Can I Help You? - The Vital Role Of Customer Service
by Alan Sadowsky

Every data processing organization has an obligation to support its customer base. This support must also go well beyond the bounds of providing the customer with the tools necessary to satisfy their basic requirements (ie. the application). Of even greater importance is the ability to respond to problems which manifest themselves, and directly impact the customer's ability to do their job. While it is usually the customer who is first cognizant of a problem, the process by which that problem is addressed, involves many people in many different disciplines.

In order to insure a timely response to these occurrences, a support structure and user interface must be in place to react quickly and effectively. Providing a framework to build a solid support structure is no simple task. Methodology aside, there are three basic rules which must be followed in order to achieve a reasonable degree of success in your efforts.

All calls from a customer should be directed to a single contact point - customer service The major complaint heard from customers, is that they are frequently passed from one person to another, or transferred from one department to another, often having to explain a problem several times, to several different people. When you consider that the customer already has a problem when he or she picks up the phone, you can imagine the level of frustration after being bounced around two or three times.

Committing to a one-call-does-all structure is not a trivial venture. The obligation at the corporate level must be to provide a highly trained, technically fluent organization which provides first-line assistance and problem determination for its customers. Fostering a "pass the buck" philosophy, runs the risk of alienating the customer who has come to you for help.

Customer Service personnel should be functionally product-literate, as well as technically knowledgeable.
Customer Service should be able to address questions of a functional nature, as well as notification of processing problems (system errors). If the call concerns functionality (format or syntax questions), Customer Service will work with the caller to both assist and educate. If the call is determined to be a software problem, Customer Service will escalate the problem to the appropriate department, and assume the role of interface between the customer, and the resolution effort. At no time is the caller passed to another person or department. Customer Service remains the single point of contact.

Here's the obvious question. Where do I find the people with these skills? To be honest, I haven't found more than two or three with that unique combination of skills, in all the years I've been in the business. But I can tell you where to start looking.

Since the greatest number of calls will most likely be functional in nature, it's best to go after the functional skills first, and then augment the skill set with some formal technical training. Most managers and project leaders will agree that programmers and analysts who at one time were "users", have a greater understanding and appreciation of the customer's needs, and as a result have a greater affinity for their work. Your best source for staffing has to be right in your own back yard. It's your reservations agents, your tellers, your hotel front desk people, your airline ticket agents, etc. These are the people with the ideal functional foundation to build on! Take advantage of their expertise.

All calls should be logged and tracked

Every call to Customer Service should be logged and tracked for several good reasons. Of primary importance, is the ability to respond to the customer in a timely manner. Don't lose track of the fact that a customer calling with a Problem is often "down", and unable to work. Other benefits gained through problem logging and tracking are:

While there area number of automated problem tracking systems on the market today, there are still shops utilizing manual procedures which work quite well. The means in this case is not as important as the end. Implementation of a Customer Service/Help Desk organization is undoubtedly a costly and time consuming undertaking. Suffice to say that it is time and money well spent. A product effectively becomes meaningless when the ability to use it is compromised. Without an emphasis on customer interface and support, the efforts of any data processing organization may prove to be fruitless. Customer Service is the vital link with the customer, and as such represents the business interests of the entire company.