One of the interesting differentiators between smaller service providers and larger ones is often the quality of their customer support. I suspect the same may well be true for hardware manufacturers and software vendors too, but what triggered this post was thinking about service provider support. Is it really more cost effective to operate a two-tiered support system, or does it just seem that way to large corporations?
The most direct experience I can look at is the differences between Sonic and AT&T when it came to handling issues with my (now gone) DSL connection. Calling AT&T is one of those events you need to plan for. You will first have to navigate a menu of choices, enter your phone number and spend an hour on hold. Then you will get to speak to first line support. This person will not be in any way technically capable, and will not have any of the information that you entered earlier on. What they will have is (apparently) a form with standard questions on it that you must answer, no matter whether they are in any way relevant, before you can be passed onto the second line support team, or before a technician can be scheduled to fix the problem.
When you finally get to a person who does understand what you’re talking about, the problem is often fixed in under 5 minutes (or a technician is scheduled if necessary). But to get that far has taken well over an hour, and usually frustrated both the customer and the first line support agent who is unable to deviate from the process no matter what.
And here is the real kicker: anybody working in first line support who is remotely capable of actually answering questions, and making the customer happy, is promoted to the second line support team. It is like these places make a conscious decision that first line support should be unable to answer questions.
You could argue that the first line support is essentially a human interface to the FAQ, and that they can solve a number of common issues leaving the second line personnel free to deal with the more complex problems. But since the second line personnel would often handle those simpler issues in a couple of minutes anyway, is this really a saving? And the difference in customer impression between talking to an support engineer who clearly knows and understands the issue compared to talking to a person who is just reading the answers from their screen is huge.
The alternative, which is how Sonic worked, is that the phone rings a few times, is answered by a human being and that person is able to answer your questions, solve your problems or schedule the technician. All done in less than 5 minutes most of the time, and the customer is left feeling that they are talking to somebody who knows what they’re doing. No silly questions like “Are you using Internet Explorer?” when asking whether there is a problem with the mail server!
[For those wondering why I no longer have Sonic DSL, the problem was unfortunately that they rely on AT&T for the last mile connection, and AT&T couldn’t support better than their slowest speed to my new address, and actually struggled keeping that running. I live in one of the most high-tech metro areas in the world, and they couldn’t get a high speed DSL connection to my house, so now I have cable internet from Alameda Power & Telecom, who also have great support.]