Project Management in Practice

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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

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