Ask any successful organization about their operational methodology, and you’re likely to get “agile” as your answer.
Agile started off in the 1990s as a solution to the chaos in software development. But the practice became so popular that even non-developers are embracing the methodology, including management, operations, and—more recently—tech support.
Tech support is notorious for having a bad reputation about their service, both on the receiving side and the serving side. In fact, according to a 2015 report by SDL, 45% of customers did not recall having a recent satisfactory customer support experience.
Fortunately, the situation is improving, particularly in startups and innovative organizations that adopt an agile approach to tech support. The very same methodology that has benefited software developers immensely for years is now having a similar impact on customer support, which is brilliant for businesses, customers, and service representatives.
What can you do to be agile in your organization’s tech support?
Why Agile Is the Perfect Fit for Tech Support
Tech support is one of the harder customer support functions for businesses to handle. The biggest challenge is the often large knowledge gap between agents and customers. Technical issues are not easy to explain and solve, especially if the customer is already in a bad mood, making it significantly harder for service reps to address the problem.
Aside from knowledge gaps, organizations struggle to find the right people to work in tech support and to train them to meet expectations. A survey by IDG in 2016 discovered that 51% of companies found it hard to recruit, train, and retain talent with the right soft and hard skills.
Finally, there’s always the concern of striking a balance between providing excellent service to as many customers as possible while maintaining efficiency in support teams. Can organizations find that equilibrium without upsetting either side?
Being agile solves most of the challenges tech support teams face on a daily basis.
Making Tech Support Better, One Improvement at a Time
In agile, collaboration is a key concept. Where traditional support teams relied on individual KPIs (key performance indicators) as benchmarks for success, agile flips the script by encouraging teamwork, as team members are expected to complete tasks together. This approach solves talent retention and employee attrition in companies elegantly, since team members who engage with each other are less likely to depart early.
At the same time, agile provides the ability to use customer feedback to benefit tech support. Although support teams do not use feedback to build products, they can leverage customer input to find gaps in their service and learn from their findings to continuously improve their performance.
When done right, agile makes it easier for tech support teams to do their job—and the advantages don’t stop there.
According to Rosetta, highly engaged customers buy 90% more frequently, spend 60% more on transactions, and have three times the annual value of the average customer, and they are six times more likely to say they would try a new product or service from the brand as soon as it comes out.
How to Implement Agile into Tech Support
Of course, since support teams are not building software, they cannot use all available agile practices in their work. But many agile methods can be tweaked to fit tech support.
Here are four suggestions.
Use Kanban Boards
Customer support agents get flustered in their work when there is no clear direction on what they should accomplish every day. The only order they get is to answer calls and try their best to solve customer concerns.
But there’s much more to the job than that. Often, tech support is a direct line to the customers, and how techs handle customer interactions will reflect on the whole company. Quick thinking is the most important skill here. When agents receive a call, they have to gauge how tech-savvy the customer is in order to determine the best course of action. For those who are tech-savvy, they can speed things along by directing them to guides and instructions that hold the resolution. For more complex issues, they might have to connect the caller with a specialist from the team.
Tech support agents also often have to check previous tickets and reported issues to see whether this is a repeating issue and what solutions were used earlier. Previous notes can help them fast-track the problem solving. For each ticket and inquiry, they should focus on writing detailed notes and logs because it will help with future calls. These detailed logs will also help determine whether there’s a larger underlying problem. Agents should be able to detect such underlying issues and report them to management.
In short, tech support is there to report-large scale issues and bottlenecks so the company can work on solutions and improve customer satisfaction. But working in this typical manner is not very agile, as everything is ad hoc.
Instead, organizations should make use of kanban boards in allocating tasks to tech support teams.
Making work visible is one of the core agile principles. Team members must have a clear view of upcoming, ongoing, and completed tasks.
With kanban, you start with a few lists to categorize your tasks. Tasks are arranged from top to bottom in descending order of priority and moved between lists as their status changes.
Let’s say you have three lists: To Do, Ongoing, and Done. When a task in the To-Do list is started, it is moved to the Ongoing list, and then to Done when the task is completed.
This is an intuitive and effective technique to help your tech support team understand the tasks they have on hand so they can manage their time and efforts more efficiently.
