The Technology Café: A Face for IT Support


by Jonathan Fadden


You have a successful support organization. Your contact center receives a high volume of calls each month. You’ve considered, tested, and/or offered other instant communication channels (email support, live chat, maybe even video chat). Your metrics look good: the service desk is efficient, and customer satisfaction is high. Nothing needs to change right? Not necessarily. Let’s take a closer look.

Who Are Your Customers?

You probably know who your customers are, but do you know who your customers aren’t? You have a highly available and functional service desk, and your customers are happy. At least the customers you know about. Consider the number of people in your organization. Then consider how many of them contact you for support. What are the others doing?

Chances are good that most of your people only have occasional technical issues. Depending on your industry, your customer demographics, and the various levels of technical proficiency your customers possess, it’s likely that many of these “infrequent” customers resolve their own technical issues (“I’ll just Google it”) or reach out to a trusted colleague or resource for assistance. But it’s also possible that some of your customers fall into other categories. We’ve discovered a few underserved customer types in our own organization—two stand out above the rest, and we’ll get to those momentarily.

First, let’s look at one more often-forgotten area of opportunity. What does your organization think about your IT team? How does the business perceive IT? How does the whole of your IT department perceive the support group?

Support organizations strive for efficiency, high satisfaction, and other tangible success factors, but key performance indicators and actual performance to goals can blind us to other areas where we may be able to achieve greater unity with the business, and within IT itself.

An Unexpected Solution in the “Age of Instant”

Instant is in: instant digital communication, instant support, instant gratification. When we reach out for support, we expect options: a phone number to call (and someone to answer it), or a website with a self-service knowledge base (maybe even live chat); at the very least, we expect an email address we can send a message to (though up-and-coming generations might consider email support to be somewhat antiquated).

We expect instant digital communication options, but sometimes we need something a bit different. How do you help your underserved customers? How do you find out what you’re missing?

Do something new. Instant digital communications are critically important to success in today’s fast-moving business climate, but consider providing a channel that’s unlike any of your current offerings. To be clear, you’re not abandoning the digital communication model; you’re providing a similar complementary service: in-person support. This is visual, tangible, hands-on, “look-what’s-happening,” “see-I’m-not-crazy” technical support.

Everything Old Is New Again: In-Person, Face-to-Face Support

Some people are more comfortable with face-to-face interactions. It’s that simple.

The retail computing space provides countless examples. Walk into any major computer or electronics retailer and take it all in. These companies have webpages and phone ordering options for customers who want them, but their stores are filled with people: they want to connect with real people, see facial expressions, and use gestures. They want to be able to point at the screen and ask a question. They want to be able to see, touch, and handle the equipment they’re considering purchasing.

The materials used to build “brick-and-mortar” shops may have changed, but the desire for a real place to go is still alive and well. That’s where the Technology Café comes in.

Small Room, Big Impact

In early 2011, Starbucks Coffee Company decided to invest in its partners (employees). Our Global Technology team wanted to connect with our users, have conversations, and learn—in a less-formal setting—what we could do to elevate the computing experience and increase the value of technology for our users. We’ve already learned a great deal more than we expected about both our space and our users.

As we connected with like-minded organizations that were working on or considering their own in-person support space, a number of unique characteristics of our own implementation emerged.

Small Room: Space Matters

When you’re considering building, staffing, and running this kind of service, it’s important to ask questions, consider possibilities, and put together a plan for how you think you’ll operate the space. It’s also important to know that very little of that preparation may actually matter when you put your plan into motion.

  • How many team members will you have in the room?
  • How many users will they assist during a given period?
  • When will your daily and weekly traffic peaks occur?
  • Will users schedule appointments, or will you provide on-demand walk-in support?
  • What will your hours be?
  • Who will you hire: dedicated staff, or a rotation of team members from other areas?
  • Will you be supporting software, hardware, or both?

Each of these questions will affect your space planning, staffing model, and a number of other factors.

Each organization has its own culture, objectives, and limitations. An operating plan is important, but remember this: you’re not just providing a service, you’re building an experience. Create a space that allows for collaboration between team members and between users themselves. Instead of small work surfaces where users interact with staff one-to-one, consider larger community tables. Give your guests a place to learn together, teach one another, and gather simply for the sake of gathering.

Hire team members that can provide outstanding support to multiple customers at the same time. Team dynamics are important, as is the ability to learn quickly and take feedback in stride. We recommend people that are technically proficient, empathetic, collaborative, and able to keep their cool when a major event occurs. Chaos is inevitable. This isn’t necessarily a sign that you’ve missed your goals. On the contrary, it may be an indicator that you’re building trust and momentum with your users, or it may just be a busy day.

Details matter, too. Here are a few considerations to get you started:

  • Keep it clean (like a high-traffic retail space, not a small office or cubicle)
  • Provide network connectivity (wired and wireless for troubleshooting)
  • Use large displays to your advantage:
    • Advertise new services
    • Promote self-service offerings and solutions to common questions/issues
    • Use in-room displays to troubleshoot external display issues on laptops
    • Set the mood and get professional input on how best to light and decorate the room

    Remember, you’re bringing IT out of the shadows—and out of the basement.

    Big Impact: Meet and Exceed Your Users’ Expectations

    Your users’ expectations will be high, and you’ll have one chance to make a first impression on each of them. One bad review can have a dramatic impact on your business, your brand, and your reputation. Customer loyalty and trust are earned—the same applies to internal customers (users).

