How long will it take? When will it be fixed?

As many of the people I interact with daily will know, I am working on a wide range of initiatives at present designed to strengthen our services to customer, a project which stretches well beyond the obvious aspects of the products themselves.

One area I am tackling at the moment is improving the general interactions we make between our customers in our Support Team. This is without doubt the area of our business where the most direct customer interaction happens each day. A combination of those things that just ‘go wrong’ and need the expertise of our engineers to help, but also the issues our own systems can have that cause interruption to our customers.

Both of these have a common issue, which I call the feedback loop. Giving customers feedback is undoubtedly an important aspect of handling a support case, but getting it right is tricky.

For example, when a support issue is logged, we often won’t know the cause of the problem, and therefore cannot really suggest how long it will take to resolve. This leaves a few possible ways to advise on the time until resolution:

– Give them a guess based on our best guess/hunch before we have a proper assessment

This works if the issue is quite likely to be one we have seen before. The downside is that new issues or complictions may frustrate that estimate. Sadly customers do hear the response as a guarantee and not an estimate.

– Suggest a time when we would be able to provide an update

This seems sensible enough, but often isn’t what a customer wants to hear, they want a definitive ‘when will it be fixed’ which as I outlined is not always feasible. Sometimes too we end up with the customer taking that also as a guarantee of fix time, like with best guesses,

– Give a widely generous estimate

This in theory gives us more breathing space, since it means we can often out perform those estimates. The side effects are that we either then appear to be just ‘slack’ at responding to customer issues, or the next time we give a wide estimate the customer ignores it and assumes a quicker time will certainly be the case.

…there are other poosible combinations but you get the idea!

There are sometimes ways you can manage this expectation better, particularly when you are dealing on a one to one basis, where you have good relations, as you can gauge how they interpret your message and give them an appropriate response that ensures they have realistic expectations, you can deliver and nobody is misled or otherwise uncertain.

More difficult however is generic communication. For example, we are currently introducing a twitter status feed (http://twitter.com/vpwsysstatus if you care) so we can provide better feedback to customers, but with very limited space and an audience you cannot predict or tailor to individually communicating clearly and in away which avoids the negative feedback loop is tricky. We are not actively promoting this at present as we are still bringing this into our communications mix, but I can sense the challenge already,

Interestingly this discussion came up today on twitter as @JohnWLewis ( http://twitter.com/JohnWLewis and me http://twitter.com/mr_vpw ) felt that while o2 provide information on network faults, they do not provide adequate informaion to him on the ‘time for resolution’ or at least more information to give him the reassurance that the issue is not just known but being worked on for resolution. This is certainly an interesting debate as views vary so wildly.

Undoubtedly the first priority has to be acknowledging that such issues exist, since this will save a lot of time and hassle in investigating faults that ultimaely do not lie within the control of the customer.

For me, the challenge going ahead is to ensure we provide an open dialog on issues that arise, provide truthful response (even when that means admitting the issue is ours as the supplier), and finding the right balance to ensure customers feel reassured that issues are taken seriously and dealt with in a timely professional manner.

Our current lineup of ways to communicate include:

– ensuring the helpdesk team can discuss faults openly with customers
– making sure incidents are visible via tools such as twitter
– for major or recurring issues provide incident reports direct from me as company director so customers know the most senior people take issues seriously
– empowering our staff can say ‘I made a mistake’ – it happens

…but I am still seeking further ways to improve on this. Our aim is to provide the best feedback, best support and service of any company. A massive challenge, and a massive yardstick, but we work on this every day!

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