired as Manager of Support, I promised my company that nobody who worked for me would ever say “That’s not my job.” I never hired or had to release someone who had that attitude.

I dealt with customer service agents three times yesterday. One of them said “You need to contact <someone else> to help you”. I wasn’t happy to hear that, but she was right. Another one of them said “I don’t know the answer. Hold on and I’ll find it.” And she did. The third one (a guy this time) unraveled what I needed from what I said and gave me the correct answer. Whenever I find good service, I like to acknowledge it, and I did. When I’m the boss, that’s how I want my organization to operate. It should be everywhere you look; unfortunately it’s not.

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