Developing Support Team Skills


Increasingly the support center is becoming a vital area in the office environment. In crisis situations the first call made is usually to the support center. Even in the smallest of organizations the role of the support analyst, also know as the computer expert, is a well defined entity. The support analysts are the ones that we count on to recover lost documents, revive dead computers, import/export files, and to provide crucial reports for presentations. A growing expectation is to have reliable and knowledgeable people in the analysts role, a benefit to every organization.

In most of our support centers we are forced to be reactive. As the phones ring we answer and supply valuable answers to our customers. This reactiveness can hinder our progress efforts. Our approach should be to build the support center into a proactive device by attempting to minimize customer anxieties and problems. This would include using weekly meetings, established policies and procedures, customer training recommendations and support analyst training to support our approach.

Historic Role of the Support Analyst

Let's face it, the support analysts were a valuable part of our support environment. Through their experiences throughout our organization they gained knowledge in a number of different areas involving to the day to day operations of our business. When working with the legacy equipment ensuring a functioning system was a primary concern. Anytime there was a problem, we placed a call to the support center for some words of wisdom. Within a couple of keystrokes our problems were solved. An often maligned computer department was the focal point of our daily routines.

Applicants were introduced to the support center by a series of ringing phones at crunch time with no one to answer. If you walked in and answered a ringing phone with a smile, you were welcomed into the environment with open arms. A cheerful smile and a helping hand was the image that was portrayed, always willing to try, more often than not, successfully. Formal training was the exception, an apprenticeship was the norm. There were people with a wealth of knowledge, but most of the knowledge was not shared. Without the benefit of experience, we needed to share the knowledge and the experiences.

Support Analyst and the Business Workplace

This role is becoming increasingly important as the office environment evolves and becomes more technical in nature. These office experts have perfected their craft through experience, and these experiences have been both good and bad. Experience based learning is a technology of the past. The support center has evolved so quickly that education by experience requires more analyst time than is currently available. We must promote education and faster research methods for analysts to hone their skills.

The computer world requires that we have a small knowledge about a number of vastly different activities. This knowledge parlays into a number of scopes that we all must face. We often base these summations on previous experiences, visions or some sort of existing knowledge. This is the realm of the support analyst.

The question often arises on how to prepare our analysts for all of the possible situations that could occur. Can we teach or train for all possible situations? No, we have discovered that training for every scenario is impossible. We must train for certain situations in combination with promoting the proper procedures. This is, however, a way that we can help shape or provide a desired result. By introducing these new ideas we can now provide easier methods of shared information. With the advent of shared knowledge analysts are not forced to resolve the same issues on multiple calls. We can force the transitions and remove the repetitiveness of the position.

Training and the Support Analyst

There is a management responsibility to guide staff members to select educational experiences that coincide with the organizational plans. There is an expectation that long range planning exists and concrete plans are in place. The process of developing goals implies that there will also be a mechanism in place to measure how well the goals are being met.

Education is a necessity in the support field. It facilitates the decision making process as well as influences the direction of automation. It is therefore important to the corporation that employees continue to learn, but it is just as important for the support staff members to improve their skills and become more productive in the organization. "Education is essential to performance" says Sanford M. Sorkin of Coastal Technologies. This education will help you to resolve some common support center problems including the always present "Insufficient time to research problems".

Computer Based Training (CBT) is a valuable tool in the continuing education cycle. One of the things that we learn quickly in the support world is to use all of the available resources for researching and resolving issues. CBT is a growing industry and the cost per analyst makes it an excellent investment. The ability to reuse the computer based training kits make the tool an invaluable resource.

Consistently other departments and groups tend to select and pull analysts from the support center to work in their areas. The support center analysts are some of the best trained and knowledgeable problem solving personnel in the company. These hiring practices make training in the support center an expensive venture. As the analysts are relocated, the support center is forced to replace the departed team members.

With this high turnover rate, what makes the role of the support center important? As the knowledgeable support analysts venture into other portions of the company, they promote the idea that there is a wealth of information and endless possibilities that the computers can provide the users. They spread the successes of other departments and how they make better use of the computers in individual situations. The users then attempt to use the computers to do a bit more work and simplify their responsibilities. The support center is then forced to obtain additional software or training to supplement the user requests. This enables analysts to evolve in the workplace and keep from being tied to typical situations for extended periods of time.

Many organizations are rotating personnel in the support areas. Each person leaving the support center is required to come back to serve an additional period as a support analyst after a certain period of time. Therefore an analyst may be relocated to the marketing department, however, after a period of twelve months they return to the support center for a period of three months. During this three month period they are trained in the new functions and responsibilities that were not available during their last stint as support analysts.

Spreading the Wealth

Often, a single analyst will become the authority on a given subject. As an authority, all materials, questions and trouble calls are assigned to this analyst. With time the analyst grows restless faced with the same tasks, questions and responsibilities on a daily basis. Our challenge begins with removing the discontent in this analyst. The response is to remove the repetitive functions and to introduce the aspects of new and more challenging roles in the support environment.

When dealing with shared knowledge every activity should include an adequate amount of time to promote a training exercise or the sufficient time to update all related documentation. This process lends itself to the "learn from every call" theory. Visits to remote sites are time consuming but a valuable asset in providing the best support services. It is often impossible to provide solutions to problems without an understanding of the site policies and procedures. If it is not possible to visit remote sites or key customers at least once a year, at least try to have regular contact with the location. Take a proactive role, and keep everyone fully informed about all aspects of computing that affect their jobs.

