How well do you know your customers? Do you understand their expectations around technology and its support? The fact is, these expectations change depending on age and exposure to technology. Consider the terminology you see in popular media concerning each successive generation: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, Millennials, Generation Z. These terms are used to describe the generational tiers of people who either are adults or are becoming adults. Some are already part of our customer base; others are entering it now. Some are finishing their education and preparing to enter the workforce. Each of these groups has a different view of technology and wildly different support expectations.
Let’s look at some of the characteristics of each of these groups.
In the years following the end of World War II, there was an economic boom in the United States, and many returning veterans were anxious to make their way in the world and start their families. The children that resulted from this period are commonly known as the Baby Boomers.
These customers are older, probably either retired or close to retirement. They’re often fiercely independent, seeing value in individual successes, and they may not be as tolerant of global support structures. Many in this generation view technology as a nuisance, a necessary evil. They’re often frustrated by the rapid changes in technology, and when faced with problems, they want to talk to a live person, eschewing the use of voice response units (VRUs) and avoiding text or chat clients.
The children of the Baby Boomers, Generation X, born between 1960 and 1980, recognizes and embraces the idea of technology, understanding that it is vital to the success of business and industry. Statistically, this group is the most highly educated. This generation grew up seeing the world on television, and they’re very accepting of diverse backgrounds.
They’ve also witnessed rapid changes in technology, from data cards and tape-based formats to floppy disks and flash drives. They recognize the value of technology, but they still tend to see it as something that is clearly defined, usually in the form of a physical device. From a support perspective, they have extensive experience with telephonic systems, such as VRUs, and though they may not like them much, they’re used to the concepts and are willing to employ them. Other forms of communication, such as instant messaging and chat, may not be as comfortable, though they may attempt to utilize them.
Born between 1980 and 2000, the Millennials (also known as Generation Y) are comfortable using technology of all types. Unlike members of previous generations, who might be awed or even intimidated by what technology can do, Millennials take technology for granted. They’re quick to embrace new trends, and using technology typically comes easily to them. However, the ability to use this technology does not make them “technical,” and they will still require support. Their expectations are very high, and they have no tolerance for long waits in a telephone queue.
Because this group is so used to using technology, contacting a support team is often a last resort. Their first recourse when they encounter issues is their immediate associates. They tend to socialize a problem to determine if anyone can provide a quick answer. If this fails, they turn to the Internet, using social media and search engines to research whether anyone else is having or has had similar problems and if a solution is readily available. Only after exhausting their own research will they turn to support. In contrast to previous generations, Millennials often prefer to use chat clients to get immediate assistance rather than waiting in a telephone queue. Because they have high expectations for support, they’re quick to communicate negative experiences to their friends and associates via social media.
This group comprises children born after 2000. They’re currently in school, but they will be entering the workforce in the next three to five years. USA Today calls them the iGeneration, though they’ve also been called Digital Natives, because they’ve never known a world without technology. In fact, technology has been so pervasive during this generation’s lifetime that they may not even recognize it as technology—it’s simply part of everyday life. Computers of one size or another control everything from household appliances to automobiles to consumer electronics. There are levels of technology now that wouldn’t have been conceivable just three generations ago—and the iGeneration sees them as the status quo. They can’t even imagine life without them!
Like Millennials, the iGeneration will be skilled users of technology, though they won’t necessarily be technical in the sense that they understand—or even care about—why or how something works. To this group, self-help and self-healing will be very important, and they will contact the support team only when all other avenues have been exhausted.
These descriptions are broad generalizations, and, of course, there will always be exceptions to the rule in each group. There will also always be a subset of each group that likes to ask questions and dig into how things work, drilling into the details and peeking under the covers. These are the people we want and need on our support teams.
As support organizations, we can’t pick and choose which generation we’re going to support. (There are, again, exceptions. In higher education, for example, most of the support organization’s customers will be the student body, which for now is made up of Millennials and the iGeneration.) Our challenge is structuring our support teams in such a way that they’ll be able to accommodate the needs of each generation.
