The primary focus of my consulting practice is helping technology companies help their customers, a process traditionally referred to as “tech support.” Along the way we’ve learned a couple of important things you might find useful.
Tech support is often approached by customers more in terms of fear and loathing than as a pleasurable episode of welcome assistance. “Dread” is not too harsh a term for what customers feel when they reach for the phone to call for some help with a problem. Will I get through to someone in less time than it takes for the Earth to rotate on its axis? Will that someone have any idea what I’m talking about? Will he have any idea what he’s talking about? How many calls will it take to finally reach someone who can actually help, and explain it in terms I can understand?
Customers used to be willing to grit their teeth and bear it, because the things they needed help with — computers, printers, smartphones — were essential tools of modern life and there was little choice. But in an increasingly connected world full of gadgets (often of dubious utility and sloppy engineering), that tolerance of exasperating tech support is eroding. This is especially the case when desperate technology sellers offer no-questions-asked, full-refund returns, making Best Buy and Amazon.com look more like lending libraries than retailers.
What compounds the problem is that good tech support is often the only option a technology provider has to prevent its customers from not only returning their purchases but vowing never to buy anything from that provider again. And, in an age of social media and the unrestrained broadcast-blurting of complaints, one angry consumer can easily spread his venom to hundreds or thousands of would-be buyers.
My consulting partner, the former CEO of Support.com, and I have come to an inescapable conclusion after a combined quarter-decade in the tech support world: Support can no longer be about sitting around waiting for something to break and then fixing it. To survive, technology companies instead have to start thinking about making sure their customers derive real value from the things they buy.
Those that embrace this paradigm shift are far more likely to prevail in a complex and cutthroat environment than those who stick to tradition. What we’re seeing is that the traditionalists often aren’t even getting the chance to fix a problem because their customers would rather ship the device or system back than bother to try to resolve an issue.
Why should you as a technology customer care about any of this?
Simple: Smart companies are being driven by market pressures to provide outstanding tech support. And that makes it far more likely that you’re able to purchase what you want from those that have.
If you’re a user of technology, it’s likely that you’ve already experienced this shift in orientation, albeit not completely and probably not often enough. Some example that will clue you in to whether you’ve bought from one of “good guys:”
- You don’t have to search for the manual or the packaging or the web site to find out how to get support. The most logical place to start is whatever you’re most likely to have at hand. For example, if it’s a home automation device you need help with, you’re probably controlling it from your smartphone. The app should have a big fat HELP button; tap it and help is on the way.
- You get your choice of how to receive support. Don’t want to make a call? You should be able to chat, right from your phone or tablet if you want to.
- Don’t want to talk or chat with a live agent? You should be able to call up a variety of self-help options: search for a solution or get an automated “fixit” process that diagnoses and repairs the problem automatically.
- In a connected world you shouldn’t have to explain things that the provider can get by itself. Nearly all “smart” devices work in the cloud, so the provider should have access to all the data that the device generates: usage patterns, fault logs, system health status. What you want to hear on the phone isn’t “So tell me everything that’s going on.” You want to hear, “Give me one second…ah! I see the problem, I know everything you’ve already tried, here’s what we’re going to do.”
- It should be about more than fixing the problem. For example, say you call up to resolve an issue with your smart thermostat. After solving the problem, the tech support agent asks you if you’re familiar with the thermostat’s programming feature, and helps you set up your first schedule. Even better, he says, “I see you’re setting the thermostat manually all the time. Did you know you can program a schedule?” Even better than that, the agent calls you and offers to help you with an advanced feature he knows you’re not taking advantage of.
In other words, great support means the provider isn’t just interested in fixing the immediate problem; they care about making sure you’re getting some use out of their products.
There’s nothing altruistic in this. The provider’s motivation is to make sure you keep what you have and are motivated to buy again from that company. But this is a good thing for you: Altruism is ephemeral and unreliable. The profit motivation is something you can trust.
Here’s the takeaway for you as a technology consumer: The differences between competing devices are often marginal. One company’s smart thermostat or printer or security camera or baby monitor looks pretty much like most of the others in terms of features and price. (I defy you to look at a printed document or photo and tell me what brand of printer it came from.) If you want to maximize the probability that you’re going to be happy with your purchase, check out how the company supports the product.
It’s easy. Consumers take to the Twittersphere with not the slightest hesitation if they run into an issue. True, it takes some practice to separate the chronic and nitpicking gripers from the legitimate ones, but you’ll get the hang of it pretty quick.
In all my years in the technology arena, I have yet to see a company with solid, modern tech support fail to be a hit with its customers. So make that a high priority when you’re choosing whom to do business with and you’ll be a lot happier in the modern, connected world.
Lee Gruenfeld is a managing partner of Cholawsky and Gruenfeld Advisory, as well as a principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was vice president of strategic initiatives for Support.com, senior vice president and general manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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