Have you ever wondered why things are the way they are? Who defines the structure of an organization or, in this case, an entire industry? And just because it is that way now, who says that it needs to remain the same? Everything changes, and I think the time to change the way we structure our support organizations is now!
It would be impossible to count the number of support centers, analysts, desktop technicians, team leads, managers, and directors I have had the honor to train, consult with, discuss trends with, and mull over distresses and challenges with. After walking this IT road for so many years, there has been one constant amid all the change in our industry: the strong desire to keep level 1 and level 2 support separate. That is, the belief that the people on the phones need to stay on the phones and the sometimes prideful contempt that level 2 (desktop support) has toward level 1 (the support center).
As an expert in emotional intelligence, I focus on why people behave the way they do. Do you remember how difficult it was/is to sit on the phone for six to eight hours a day? And to do that five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year? Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, answering the phones all day is one of the most boring jobs on the face of the planet?
According to the 2010 HDI Practices & Salary Survey, we lose 60 percent of our level 1 analysts within three years of their start date (Figure 1). When we lose analysts, that loss includes any investments we made in their training and their knowledge of our culture, services, proprietary software, and systems. On the other hand, we sometimes see the opposite: analysts who quietly stagnate in their positions for decades, just because aren’t motivated to rise above their position and, quite frankly, they don’t want to.
The strained relationship between level 1 and level 2 is one of the common motifs in IT support. There are communication issues galore, lack of ownership, missed OLAs, and a simmering animosity that never subsides. So, if this relationship doesn’t work, why are we still subjecting ourselves and our customers to it? Is there a better way? Yes, and I’ve seen it in action.
I met Diane in Venezuela many years ago. She was the director of a huge support center, managing thirty-five managers and over 1,000 agents and technicians. I spent three days with Diane and her managers and walked away feeling inspired. You see, it was part of Diane’s standard practice to swap jobs with each of her managers at least once a year. They, in turn, would take on her job, going to her meetings, making decisions, and walking in her shoes. In addition, the managers rotated positions, supervising other teams throughout the year.
In spite of all this job swapping, there was no jealousy, no fear of “outdoing” someone else. I found that they enjoyed their jobs and each other’s company, they trusted each other, and they were far more productive than any other team I had ever met...until I met Danny Richardson, section manager of IT Customer Support at Pantex.
In the United States, there is one company that is responsible for assembling and dissembling our nuclear arsenal: Pantex. Because of the nature of their business, you probably want the Pantex IT group to provide the best technical support and customer service, 100 percent of the time, yes? That’s what I thought! I have studied Danny’s group, interviewed him, and trained his people and it was no surprise that his model of support provides exactly what we’ve been looking for: sanity, service, and solid cooperation that is both productive and efficient.
My friends and clients know that one of my favorite questions is “What would it be like if?” So I ask you, “What would it be like if we combined three jobs into one?” What if we were able to support the business and our customers by combining the level 1, level 2, and team lead roles? “What?!” you say. Yes, what would it be like if everyone in support had the opportunity, capability, and authority to serve in an “all-in-one” position?
If you will indulge me, I’m going to coin a new phrase: spliced support. Spliced support is what we live with every day: separate jobs, separate functions, separate rules, separate management, and sometimes separate budgets. When Danny’s group employed spliced support, they found, as we all do:
- A disconnect between level 1 and level 2 when it came to relaying the proper information
- Frustrating results
- Unnecessary customer visits (level 2)
- Level 1 didn’t have the knowledge it needed in order to ask the right questions (when you don’t know what to ask, you don’t know what to ask!)
- Mean time to resolution (MTTR) was much longer
- Level 2 would have to reinterview the customer, leading to customer frustration (“Why are you asking me again? I already told the other person.”)
- Higher costs and lower productivity, resulting in lower effectiveness and efficiency
If you aren’t surprised by this, you’ve probably experienced this at your own site. The truth is, when it comes to serving our customer and the business, there is no difference between level 1 and level 2 support. Even ITIL agrees that customer support is the responsibility of the entire IT organization, not just the service desk. In actuality, the only difference between level 1 and level 2 is in the level of knowledge and skill, the level of communication, and the amount of emotional baggage, all of which have created a cavernous gap between these two levels of support.
