In support of support

by Adrian Harris

We are a software vendor. Our mission is to support our customers and we’re lucky enough to have built a particularly brilliant team over the years. Yet many vendors struggle to recruit customer support staff. To many, support is a role you consider as a last resort. This saddens me. Should you entrust your customers to people who are made to feel second class citizens?

I took my first support role in 1992 after 11 years as a developer. I stayed for three years. I learned a lot. I was given the opportunity to do whatever seemed best for our customers. If I were to characterise this role in one word it would be “diverse”.

During this time, I was invited onto the Bell Labs software Architecture Review Board: the youngest member and the only member not educated at an Ivy League college (I was an average student). I doubt that I would ever have had this opportunity were it not for the things I learned in my support role.

I learned many technical skills, but perhaps the most important thing I learned was the curse of knowledge, a well-known phenomenon that leads support staff to believe their customers are ignorant. I regularly hear things from support staff like “I can’t believe they did that”, “they made an error that caused the system to crash” or, worse still, “why didn’t they read the manual?” Experience taught me that this is the wrong approach. Instead, they should be asking “how can we improve our solution, so our customers won’t make the same mistake?”

We are all customers of some product or service, so it’s not unusual for us to hold our suppliers accountable to one set of standards, and our customers to another. We should not be fooled into thinking that we are cleverer than our customers just because we know something they don’t. If we start believing all our customers are stupid, it’s probably because we are doing something wrong – not the other way around.

Support is not reactive. Support is proactive. The role should attract the very best, most imaginative staff to see and solve problems from a customers’ perspective, and drive improvements throughout the organisation. It might take senior management time to recognise this, but it’s worth investing the time and effort into the right people to make it happen.