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Process reengineering: Stac's new support model.

When Mitsu Fisher took over as head of tech support at Stac Electronics in January, runaway costs were threatening to sink the company. Fisher's 80-person support department accounted for more than a third of Stac's total headcount, and was growing twice as fast as the rest of the company. Worse, all this manpower clearly wasn't doing much good: Stac's phone lines were constantly jammed, and customers routinely spent 20-40 minutes on hold before reaching a live technician.

"Then DOS 6.0 came out," says Fisher, "and overnight Microsoft became a very significant player in the data compression market." To survive in this increasingly competitive market, Stac needed more than quick-fix solutions: The company had to re-think and re-engineer virtually every aspect of its support organization. Fisher created brand-new procedures for handling and prioritizing calls, reorganized his staff, added a few automation tools, and started charging users for help with out-dated versions.

The results? Within two months, Fisher managed to downsize his support department to half of its original size. Yet his 40 technicians were now able to handle 1,100 calls a day, more than twice Stac's previous call volume. Average hold time had also dropped to three minutes, customer satisfaction scores were soaring, and Fisher's burned-out technicians were starting 'to enjoy their jobs again.

We asked Fisher for a behind-the-scenes look at Stac's dramatic tech support turnaround:

Mitsu, you've said that the biggest change you introduced at Stac was a switch from "resolution-based" to "response-based" procedures. What's the difference?

"With our old resolution-based model the objective was to do whatever it took to get the customer's problem fixed the first time. That meant most tech support calls were quite long in duration. However, when we conducted a customer satisfaction survey, we found the most important thing to customers was wait time--and we also discovered that less than 10% of our customers absolutely needed help at the time of the call.

"Our new model is response-based. Now, the most important thing is to get On the phone and get the customer to a technician as quickly as possible. We have a front-end support line that consists of 70% of our support technicians, who greet customers, diagnose their problem, then get off the line and send a pre-written solution by fax. Or the technicians refer callers to StacTalk, our voice-response system. If a solution doesn't exist in the database the call then escalates to the back end, where the technicians are experts and are under no time restrictions."

You're clearly a strong believer in support automation. What systems have you put in place?

"We now rely heavily on fax-on-demand and automated phone voice systems to disseminate solutions from our database. Our goal is to research something once, and then get it into the database--which also means our technicians aren't constantly re-learning or researching things more than once. And we can make sure that customers get a consistent and correct answer every time."

What kind of quality assurance procedures have you developed to support this kind of consistency and accuracy?

"At first, the solutions our back-end technicians were putting into the database were too technical for our customers to work with. We changed that by running proposed solutions through our document people to insure that the text is readable. Our priority is for the fax-on-demand documents to be easy to understand."

You've also begun to charge for some support calls. How does your paid support plan work?

"Stac's old model treated all calls equally. Each call fell in the same queue whether the caller was a pirate or a long-time, loyal customer. We realized that this approach wasn't rewarding loyal customers who were power users and who upgraded regularly. So we instituted a premium plan, where users of the most current version receive free premium service for 90 days. Meanwhile, users of earlier versions are charged $2 a minute. The fee minutes start when a customer with an older version calls with a problem, and at any time during the resolution of the problem the customer can choose to order an upgrade and they won't be charged for the call. About 75% to 80% of those calls end up in an upgrade."

Your response-based model obviously puts a good deal of pressure on front-end technicians to get rid of calls quickly. Any negatives?

"It really boils down to a training issue. When we first started, about 12% of the calls sent to the back end were unnecessary escalations. Now it's down in the 4% to 5% range. You have to give technicians feedback, so we provide each technician with a 'bad escalation' report to help train them about the solutions that are available in the database. A weekly training session keeps all of the technicians up to speed on new solutions that have been added to the database. We also have a regular Solution Utilization Report that tracks what solutions are being used, when, and why."

How do your users feel about Stac's new support methods?

"We sample 3% to 4% of our customers on a daily basis, by randomly calling people who've just talked to our technicians. Our overall satisfaction score is 8.45 out of a possible 10, so our customers are very satisfied with the level of service they receive. Just to make sure, we benchmark our support every day against Microsoft by calling ourselves anonymously, putting on the stopwatch at the first ring and taking it off when we reach a technician. We then call Microsoft and do the same thing. After charting the results we find that our customers, on average, are attended to 30% faster than a Microsoft DoubleSpace customer. We feel very good about that."

Mitsu Fisher, director of product support services, Stac Electronics, 5993 Avenida Encinas, Carlsbad, Calif. 92008; 619/431-7474.
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Title Annotation:Stac Electronics' Mitsu Fisher turns around company's technical support group
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 22, 1993
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