You can use a plain old board on the wall with notecards and pins to do this, or there are digital versions of kanban boards available online. Whatever works best for your team and is visible and accessible to everyone is the recommended choice.
Make Task Ownership a Team Effort
For decades, customer support teams, even in tech, were fragmented as a result of organizations practicing a siloed architecture. For example, junior support agents who have problems with customer calls may pass it on to a senior agent. If the senior agent cannot handle it, the problem goes further up the ranks and the handoffs continue.
Imagine being the customer in this scenario. You’d be long gone by the time your issue is addressed!
Not only is this annoying for customers, but businesses lose out as well, since higher-ups—who have more important tasks to do—must now shift their attention to settle lower-level calls.
The solution is to assign the responsibility of tasks to teams or departments. In agile, this is called swarming.
Instead of handling support tickets individually, theentire team works together to complete tasks, which aligns with the ideology of agile.
You want to build an “us against the world” culture in tech support instead of each team member having their own distinct responsibilities in the office.This helps to build a collaborative environment where people are seeking out ways to have each other’s back rather than offering help only when necessary.
Use a Pull System in Scheduling Tasks
We are used to project managers determining what tasks are to be done by team members. But to be agile, the opposite must happen.
Pull-based scheduling is a task scheduling technique allowing team members to “pull” tasks themselves rather than being assigned work separately. In other words, support agents can personally populate their work log based on their capability for the day or week.
Aside from employee relief, this method also helps organizations speed up work and increase productivity, as team members who finish a task ahead of schedule can pull someone else’s task to fill the free time.
Obviously, there will be times where certain tasks are prioritized, but giving your tech support team the freedom to pick their tasks will go a long way toward establishing a positive agile environment.
Continuously Practice an Agile Culture
All the work you put in to make your tech support agile will never amount to anything if your company does not practice a culture that allows it to happen.
Tech support has always been rigid and systematic in serving customers. To successfully implement agile, change needs to happen not only in support teams, but also across the entire company.
Resistance to change is a real problem in many organizations. Consequently, it’s vital to lead by example and show your tech support team why being agile is good for both them and the customers.
Instead of brute-forcing agile, be patient by implementing the tips mentioned above (or any agile practice, for that matter) one step at a time.
The agile methodology also revolves around areas outside of pure tech support, like meetings and task check-ins. Ditch the boring quarterly meetings. Schedule weekly 30-minute team meetups instead, and make it a collaborative session where everyone can speak up rather than letting only the manager lead the meeting.
Hold daily standups where team members talk about their tasks for the day. There, they can discuss what seems to be working well, what doesn’t work at all, and what they think should be changed.
For example, a junior tech support rep has completed their tasks, but didn’t offer the best possible solution for some, instead using quick fixes to resolve certain issues. During the meeting, you can offer kudos for completing everything, but point out that quick fixes are just delaying an issue that will pop up again.
Other team members can chime in and report whether they had similar issues to solve and help determine whether you need to provide a better solution for the next cycle, to ensure next week’s kanban board doesn’t have the same customers calling over the same issue again.
Implement Today for a Better Tomorrow
Being agile is all about continuously improving your tech support processes.
As agile focuses a lot on regular reviews and retrospectives, your support team will be able to learn from past experiences and use that to provide faster, better, and more efficient service to customers.
Practicing agile in tech support is one of the best decisions businesses can make today—and tomorrow.
I have to disagree that tech support has a bad reputation, really! The teams I've worked with were very organized and effective. Maybe I'm lucky ;) Anyway, a very important thing they thought me is using the most simple organizing-tasks methods, like clear calendar or kanban board , even when not the whole team is into it. I like that you noticed that value too!
I like thsi article. I think it's a fair statement to say that most helpdesk do have a bad reputation. People are calling into a helpdesk and they are having an issue. Even thought most of the calls that come in are resolved successfully, the angry/irate ones will stand out.
I manager an Oracle Support Team and 75% of their work is support about 25% is agile and trying see the best way to manage drive our standup calls. The first issue I get is iggest issue I have is that my team isn't very good about wanting to speak. Any suggestion on how I can encourage them to speak.