Customer Service & Support

I’m Todd Gunsolley, the Support Manager here at Spry.com, and I wanted to share with you a few thoughts about technical support and customer service, for the industry as a whole, as well as here at Spry and VPSLink – this will be a post in two parts, in this part, I’ll cover my history and some observations about support as a whole. Next week, I’ll cover Spry and VPSLink support philosophies in more detail.

First of all, let me tell you a little bit about my experience in technical support for web hosts. I was first employed in IT beginning in 1999 by a VPS provider, vservers.com. My job there was to provide technical support and customer service to our unix customers. I truly enjoyed the job, as I was constantly presented with new challenges and worked to help our customers get through the technical problems that they faced in trying to keep their websites and email updated and functioning.

The basic philosophy of our support team at vservers was to fix whatever problem the customer was facing, and educate them on how they could fix the problem themselves if they saw it in the future. We would often troubleshoot not only the core server configurations but also the customer’s own webpages or cgi scripts that were presenting errors. If the customer had failed to set file permissions properly or had syntax errors in their perl script we would fix it and demonstrate to them how to find and fix such errors themselves in the future. Keep in mind that this was nearly 10 years ago, and the price of one of our vserver VPS products was around $60/month. That was for a product that provided less than 1 GB of total diskspace, a single IP address, and root access. These days, we couldn’t sell an account with those specifications for even a third of that price.

In late 2000, VServers had been acquired by HostPro, and HostPro acquired Interland and many many other hosting companies. My job turned from doing direct customer support to working on integration projects for these many companies. Initially, I worked on the integration of the VServers technical support into the Interland support model, and revision of the Interland support model to be more flexible in its ability to provide high-volume, low-turnaround time technical support via web tickets and telephone calls. To accomplish this, we moved into a tiered-support model with core skill sets. We had to abandon the concept we’d had at VServers that any given support representative would be able to solve any given customer issue. Instead, we worked on the concept that a high percentage of technical support requests could be handled quickly by a representative with a particular skill focus. Just as an example, we would have an e-mail support team. This team would be able to handle roughly 80% of e-mail related technical support requests if they were able to reset passwords, create and delete accounts and forwarding rules, and walk clients through configuring their email client to send and receive email through our servers. Issues that fell outside of those core skills could be escalated to a team with a broader skill set. By following this tiered and skills-based approach, we were able to decrease the time it took to resolve simple issues while at the same time decreasing the per-account cost to provide technical support.

After that initial integration, I would work with each company that we had acquired and spend my time learning all about the technical support model that any given company had used (typically spending at least a few days functioning as a support representative myself). Then, I would map out what skills were required to do technical support, what the typical customer experience was currently like, and where the gaps or additions would be if we moved that technical support into the new tiered/skills based model. Most often, these companies had been using a model similar to the VServers model that I was used to, where each agent was expert on any issue that a customer might experience, and customers would only have to identify whether their issue was related to billing or technical support before being routed to a person who could handle their request. Most often, my analysis of the situation was similar – customers would be frustrated by the need to navigate multiple menus in a phone tree before being connected to a real person, and would be further frustrated that they would not be able to speak directly with a person who could solve their most complex problems. On the positive side, they would in many cases find that their simple requests could be solved much more quickly.

The reason that I mention all this background is that it represents the major distinction I see among technical support philosophies today, and it also gives you a good idea of my background and the various experiences I’ve had that inform my perspective on what makes for great technical support. My background has taught me that while customers are often very concerned with the quality and timeliness of the technical support they receive, there are very few customers who are willing to pay more for their core services to receive quality technical support. Therefore, it is my challenge to be able to provide quality technical support efficiently enough for our company to be able to compete directly on price and features with the broad range of other providers out there. Despite the fact that most customers won’t pay more for quality support, there are many customers who may include the quality of support in their decision to stay with a company or to choose one company over another. So, while hosting customers still tend to make their buying decisions primarily based on the technologies and resources included with their hosting plans, technical support quality ends up being that ‘X factor’ that can tip the scales in our favor if done well.

Here at Spry and VPSLink, we’ve tried to stick with the concept of providing non-tiered, expert technical support. One of the reasons that we’re able to do this is that we’ve limited the technologies that we provide support for. For example, we do not provide any supported windows hosting solutions. This decision has allowed us to focus our hiring on people who are truly experienced with linux systems. This gives customers the benefit of being able to talk to the same person to help resolve errors with php, their database, and their e-mail. In other models, each of those issues would be handled by a different person or group.

next time…. more on our support philosophy.

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