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Applying Shift-Left Principles To Customer Support Organizations

The put-the-customer-first mantra is spreading across all industries: technology, automotive, retail, healthcare, financial services, hospitality, and manufacturing.

New entrants globally are redefining the way customer experiences are delivered. They’re solving business problems, not just selling products or services. And the top-ranked brand in each market for customer experience outperforms the respective average company by 10%, according to KPMG.

The challenge facing service support organizations is that the increasing volumes of service desk requests is driving them into continuous fire-fighting mode.

Proactive methods, such as analyzing call center trends, taking preventive actions, and perform post mortems when major issues are resolved are effective ways to decrease the number of support requests. Unfortunately, IT service providers often focus most of their resources on reactive activities and ignore proactive methods despite the obvious benefits.

Improving IT customer services operations is thus a high-priority improvement target for IT service providers because it is critical for business operations and involves daily interaction with customers, thus directly effecting customer satisfaction.

Many parallels between customer service support and software development

To examine how we can best improve IT customer support operations, we turn to software development. Leading companies have changed their methods dramatically over the years. And it turns out that IT customer support organizations have a lot they can learn from their developer colleagues.

So what are developers doing that’s different?  They’re shifting from “waterfall” to Agile development methodologies as well as to the DevOp framework for developing and supporting enterprise applications. The goal is to drive faster release cycles, improve quality, and deliver an overall better experience to your customers—the users of your systems and applications.

In conjunction with Agile and DevOps, a philosophy called “shift left” has emerged as a new way to improve the quality of applications by moving testing cycles closer to development activities. This has proven to reduce the number of defects found in production—and saved tens of thousands of dollars for organizations that implement it.

Shift-left testing: a dramatic change

To shift left means to conduct testing earlier in the software delivery lifecycle. This is as opposed to the traditional approach of handing testing off to a dedicated QA team at the very end of development. The reasoning is simple: the earlier in the development process you can find issues, the sooner you can give feedback to your developers, and the more productively they can work.

Currently, more than four in 10 development organizations have officially shifted left in application testing.

Research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Ponemon Institute found that if issues are identified early in development, they cost approximately $80 to fix. But the same problems cost almost $7,600 to fix if detected during production—nearly 100 times as much.

Applying shift-left principles to customer services support organizations

Just as shift left was adopted because coding issues are more expensive to fix the later they are caught, service operations face a similar situation. Take, for instance, an incident that was first worked on by Tier 1 technician, before being raised to Tier 2, and after some time finally requiring a conference call of Tier 3 SMEs before it could be resolved. The resulting cost of each n+1 resource added can easily outstrip the actual cost it would have taken to properly maintain the environment, failed equipment, or faulty application in the first place.

This idea of solving a problem during the initial implementation and maintenance period of equipment rather than waiting for a major incident to occur mimics that of the findings that led to the shift-left revolution in Development. If the Ponemon study on costs can be applied to service operations, by solving earlier in the process, it could save up to 100 times that cost.

We call this “shifting down.”

Why down? Because you are, in effect, shifting responsibility down the organizational structure, so that Tier 1 and Tier 2 support people have more knowledge, more responsibility, and are empowered to act on behalf of the customer.

The goal of shifting down is to use cheaper skilled resources, proactive problem management, and interaction points closer to your customer to reduce escalations, improve first-time fix rate, reduce cost of service, and overall improve customer experience.

A common example of shifting down is to deploy an appropriately powerful self-service online portal to handle common customer concerns. Rather than having your customer call your Tier 1 tech support for, say, forgotten passwords, you automate the process.

Note the word appropriately. You must ensure that you standardize and equip the level you are empowering to do what it needs to do. Otherwise the program will fail. A self-service portal attempting to solve all issues for all customers, for example, will be useless, skipped, and ridiculed. Whereas one dedicated to password resets to a specific application could be extremely helpful and result in much lower call volumes for the service desk. Similarly, suddenly expecting a Tier 1 engineer to perform network troubleshooting with no background or common methodology would equally result in a failed program.

A new era for IT service management

The IT service management (ITSM) function is truly in the midst of transformation.

A study by Forbes Insight and BMC found that most IT service organizations are evolving beyond merely focusing on IT-centric services. Instead, they are now seen as mission-critical teams that are on the front of line ensuring that the customer experience is what it should be in the new digital age.

To put your firm on the edge of what leading companies are doing, you should consider shifting down. Not only will your customers be happier, your bottom line healthier, and your employees more satisfied, you’ll up your competitiveness in the fast-paced digital economy.

Want to hear more about shifting down? Download our white paper, and get eight best practices for implementing shift down in your customer services and support organization.

About Kepner-Tregoe

Kepner-Tregoe has been the industry leader in problem-solving and service-excellence processes for more than 60 years. The experts at KT have helped companies raise their level of incident- and problem-management performance through tools, training and consulting – leading to highly effective service-management teams ready to respond to your company’s most critical issues.

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