If we can determine the general composition of our customer base, we can use that information to determine how best to begin the support process. Then we need to consider the points of entry into the support workflow.
The telephone isn’t going away, and using the telephone for technology support continues to be a preferred method of entry into the support process. However, it’s rare that a phone call will go directly to a live agent. Rather, it will tie into an increasingly complex VRU. Natural language systems enable customers to interact with the VRU by answering questions verbally rather than by using the keypad to respond to numeric prompts. Intelligent routing tries to understand what the customer is calling about and route the call to the appropriate support team. Hold messages are used to communicate vital support information, suggest alternatives to support (self-help websites, online chat, etc.), and update the customer with wait times. However, as we begin to serve each successive generation of technology users, the level of telephonic support will likely change, with simple topics shifting to online support channels and more complex issues routing to agents in a telephone queue.
Online support is rapidly becoming as important as—or more important than—telephonic support. Today, many service desks task agents with handling chat sessions in addition to or instead of the regular telephone queue. Chat empowers customers to reach out and ask quick questions, enabling them to multitask on their PCs rather than wait impatiently on hold. Via chat, the customer can be referred to FAQs or other online documentation related to their issues, and knowledge articles can even be transferred directly through the chat window.
As our customer base continues to swing towards the Millennials and the iGeneration, it will be increasingly important that we have exceptional online resources that encourage self-help. We must establish knowledge systems that can be tied to customer-facing content to allow system and software users to troubleshoot and resolve their own issues. We should also look into providing easy access to self-healing systems and software, which enable continuous self-monitoring and dynamic repair (healing) without any specific client interaction. This might take the form of automated systems that are linked to support systems that customers can access to resolve problems.
If a problem is severe enough that the customer cannot resolve it on his or her own, it may be necessary to escalate the issue to second-level support teams. While some of our older customers are used to and like having someone from IT come out to their workstations and physically help them, the younger generations expect a faster turnaround. As a result, technology support must continue to expand the use of remote support tools. Many incident management systems now integrate remote support right into the workflow, allowing IT to move from verbally working with the customer to directly taking control of a device to resolve a problem.
In a business environment, troubleshooting and fixing problems—incident management—are not the only areas where customers’ expectations are increasing. In the area of service requests—the provisioning of new equipment or software—there is less tolerance for delay. A service catalog that allows for self-service should be a standard component of any mature support infrastructure. This allows the customer to bypass IT altogether and, with the proper financial approvals, purchase a new device or facilitate the automatic installation of a piece of software.
And don’t underestimate the value of social media. Some support teams have leveraged systems like Twitter and Facebook to expand their support communities, get valuable feedback from their customers, and head off problems before they become critical. If the business environment precludes the use of outside social media, it’s always possible to establish similar systems inside the enterprise that provide the same kinds of useful feedback.
Over the next few years, we’ll need to adapt our processes to support customers who are becoming increasingly proficient at using technology. We need to listen to their collective voice and understand that they expect a clear and expeditious response. Our customer-facing systems need to be friendly and easy to use, with ready access to a live agent if the problem cannot be quickly resolved by the customer.
Are you ready for the challenge? There are plenty of tools available to support professionals who are already trying to embrace the future. Look at how your customers are trending, and use that information to build a road map to the future.
Mike Hanson has been involved with many aspects of IT over the past twenty-five years, from application development to desktop support. Today, Mike is a senior IT manager at UnitedHealth Group, Inc., where he proactively seeks ways to improve the delivery of service to more than 86,000 clients, through process improvement, knowledge and problem management, metrics and reporting, tool development, training, and business liaisons. He is a certified HDI Support Center Manager and he holds both his ITIL Foundation and Practitioner certificates. Mike is also the 2014 chair of the HDI Desktop Support Advisory Board and a former member of the HDI Editorial Board.