by Christoph Goldenstern, Kepner-Tregoe
Customer service and the IT service desk have been among the earliest adopters of knowledge-oriented troubleshooting tools and methods. This stands to reason. Business people can’t create value for the organization when they’re struggling with (recurring) technical problems. The urgent need to get them up and running justifies investment in both troubleshooting and knowledge-creation capability of the team that supports the business.
For at least the past 25 years, the predominant focus has been on enabling customers to experience “first contact resolution.” That is, the frontline agent who picks up the phone at the service desk is the one who delivers the definitive resolution – ideally in minutes, on the first call. Organizations have invested millions of dollars in staffing, training, and tools for the service desk, specifically to achieve consistently high rates of first contact resolution.
Let’s face it: The results have been mixed… at best.
Service organizations have been held back by the limitations of their ability to capture and share product knowledge, and the ability of their staff to acquire/retain that knowledge. This is especially true at the frontline, with level 1 agents – but probably not for the reason managers assume.
IT managers have long regarded, frontline agents as lower-skilled people, subject to high attrition rates, and often questioned the wisdom of investing in their training and development as problem solvers. Of course, managers want their frontline agents to be people with an engineering mindset who ultimately aspire to further personal development and growth into level 2 or 3. But service starts at level 1 and working level 1 at a help desk is not a glamorous job. The pressures are great, call volumes are high, and often the rewards are low. Hence, turn-over is high. Many organizations have undervalued their level 1 agents and thus made this a self-fulfilling prophesy at their service desks.
Many organizations create misaligned expectations for frontline agents to take the time to adequately appraise the caller’s situation, analyze and identify the incident, and capture problem-solving knowledge in the workflow, through their performance metrics. In most organizations, metrics emphasize speed of call handling — how quickly the agent records the issue, dispatches deskside support, and gets the customer off the phone — not speed of (actual) resolution. The incentive to get off the phone quickly works directly against the agent’s putting in the time to accurately appraise the customer’s issue, which is essential to first contact resolution.
That’s frustrating because widely accepted methodologies and tools for achieving frontline service excellence have been available for decades. What these methodologies have in common is an emphasis on nurturing and upgrading the problem-solving skills at level 1.
Where does the customer’s service experience break down? It’s right at the beginning. If the first impression that is generated is one of lack of clarity and irrelevant questions, that impression will be one of frustration at what they see as wasted effort. Even more frustrating is the fact that we all know that the focus on quality at the front end will actually result in faster resolution.
Customers form their impression of the service experience — and of the support team — within 30 seconds of the start of the call. Often, they go into the experience already cynical about the level of support they will receive. The common clichéd reference to frontline service as the “helpless desk” sums this cynicism up nicely.
In many organizations, end-users have given up on their service desks entirely, and a norm has taken hold: If you have a problem, look for the solution on YouTube. This may deflect calls from the service desk — not entirely a bad thing, but it will undermine confidence in support and eliminate opportunities for the organization to learn from issues and gain technical competence from resolving them.
It is apparent from Kepner-Tregoe’s experience in working with organizations to develop service excellence that poor frontline customer experience generally stems from an ineffective initial appraisal of the situation. The agent isn’t asking the right questions to determine what the problem actually is – or indeed, whether there is an actual problem (a deviation in performance).
Many customer contacts that go into the record as problems actually are not problems (in a technical sense). All systems are performing normally. The customer has a technical question, for which the proper response is to retrieve an answer which we already have, because we have heard this question before.
Often this is obvious, but it can be more ambiguous. The customer may report that a system is not performing as it should, when in fact it is. The root of the issue is that neither the customer nor the agent is doing the situation appraisal to understand what normal performance looks like. It often turns out there is no real deviation from the “should.”
Or, the customer will present what looks like a novel issue, one that the agent expects to require original diagnosis and troubleshooting. But ultimately it turns out the agent already had an answer available, but because of a faulty original appraisal, the issue was so lost in the narrative that no one realized that solution existed.
The skill that differentiates effective frontline agents from ineffective agents is the insight to efficiently appraise the situation and craft a quality problem statement. That comes from the discipline of:
- Defining, clarifying and prioritizing issues,
- Uncovering critical data for troubleshooting,
- Comparing “what is working” to “what is not working,” and
- Assessing possible causes against specific symptoms.
We know from our experience and our research with clients that the time invested in creating a quality problem statement is a huge leading indicator of your overall resolution time and the customer’s experience.
The place to create that problem statement is at the front line. If you fail there, you are really just shooting in the dark, trying to make the customer feel better by responding to him. He may feel better (initially), but you are not really addressing his or her problem.
Effective troubleshooting is a teachable skill. The benefits of getting it right at level 1 include:
- Resolving problems and “non-problems” faster – This will drive down escalations, which will lower the cost of service, because you are addressing the problem at a lower support level.
- Better customer experience – Consistent, quality “engagement” from first touch-point on.
Improving the frontline support experience is one of the most critical elements in maturing the service culture, moving it from a baseline incident response and deflection orientation toward an assessment and resolution culture, focused on addressing issues at the cause level (known or unknown). That’s the subject of the Kepner-Tregoe white paper, “Challenging the Incident Management Culture.”
For more than six decades, Kepner-Tregoe has empowered organizations through a proven, structured approach to problem-solving. As the leader in problem-solving, KT has helped thousands of organizations solve millions of problems through more effective root cause analysis and decision-making skills. Through our unique blend of training and consulting, our clients demonstrate improved efficiency, higher quality and greater customer satisfaction while reducing their costs. KT’s experience-based learning methods integrating tools such as simulations and mentoring of in-tact teams have led to countless success stories for companies just like yours.