Thursday, September 8, 2011

Never undervalue your experienced support technicians

Takeaway: Perhaps the biggest IT management oversight in the solar system is the undervaluation of these experienced technicians.

Malcolm Gladwell begins his book Blink with a story of an art dealer, Gianfranco Becchina. In 1983, Becchina offered the J. Paul Getty Museum a marble statue he claimed dated from the 6th century BC. The sculpture, known as a Kouros, was of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides.

Becchina’s asking price was, in essence, a ten million dollar question: “Is the statue legitimate or a superb forgery?” The Getty museum kept the statue on loan and spent 14 months trying to answer that expensive question.

The Getty brought in a geologist from the University of California, who examined the statue over two days with a stereomicroscope. He believed the statue was very old, of dolomite marble from the Cape Vathy quarry on the island of Thasos.

Stereomicroscopes, apparently, can be deceiving. Gladwell explained,

The Kouros had a problem. It didn’t look right. The first to point this out was an Italian art historian named Federico Zeri. When Zeri was taken down to the museum’s restoration studio to see the Kouros, he found himself staring at the sculpture’s fingernails. In a way he couldn’t immediately articulate, they seemed wrong to him.

Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York looked at it. His first thought was “fresh.” “And fresh,” Gladwell notes, “is not the right reaction to a 2000 year old statue.” Having turned to the Getty’s curator and asked if he had paid for it, then said, “If you haven’t, don’t, if you have, try to get your money back.”

In the end, the letters Becchina supplied to the Getty tracing the sculpture’s previous ownership turned out to be fake. The sculpture was a forgery. Very similar to a fragment produced by a forger in Rome in the early 1980’s.

The adaptive unconscious in technical support

Gladwell believes the art historians took a look at the statue and a part of their brain did a series of instant calculations. The part of the brain that constructs these quick conclusions from a large storehouse of data is called the adaptive unconscious. I believe the use of the adaptive unconscious is common in people with a lot of experience in technical support. (This definition of the “unconscious” is distinct from the “unconscious” defined by Freud. Don’t even go there.)

Rarely do experienced troubleshooters consciously think about what they’re doing (the process) when diagnosing a user’s problem because they’ve done it so many times. We ask general, but essential, questions first. After four or five general questions, we start asking specific questions.

We’re not following a script. Our questions are dynamic and are formed based on the answers the users give to the previous questions as well as our experience, which places their answers in a larger context.

Without even knowing it, we filter potential problems through our large “experiences” database and rank suspected causes on a scale of probability. Then, by process of elimination, we go after the issue, checking the most likely cause first. The effectiveness of our unconscious is directly related to the amount of relevant data stored there. There has to be a significant sample size of pertinent experiences to draw from; which we adapt to our current problem.

When we use the term “gut feeling,” we’re talking about the adaptive unconscious. But my point is our unconscious also contains a ton of loosely cataloged, objective information as Gladwell’s story illustrates.

Of course, some problems are so simple we just use conscious memory. We’re like a blindfolded passenger in a car driven by a lost user. In our memory is an excellent map of the town. Our job is to ask the user questions to give us some landmarks so we can tell them where to turn to get home.

The two key factors affecting productivity: Personnel and processes

So what you ask? Perhaps the biggest IT management oversight in the solar system is the undervaluation of these experienced technicians. An expert has been described as anyone with a briefcase over 50 miles from home. While that may not be the beginning of your story of the worst experience you’ve had with consultants, we all agree it does not an expert make. Daniel Levitin in his book, This is Your Brain on Music, gives a more accurate definition of an expert: “Someone who has reached a high degree of accomplishment relative to other people.”

Are experts made or born? Levitan says studies have shown that, “ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.”

The belief one can pull together a fine service desk, (level 1 and 2), with lightly experienced techs is ludicrous, whether in-house or offshore. Try it and the result will be disgusted users whose expectations are so low they feel, for some strange reason, they are fortunate when they are told their problem is going to be “escalated.” The word “escalated” in not synonymous in any dictionary with the word “resolved.” Inexperienced technicians, if that is all you have, are a significant personnel problem.

Another very common occurrence in technical support is having too much distance between the person with a problem and the person with the solution. Putting the person with the answer within one phone call of the end user 80% of the time is pricey — but it is less than the cost of separating them. Because that distance, measured in time, equals lost productivity which equals cost. A gatekeeper between the user and experienced technicians is a significant process problem.

End users know when they need their problem fixed. It is pretty much, “now.” That’s why they’re calling. “Now” should be a reasonable expectation the majority of the time. Put end-users and real tech support pros in immediate contact and watch customer satisfaction and productivity skyrocket.

On the other hand, providing users a technician to fix their computer problems who can’t fix 80% of a caller’s issues is claiming to have a genuine asset, when in fact, you don’t. And that doesn’t take 14 months to figure out.

Kent Blake works to create higher standards of customer support in a technical environment. He is a consultant and can be contacted for golf at He combines a journalism degree from Ole Miss with 15 years experience in various capacities in technical support and management.

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