Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

Can support and services teams co-exist?


This is a dilemma I have had in all professional services organisations, especially one that deals with technology. If you sell products or services and offer a follow up support package, you need appropriate resources to take on that role. Yet, in most cases the support staff do not necessarily spend their entire productive time performing that role. It is therefore tempting to utilise them for services. Assigning this twin role to these resources create a difficult juggling act. How can you ensure both support and services can rely on the availability of this resource in their planning?

The nature of the support work is very lumpy. It is particularly difficult to assign a pattern to the utilisation of this resource on a day to day basis. One semblance of pattern you can put a finger to is around the time of delivery of services or release of products. Temptation comes in the form of resource crunch in your services teams. A potentially under utilised support resource may seem a luxury at a time you are scrambling for resources to deliver a project. At the time it seems a great idea to resolve the  resource crunch by improved utilisation of your support staff. You have just given birth to a beast that is difficult to control.

As you get deeper into the project, your buffers start to shrink. Murphy’s law usually strikes and that is the time when suddenly there is a priority one call in the support queue. There is no winner out of this scenario. You can compromise your service level agreements in your support contracts to ensure the project is delivered well. The alternative is to compromise the project to met your service level agreements. The proverbial rock and a hard place! More often than not, you end up compromising both in some form.

What complicates matters is some support work is less that inspiring. There are the calls that will challenge the team to look for creative solution. In the main however, it can be very tedious. While some people are perfectly cut out for this kind of role, most people tend to stop enjoying the role if exposed to it for considerable periods of time. Organisational knowledge (and that of your customers) is a hard thing to build in your staff. Retraining new staff is a considerable overhead on your operations. You want to keep your good people happy and challenged.

One compromise I have seen is to have a large pool of staff who predominantly work on services work, but take a small rotation in support work. It is also ideal way to introduce junior staff members into your operations. The challenge it creates is also the same in retaining the knowledge. A lot of people are performing support roles, with good amount of gap. Things do move on – new products and services get introduced, the customers configuration changes to make things challenging. This places an enormous premium on good documentation and processes.

Consistent staffing in a support role can overcome some lack of process, as people are aware of this from a day to day basis. This is often seen as an efficient way to run support teams. Many organisations never make the jump from this to a more process oriented structure, for fear of the effort required to achieve this. The consequence is when people leave, there are huge gaps in knowledge to fill and risk of bumbling around while someone comes up to speed, let alone all the challenges I outlined earlier.

The best compromise I can think of is to have a wide base of staff who take turns at the support role. When staff are allocated to that role, they are barred from being scheduled into services work. The time they do not spend actively, they spend documenting processes. This way you can aim to build a more mature support environment, allow for variety of work in your staff and yet increase the effectiveness of both your services and support teams. Rome was not built in a day. Improving co-existence of services of support can be built on this foundation if commitment exists in the organisation.

What are some of the challenges you face? I am keen to know how you have tacked this. Surely, I am not the only one with this challenge.

Image Credit: PCLiveSupport

8 responses to “Can support and services teams co-exist?

  1. Patrick Pepperhawk June 28, 2012 at 7:20 am

    In theory I like the idea of staff splitting time between Services and Support. It brings greater ownership and forethought on the part of developers who will need to consider that the short cuts they take today might bite them later on when they are in the support role later on. Unfortunately, finding and keeping good developers is difficult and getting a good developer to agree to do support services is even more difficult.

    The more interaction that Support & Services have, the better the product and service will be that you deliver to the customer. But finding people that are willing to do both roles is difficult.

    • Shoaib Ahmed June 28, 2012 at 8:01 am

      I agree. Thinking back to my days as a developers, I wasn’t the keenest to do support work. I’d probably not use my top developers in a support role. It is always harder to design and build functionality from scratch than troubleshoot problems. In most cases anyway.

      What models have you come across? And what have you seen used most successfully?

  2. bill morton June 28, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Thank you for putting a link to one of my notes on management

  3. bill morton June 28, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    I notice you have an interest in cricket – My Father has a record that will never be broken – he made nil in the World ‘s record (highest ) score!

    • Shoaib Ahmed June 28, 2012 at 1:05 pm

      Looks like he was a bit unlucky with the run-out🙂

      • bill morton June 28, 2012 at 5:39 pm

        You have a good knowledge of the situation.

        My Father played for Australia in 1928. He held the position of Secretary of the South Melbourne Cricket club for many years and fostered Players from Geelong coming to play for South Melbourne. The Hassetts lioved in Geelong had six sons and my Mother’s sister married Dick Hassett.. Lindsay regularly visited our home and I played miniature bowls with him on many occasions

      • Shoaib Ahmed June 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm

        Funny how things turn out. Never thought my profession and passion would come together. You give me too much credit. I knew it couldn’t be the highest test score so looked up CricInfo for the highest first class score🙂 Amazing what you can find on the internet.

  4. Pingback: The resourcing conundrum « Project Management in Practice

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