Analysts and the Team Approach

Today we are in a realm of rapid evolvement, the technologies are changing faster than anyone could have anticipated. We can no longer afford to learn by experience, because all situations are different. The technical institutions are providing an education, giving the necessary training, but have not provided the skill. The skill is the application of the concepts and more importantly documenting that application in a format that is conducive to the knowledge and education of others.

The people with this knowledge must have and be willing to use the facilities available to share information now between departments and buildings and also to train other analysts to recognize scenarios and resolve issues. The spread of the knowledge is the key, everyone must benefit from the situation if we are all to succeed. Any analyst on the staff can solve the problem, there are no specialists. We all function as a team, with the ultimate goal of solving the problem in the shortest amount of time possible.

This shared knowledge and team approach is promoted throughout the company. The support center funds its activities by billing the other departments or external customers appropriately. In order to make this work in your individual company, there must be a strategic plan in place along with a set of well defined business objectives. With an understanding of the organization’s direction and goals, it is possible to design and implement a strategy. Some opportunities for improving the existing structure are listed below:

Establishing weekly meetings to provide an outlet for stress in the support center is a proactive step for addressing crisis situations. Individual customer problems can be discussed at the meetings, with the recognition that it would be extremely inappropriate to discuss them outside the group.

Establishing a process for support call peer review, using tape recording or listening devices. This enables support centers to actively attempt to modify and improve the support process. Honing the telephone skills is an important step in the support development process.

Encourage attendance at meetings and conferences in other departments. Building the knowledge base can be constantly improved by having analysts attend meeting regarding projects and branches that are being taken by various groups throughout the company. These meetings are an informal look into the path being taken by a group within a company. This provides some insight into current projects and ideas. Revise training materials and objectives as often as necessary.

Set clear policies and procedures to avoid confusion and inconsistent support practices. The policies should contain information on how to deal with troublesome calls and clients and how to determine when the call is completed. The procedures need to address areas including reference checking, call escalation, and call documentation standards. These procedures should also address the training of analysts in the use of research materials and services.

Clear goals and objectives are the major steps involved with reducing stress related problems stemming from support positions. The stress factors related to the support center are reduced when the support analysts see a light at the end of the tunnel. The objective here is to make the role at the support center a job with a means of improvement. A position that will continue to evolve and grow with the growth of the computer marketplace. A means of furthering ones education and communication skills with the knowledge and experience of use. This is not a stagnant relationship, but one of constant evolution and progress.

Online support facilities can be used as backups for some of your support situations. A wealth of knowledge and experience is available online and we should make the best use of these situations. Join local chapters of support organizations to share information.

Working as a team may improve overall performance at the support center. Though each problem is individually addressed, there will be a certain number of problems that require group attention. Stressing the importance of knowledge in the support center is essential to the development of the support center. The analyst must feel as if there are alternatives and career development steps that can be taken from the support center.

Inside of the support center there have to be some sort of incentive programs that are established and documented. There must be a promotion schedule and plan in the support area with sufficient incentives for analysts to want to achieve higher levels in the support areas. These incentives should include bonuses of some kind based upon some educational experiences and training programs.

An additional consideration for improving the support team performance and skill level is the addition of an "ISSUE OF THE WEEK" plan. Analysts who find and solve the issue of the week are entitled to an incentive (days off, additional income, promotion...). These issues are discussed in the weekly meetings and designated for program review.

Improving the skills and experience levels inside of the support center must be a well planned activity. The focus is upon building a sturdy foundation in the support center and then assuring the evolution process within the support center for the analysts involved. A portion of the master plan should include the use of support center software. Support center call logging and tracking software can provide a tool for capturing many different types of pertinent information. Using automated support center software we can track problems and their associated resolutions. When evaluating tracking software, make a list of your software expectations. Separate the list into "needs" and "wants". One by one evaluate the items on your list versus the support software’s capabilities, ensuring that the software can accomplish the needs. In conjunction with the needs the software should accomplish a number of the items on the "wants" list. The software vendor should provide you with access to a support line and be willing to accept improvement suggestions for the products. The software vendor should be using their own software to manage their support center also.

We can track client histories, identify problem clients and the areas of interest for additional training needs. Some of the features that you should look for in support center software include a keyword searchable knowledge base. With a searchable database new technicians can find and resolve existing issues as if they were veterans. This knowledge base can be printed and bound as a reference volume or be used standalone as a reference guide.

The support center software should include an inventory tracking module. Inventory tracking allows the support center to track conflicts among devices, and to track defective hardware. The inventory tracking also allows the support center to evaluate the current status of various inventory items. This becomes crucial when we are aging the inventory in our companies. With a single report we can identify all of the trouble reports associated with a type of software or a piece of hardware. By identifying this information we can schedule training classes in the proper use of this equipment, or schedule for its removal and the integration of a new device or program in its place.

Make sure to evaluate the database structure and types when investigating support center software. Inevitably you will need to massage the data and if the data is being stored in a standard compatible format it will make things much smoother. Another question dealing with that same topic address is can the data be imported by one of my standard programs (ie. Excel, Word, Access, etc.).

Support center software is an absolute necessity for the support center, a tool that no support center can function efficiently without.