    If you’re considering opening a space like this for your own users, you have a tremendous opportunity before you. Most face-to-face customer interactions take place in retail environments; in the Technology Café, there’s no sales push and no up-sell. Your objectives are relatively clear: understand your users’ needs, own their issues, seek solutions, and deliver lasting resolutions with a good attitude and positive intent.

    Don’t be afraid to ask your customers how they feel about your services: “How was this experience for you? Is there anything else we can help you with?” Some users won’t have time to answer; some will start celebrating the great service before you even get to ask the question; and some may be disarmed by your genuine interest in their level of satisfaction.

    Be the customer for a moment. Think about the best technical support experience you’ve ever had. It’s different for everyone. Can you create that for each of your customers? This will have a deep impact on your people, your business, and their ongoing perception of IT.

    Personalized Support: Everyone Needs Something Different

    When you walk into a Starbucks store, a barista will take your order and often ask for a name to write on your cup or pastry bag. If you’re a regular customer, the staff may start to recognize you and maybe even remember your beverage or food item of choice. This personalized experience is one we aim to provide in the Technology Café.

    As you walk into the Technology Café, one of our team members will great you and ask how they can help. If you’re a repeat visitor, there’s a good chance that a member of the team will recognize you. Over time, our team starts to recognize faces, computers, even funny mobile device skins or cases we’ve seen before.

    We do our best to ask questions and get to know our users. Using the nonverbal cues (gestures, body language, etc.) unique to face-to-face interaction, we craft our approach, language, and technique to suit each user’s style.

    Make Meaningful Connections

    We also find ourselves answering questions that have little or nothing to do with technology. In the absence of a phone tree to indicate what you’re calling about, or a drop-down menu to indicate which team you need to chat with, people seem to feel more free to ask all sorts of random questions. The Technology Café is a place where people can ask the questions they may not want to ask on the phone. We provide directions to other parts of the building, point users toward resources available online, and share rare moments of calm downtime.

    We also take making connections a step further by hosting daily coffee tastings for anyone in the building that wants to join in. The daily event is promoted on in-room displays and posted on the team’s online calendar, and we reach out to teams or individuals we’d like to connect with each other. It’s difficult to capture just how incredibly beneficial this has been with regard to efficiency, collaboration, and transparency.

    Starbucks is a coffee company, so a daily coffee tasting makes sense for us. Each company and culture is different, so you may need to find what fits best for you (though we’d certainly recommend coffee!).

    Find a way to practice, demonstrate, and celebrate your core business, and schedule a time to gather daily or weekly. If you’re a restaurant chain, serve samples. If you’re a software development company, invite teams to demo your latest products or concepts. If you’re a medical center, free bandage samples probably won’t cut it, but you could hold weekly gatherings to meet, network, and collect canned food for a local food bank, or toys for a local children’s organization. Remember, do something that’s relevant to your company’s interests. Start with a small group and expand as you’re able.

    Discover Your Underserved Customers

    Remember those underserved customer types I mentioned earlier? In our experience, two specific groups stood out from the rest.

    The “Silent Sufferer”

    Some people are uncomfortable calling for technical support; others don’t want to bother anyone with their technical issues; and still others come up with a workaround and keep charging forward to accomplish more.

    The Silent Sufferer will suffer through every possible technical issue until:

    • The issue resolves itself
    • The issue gets so severe that it needs to be addressed
    • Someone else points out that they don’t have to suffer

    You might have a user with an old machine and seven pages of technical issues or questions. That user may need three or four hours of support in one sitting. No small task, but think of the impact this has on him or her. What can your support organization learn from this user? How can you serve this user better?

    The Technically Nonsavvy

    Some people use the technology they’ve been given, in the ways in which they’ve been coached or trained, but they’re unaware of what they don’t know. During our daily coffee tastings, these users often drop in for coffee, casually ask questions or take part in discussions, and leave more equipped and informed about the tools and technologies that are available to them.

    Demonstrate Hospitality, Integrity, and Leadership

    When you open your doors, you extend an invitation. You’re inviting others into your world and your circle of influence. Welcome your guests, be a gracious host, and serve them whenever possible.

    If a Silent Sufferer walks in with a list and a free block on their calendar to work through issues, offer her water, coffee, or soda—anything free, easy, and close by.

    Have a user who’s been standing for a while? Offer him or her a chair. Small gestures go a long way.

    The staff members you select for this service are ambassadors for IT, representing everyone else that works behind the scenes in your technology organization. Show respect to everyone: every user (even those who may be upset), every team member (the mood in the room sets the tone for your users), and all of the other teams that aren’t present (demonstrate respect within your own organization by owning issues and refraining from throwing other teams under the bus).

    So, Where Do You Start?

    What’s your organization’s mission? What’s your team’s mission? Defining why you’re doing something is often more important than what you’re doing or how you’re doing it.

    Good, fast, or cheap: pick two. This old business paradigm is still an important part of making the case, but when you’re looking at an internal service, you’re really on the hook for providing all three. Consider this:

    “An efficient, high-quality, in-person support service at a reasonable and responsible cost.”

    Obviously, “reasonable and responsible costs” are different for each organization, but that’s not the focus. Focus on quality and speed; as you demonstrate value, the rest will likely follow.

    Give your people a place to go to get technical support and training, to see technology in action, to pick up a new mouse, or to ask that silly question they’ve been wondering about. Let your users tell you and show you how you can serve them better.

     

    Jonathan Fadden has been playing with computers since he was a toddler and working in IT for over a decade. Since joining Starbucks Coffee Company in 2006, Jonathan has held various roles at the Starbucks service desk. He’s leads the Technology Café team. Jonathan is passionate about personal connection, purposeful technical training, and creative engagement.

    Tag(s): customer experience

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