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Special report: 1996 tech support salary survey.

For managers and top-level support technicians, 1996 was a year of significant salary gains. An ongoing bidding war for scarce talent pushed management salaries up across the board, from a relatively modest 4.0% gain for department managers and 6.7% for senior support executives to a 25% pay increase for analysts and project managers. Technicians at the high end of the skill spectrum saw similar gains: Senior support technicians picked up an 8.6% raise; field support technicians, 11.1%.

But the rising tide didn't lift all boats. For rank-and-file tech support and customer service reps, who fill the vast majority of support seats in PC software companies, 1996 was another year of belt-tightening. Median annual pay for first-level support technicians remained dead-level at $31,000. And salaries for lower-skilled customer service reps actually declined 7.4%, from $27,000 to $25,000.

In fact, this year's Tech Support Salary Survey shows a remarkably consistent pattern of premium pay for premium skills. Technicians who support expensive, high-end products got fatter paychecks than their counterparts in consumer-oriented companies; the "most skilled" support employees in virtually every job category earned raises while average performers saw little or no salary gains. Clearly, support salaries seem to be getting more fine tuning from top management, and the result is the sort of rational market behavior that usually shows up only in economics textbooks.


Like last year's survey, the 1996 Support Salary Survey reflects year-end pay levels for seven primary job categories, with several additional subcategories that reflect differences in skill levels. This year's data comes from 167 separate PC support organizations that collectively employ more than 11,000 support managers and technicians (see "The Demographics of Support," last section of this report). We've also broken out our data by company revenues, support organization size, product price, and region. The result, we hope, is a set of benchmarks that will help software support managers establish pay levels that are both fair and competitive.


* SENIOR SUPPORT EXECUTIVE (vice president or director level)

"Coordinates activities and budgets of multiple support groups or sites. Meets regularly with senior corporate management and key customers."

Traditionally, running a support organization hasn't been a fast track for corporate executives. But as software customers increasingly shift their buying criteria from technology to service performance, support managers with strong business and sales skills have begun to play a more strategic role. In a typical software company, the senior support executive oversees 15%-20% of the company's headcount, deals directly with key accounts, and is often in charge of hefty capital investments in automation equipment and new facilities. The median pay level for this job is currently a relatively modest $80,000 ($87,500 for executives with a vice-presidential title), but competition has pushed the upside potential up dramatically: A quarter of senior support executives currently earn more than $96,500, and the top 10% earn $130,000 or more.


"Manages day-to-day activity of a single support center staff."

Except in very small companies, day-to-day management of a support organization tends to be operations-intensive. Unlike marketing and R&D groups, which usually work on a few large projects at a time, support teams handle a steady stream of small customer transactions. As a result, most support groups have a dedicated "inside" manager who oversees productivity and customer satisfaction levels. (Of 104 survey respondents that pay a senior support executive salary, 87% pay a department manager as well.) Department managers are the second-highest paid support job category, with a median pay level of $52,000 a year. But department managers have also seen the lowest growth in pay of any managerial or senior technician category--just 4.0% over 1995 levels.


"Manages major business activity; usually has no direct reports."

In addition to traditional operations managers, a good many support organizations these days have management-level specialists who oversee individual project areas (such as automation systems or performance analysis). Currently, 70 of our survey respondents have employees in the "analyst/project manager" category, compared to 140 with "department manager" titles. Pay levels in the analyst/project manager category have jumped by 25% in the last year; the median salary for the category is now $50,000.


"Provides on-site service, primarily for enterprise products."

PC support is typically provided by telephone, but most high-end software companies also provide on-site services (usually for a fee, or as part of a maintenance contract). Not surprisingly, the field technicians who provide such services are the industry's highest-paid support reps: Median pay is $40,000, up 11.1% over last year's levels.


"Answers escalated calls; may function as a group or team leader."

Most support organizations have developed formal (or sometimes informal) career paths that reward experience, in-depth product knowledge, certification, or a part-time management and training role. Typically, the primary job of the "senior" technician is to provide answers to questions that first-level support reps can't answer, or to serve as an initial contact for end-user help desks. Pay levels in this category are spread fairly widely, reflecting variations in skill and performance: Median pay for the category as a whole is $38,000, but the best-paid 50% of "most skilled" technicians earn more than $45,000.


"Provides first-level solutions, primarily over the phone."

In 1996, software companies apparently had little trouble recruiting entry-level support reps--who handle the majority of routine telephone questions--at essentially the same pay levels that prevailed in 1995. Not surprisingly, moreover, most of these salaries fell in a fairly narrow range: Half of all companies in our survey database paid their "support technician" employees between $26,000 and $36,000, with a median of $31,000. Somewhat higher pay levels (median $35,000) are common among the "most skilled" entry-level support reps, but the usual path to higher pay is through promotion to a senior technician or management job.


"Answers routine service questions; routes calls to technicians."

Increasingly, software companies have hired lower-paid customer service reps to handle first-level customer contacts--collecting background information on callers, filling orders, and answering simple questions that don't require extensive diagnostic skills or training. Median pay for this category declined 7.4% in 1996, probably reflecting overall lower hiring standards for customer service employees.


Obviously, all software companies--and tech support jobs--aren't identical. To suggest the impact of the most important differences, we've broken out our data according to four variables: size of company (as measured by annual revenues), size of support organization, the price of the company's flagship product, and location.

* Annual revenues: Pretty consistently, larger software companies pay their support employees at the top end of the salary scale--and, in general, also get substantially more productivity from their support employees. Except for senior executive salaries, however, pay scales tend to level off at the $10 million level; differences in manager and technician salaries between a $10 million company and a $100 million company are usually minor.


* Organization size: In making salary comparisons, company revenues are usually less important than the size of the support organization (which may be proportionally larger in companies that treat service as a profit center, or smaller when the company outsources a large part of its call volume). Large support organizations tend to pay premium salaries to their executives and managers, but organization size seems to make less difference for lower-level support technicians and customer service reps.


* Product price: Publishers of consumer titles (priced under $150) pay their support employees--especially rank-and-file technicians and service reps--significantly less than companies that sell mid-priced ($150-$999) and high-end (above $1,000) titles.


* Location: A few states clearly deserve their reputation as high-wage locations. Support salaries in California are typically 15%-25% higher than the rest of the country; pay levels in Massachusetts also tend to be high, though the data is sketchy.



This survey, our second annual report on tech support salaries in the PC software industry, reflects data supplied by 167 different tech support organizations that collectively employ more than 11,000 people. Half of our respondents (49%) report annual sales of $10 million or more; the rest fall in the $5-$10 million range (14%) or below $5 million (37%). The size of PC software support organizations continues to be fairly small: Median headcount is 12 employees; 42% of respondents have 1-9 support employees, 34% have 10-29 employees, and 24% have 30 or more employees. Finally, many of the software companies in our sample serve high-end markets (and presumably haven't experienced the kind of cost pressures that affect mass-market publishers). The median price for our respondents' best-selling products is $1,500; 24% support products that sell below $150, another 24% support products in the $150-$999 range, and 52% support products that sell for more than $1,000.

POSTSCRIPT: For comparison purposes, an electronic edition of last year's salary survey is available at no charge on the Association of Support Professionals (ASP) Web site,

The ASP site can also help with support staff recruiting: Members may post free job listings on the site's classified advertising pages.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Soft-letter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event
Date:Dec 31, 1996
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