I've heard quite a few support leaders say that they know they're doing a good job because they're resolving issues quickly and their customer satisfaction surveys are good. Because, you know, that's what support does. Close cases. Quickly. In a way that satisfies customers. Mission accomplished; let's grab a beer!
Not so fast.
This belief begs the question of why the support organization exists. Because most of the activity, headcount, and budget are tied up in closing cases, it's easy to assume that the business of support is closing cases, full stop. But that's far too limited a view of our business.
Support is in the customer success businesses a colleague likes to say, helping customers receive and perceive value from the product. Closing cases can be part of the means to an end, but it's not the most important part, and it's certainly not the most valuable.
Why Does Support Exist?
When I ask a group of support executives why they do what they do, they often start out with (true!) statements like "The product breaks". Using a gentle version of the five whys, if I keep asking why that's important, we always get to some version of "If the customer doesn't get value from the product, they won't buy more, and they won't tell their friends to buy, either." Bingo.
There's no intrinsic value to the business of closing cases; it's all about customer retention, loyalty, lifetime value, and referenceability. Support feeds the company's engines of growth and sustainability. The Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) has made this topic a focus of their research; their findings are summarized in Consumption Economics.
But even if we believe that support's mission is to make customers successful, it's still easy to fall back on our old operational measures: cases closed, service levels, customer satisfaction (CSAT), and the like. What's wrong with that?
What's Wrong With Our Usual Operational Measures?
The problem is that our usual measures dramatically overstate the significance of the assisted case-closing channel as a way of delivering customer value. Cases are both more rare and deliver less value than most support organizations think.
If customers have a problem with our products, or are struggling to use them, opening a case is surprisingly low on their list of next steps. If you consider your own experience with technology, you tend to try other things first. Think about it a minute: what did you do last time you had a problem? If you're like most people, you Googled it. Or you asked a friend or colleague. I should know. I'm often that friend or colleague. And then I generally Google it!
Sometimes I go to the vendor's site and seek out an answer there. Sometimes I'll start a new thread in a community, although I'll do so only after looking for a while, because I don't want to be "That Guy" who re-posts an FAQ. I do open support cases, but not usually.
Now you might say, as a consumer and small business owner, I'm not entitled to great assisted support, so I tough it out, making do with free resources. But you know what? I'd really rather figure it out on my own, even if the vendor is there to help me, I'd rather not jump through their hoops and explain it all to someone else if I can be self-sufficient. Many people feel the same way.
Most Support Happens Outside the Case Queue
At least, that's what the numbers show. As we look at our client's data, enterprise customers open a case only a small single-digit percentage of the time they want help. (The number is much, much smaller for B2C support.) The rest of the time, they're using Google, the self-service site, in-product help, and social networks of various kinds, including of the sneakernet variety. Sure, they tend to open cases for higher severity issues, but when it comes to customer success, every time a user is searching for help is important.
Do a perfect job on 100 percent of the cases you receive, and you're only making a difference five percent of the time. Or less.
So, when do customers open a case? Generally when things have hit the proverbial fan. When there has already been significant value erosion. The system is down; something needs to be replaced; it's throwing an error and not completing a task; it isn't doing something it is supposed to be able to do; or, it's doing something it shouldn't be doing. By the time the customer picks up the phone or logs in to our support portal, we have a problem, Houston, and we're in recovery mode.
Case Closure is Getting Back to Zero. Best Case.
Closing a case quickly and well simply makes the problem go away. It gets customers back to where they expected to be. It doesn't make things better than expected. Certainly, herculean recovery efforts can engender a sense of personal gratitude, which is nice, but it's doing a job well that never should have had to have been done in the first place.
Of course, once a case has been opened, closing it quickly and well is the best outcome. It's not always like that. Then things get really ugly, as you know from having been on both sides of this experience.
So, closing a case can be important, but only in so far as it gets us back to where we started.
The New Work of Support
What else can support organizations do?
Provide feedback to the development team to help them improve the product and the customer experience, avoiding problems in the first place.
Expand into a customer success management role that proactively advises customers to help them get the most value from their products.
Build and implement configuration health checks and other utilities that help customers avoid problems in the first place.
Create knowledgebase articles, video tutorials, and automated fixes to empower customers with the expertise they need to be successful themselves, and to get themselves back to value more quickly when needed.
All of these help customers receive and perceive value more than simply closing a case. What else do they have in common? Most support organizations are too busy to do them. Why? They're closing too many cases. Hmm.