This is part two of a three-part article series. You can see part one here.
Staffing is the most critical part of creating a winning technical support team. If you make mistakes with the steps discussed in my first article but excel at hiring and managing your people, you will succeed in the end. If, however, you do well with the mechanics and make mistakes with staffing, you will certainly fail.
Your Staff Today
Even if your current staff is doing a good job, you will still have to bring new people in to help you rise from the ashes. I know you don’t want to fire the people you have today—that can be unpleasant—so give it some time and the problem will probably resolve itself for you. Your current staff will naturally turn over when they get tired of listening to complaining and blaming. Your task will then be to hire better than you have in the past.
The Hiring Process
Each employee comes with their own set of technical skills, personality quirks and attitudes, so give plenty of thought to what your hiring criteria will be before you even begin. The easiest way to approach this is to make a list of the minimum technical skills that your new team must contain, and then narrow that list down to determine which skills each individual must have for their specific job.
Next, think about which character traits you want in your team. The following are some that I have found to be incredibly useful.
• Quick Learner
– It is easy to test potential candidates for how quickly they learn new concepts. Find a few puzzles that build upon each other in complexity, then show the candidate the first. Afterwards, ask him/her to solve the second. Under the pressure of a job interview, can this person digest the information and apply it? If not, this candidate should be avoided.
– You can ask specific questions to measure a person’s sense of responsibility. Can they tell you about a time when they made a mistake that hurt someone else? Someone who doesn’t have a strong emotional reaction to telling you such a story is not the right person for you.
– Empathy is very important because it guides communication with angry customers. During the interview process, I ask references if they think the candidate is an empathetic person. You can also ask candidates to take a Meyers-Briggs personality test. ‘F’ personality types tend to be more empathetic than others, so you can interpret their results accordingly.
– Technical support is nothing more than a long series of problems to be solved, and a person who is naturally curious is best suited for this type of work. In interviews, I ask about hobbies to find out if a person is curious. For example, one of my staff members was taking a welding class when I interviewed him. I asked him why and he answered, “I was curious about how it worked. Since I had some free time, I thought I would give it a try.” I have never been disappointed with his internal drive to figure out technical problems.
– A logical person will approach complex problems and say to themselves, “I can figure this out.” For this reason, I actually test for logic during interviews by getting a few logic puzzles together, making them multiple-choice and giving them to the candidate. One previous candidate was asked, “Which is more valuable, a trunk full of nickels or a trunk full of dimes?” The candidate chose nickels, and when I asked why, replied, “Well, I thought that since nickels are bigger, they must be worth more.” This person did not approach problems logically, so I did not hire them.
– You must be able to trust the people on your team, so during the course of your interview, imagine that the person sitting before you is a friend of yours who has volunteered to take care of your personal business while you go on vacation. Ask yourself if you would trust them to collect your mail, feed your pets and take care of your house. If not, you shouldn’t hire them.
Managing the Team
While hiring is important, some portion of my success comes from my management style. I’m not perfect, but I have an intentional plan for how I manage and I stick to it as best I can.
1. Train your team well
Good training leads to capable support people. You are going to be hiring people to figure out problems, so clearly you can’t train them on precisely what they are going to be working on. The objective here is to do the best you can. Don’t, for example, put them into entirely unfamiliar systems and ask them to demonstrate proficiency right away.
Your current staff are probably under-trained, so as you work on creating a winning team, get real product training scheduled for them. You should also make ongoing training a priority, especially when it comes to new product releases.
2. Set goals and boundaries
Setting goals for your staff is easy—simply make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Based). Boundaries, however, are slightly more complicated. I usually explain them to my people like this: “That decision requires a context of information that you don’t have—for example, you are not tuned in to other department’s schedules. It’s not a matter of trust, but a matter of knowledge and responsibility. You don’t have time to know everything and shouldn’t have to be responsible for everything. Right up to the boundary, do what is right for the customer and the company. Talk to me when you are asked to cross a boundary or when you feel like it is the right thing to do. I’ll take the responsibility for making those decisions.”
3. Listen to and help them
Unfortunately, many managers treat their staff like servants while the goal of management is actually the opposite—to help people do their jobs better. I consider myself the one-man technical support team enablement department. Consequently, my team knows that my door is always open. They have my cell phone number and are not afraid to use it. Allow your team to do the same.
4. Review their performance
Everybody needs to know how they are doing, so give your staff their appropriate praise and correction. As a rule, praise should be public and correction should be private. You should also do regular performance reviews and have a job growth plan in place in order to keep the best people around.
Holding periodic meetings will promote communication and let your people know how they are doing as a team. If there is a problem, you can discuss it without assigning blame to anyone. Tell your team that you want to discuss the process they are having difficulty with in order to ensure that it is the best process for them. Take comments and suggestions on how to improve. This kind of input is priceless.
5. Trust your staff
If you have done everything else, the final step is to let your people do their jobs. Unless you are a micromanager, this should be the easy part. Give them the self-confidence they deserve through showing that you trust them.
Keeping Your Team Happy
It is always important to focus on boosting morale. Don’t wait for it to drop before you do something about it, or it will be too late. Small things such as buying lunch for your team more often than other department heads do will go a long way towards keeping them happy.
Retention is much more important in a technical support team than anywhere else. Development, marketing, sales and accounting will all have an easier time training a new employee than you will in technical support. This means that you need to have a plan in place for retaining your best people. It will likely include the management style I just described, as well as giving raises, bonuses and promotions.
This is why hiring is so important in the first place. You will want to live with the consequences of your selections for a long time.
About Curt Finch
Curt Finch is the CEO of Journyx. Founded in 1996, Journyx automates payroll, billing and cost accounting while easing management of employee time and expenses, and provides confidence that all resources are utilized correctly and completely. Curt can be found on Twitter at @CurtFinch and on Google+ at +CurtFinch.