Blending the Support Center, Desktop Support, and Team Lead Roles
Danny’s IT group threw out spliced support. It wasn’t working. I wish I could say that I was the catalyst for the change, but alas, the brain child behind this move was O.J. Blankenship, a manager who has since retired. Danny took O.J.’s idea and made it what it is today (while dealing with a headcount that was reduced by half). He combined level 1, level 2, and team lead roles, which are performed by each individual on the team. On average, it takes a new employee four to six weeks to be fully functional in this environment. Then jobs are rotated. For instance, Joe will sit on the phone for two days (level 1), then he will go into the field for two days (level 2). Joe will then take on the role of team lead for a couple of days before he heads back to the phones. Each person is capable of performing each role. The less experienced members of the team may not perform the role of team lead, but they understand the functions of the lead and can fill in when needed.
Crosstraining…what a concept! Let’s look at the benefits of the “all-in-one” (AIO) role:
- Everyone’s knowledge is robust.
- We support and meet our SLAs with greater confidence.
- Greater productivity and collaboration within the department and among the employees.
- Increased customer confidence.
- When there are absences of staff, you may be constrained, but you will keep the fluidity of your support.
- Lower burnout rates.
- Higher retention rates.
- Move out the individuals who are not interested in growing (that may be the best reason to try the AIO model!).
- Greater buy-in from employees who feel trusted and valued.
- Less negative competition between levels (since there are none!).
As Danny says, “Now is the time to raise the stakes. We can’t hide behind our organizational borders and headsets anymore. Our team treats the customer the same whether they are face to face or on the phone, because the person we speak with on the phone today will be the person we will stand in front of tomorrow.” Granted, Danny’s team provides on-site service at a single location. Yet Diane’s “desk” encompassed all of Venezuela. So how do we do this on a national or international scale? Maybe consolidation, all the rage back in the 1990s, wasn’t such a great idea after all. Perhaps we need to rethink how we utilize our regional employees.
Building the Case for the All-in-One Job
The IT industry is very process-oriented, and processes enable a service organization to meet its customers’ expectations and needs through the efforts of excited, skillful, and responsible employees. So, how does this AIO model fit in with industry best practices, like ITIL? As it turns out, Pantex has almost fully implemented ITIL, and each member of the team is responsible for incident, problem, and change management. Danny says, “If it is a bad release, each of us has to live with that; if it is a good release, we enjoy the benefits!”
As the manager of an AIO organization, Danny likes to see the relationships his staff have built and the impact that they have on their customers. “It is more visible than the traditional roles. When it goes well, we are brilliant. When it doesn’t go well, we immediately see what needs to change and improve. Now I am a manager of people, not processes. I am not battling to get things done. I let my smart people figure out how to get things done and they train the other staff well, because they are counting on one another.”
If you’re thinking that this is probably too expensive, Danny and I crunched some numbers. Using average compensation data from the 2010 HDI Practices & Salary Survey, Figure 2 presents two simple scenarios.
What we once needed thirteen people for, we can now do with eight or nine staff members. In Danny’s case, he cut his staff in half (thirty-two to sixteen) while continuing to provide outstanding service to his customers and business, as well as engaging and growing employees. And keep in mind, these numbers do not reflect the cost of lost knowledge (associated with low retention and high burnout), reduced productivity, decreased customer satisfaction, and increased training for new hires. Imagine if they did!
We’re sold. All we really want is for you to ask, ”Is this really working? Is there a way to make it better? Is there a way to keep my best and brightest employees? Is there a way to make our customers see that we provide magical support? Is there a way to improve our productivity and bottom line?” Technical service and support will never die, but it must change and mature. Now is the time!
To contact Danny Richardson, e-mail him at
Deborah Monroe is the president of Ignite Achievements Int’l and an expert in emotional intelligence. Working largely with help desks, call centers, and technical groups around the world, Deborah concentrates on integrating humans and processes to create a balanced working environment. Deborah received her MA in organizational behavior from Glendale University. As a speaker, facilitator, and coach, she blends high energy and enthusiasm for change in the workplace with engaging and motivating stories that are down-to-earth and humorous. She can be reached by e-mail at