Encouraging Great Customer Support

Just last night I had to call the support line for a service I recently cancelled but still had a few questions about. The call was frustrating and I didn’t get all the answers I needed before I finally gave up and ended the call, dissatisfied and unlikely to ever work with the company in question again. While the call was painful, the experience got me thinking about the support we here at Algonquin Studios offer and take pride in. As a Support Representative, I genuinely strive to be helpful to our clients and hope that their experiences with us are good ones.

My colleagues and I have written blog posts in the past about how to make your support experience the best it can be and how to ensure you get the most out of the time spent on the phone with us. This week, I wanted to switch things up a bit, though, and share some ways we can all encourage the customer service people we talk to on a daily basis, helping them continue to do a good job for us:

Smile
Support reps can tell when you’re smiling, even through the phone lines. We know you’re likely calling because something is wrong or you’re experiencing some sort of difficulty but smiling helps your voice to sound friendly, warm, and open-minded and puts both of us in a better frame of mind to tackle the issue head-on.

Give Us Details
If you’re calling about an error message you received when using our software, take note of what the actual error message says. The fact that you’ve done a little work on your own, prior to calling us, can make us feel like we’re in this together and that solving your problem is a team effort. Plus, extra effort on the front end will save us both time, help us get to the root of your problem (and it’s solution) more easily, and get you off the phone and back to your real life more quickly.

Don’t Be Afraid To Joke Around
Humor is one of our “Four H’s” here at Algonquin, so we’re definitely not afraid of cracking a joke or two, even at our own expense! In reality, most of us love jokes as much as the next guy and humor can be a great way to de-stress a situation, so my coworkers and I love talking to clients who know that, even in the face of a problem, they can make the best of the situation and crack a joke. It’s another great way to foster a team spirit and show that we’re all in this problem-solving experience together!

Say “Thank You”
Yes, they’re just two little words, but believe me, those two words are powerful! Never underestimate the power of “thank you,” even in the face of a difficult situation or issue that requires additional follow-up. It makes me smile when a client says “thank you” and helps me feel like I’m truly appreciated for the job I’m doing.

So, those are some of the ways our clients can help me feel better about my job. What insights do you wish you could share with people that could make you much happier in your work life?

Modern Browsing

If you’re reading this article, then chances are that you’re sitting at your desk using a web browser. Sure, you might be using a tablet, phone, or some other device, but in this blog post, I’m going to focus on desktop browsing.

There are several very good desktop browsers that you may be using right now, or maybe not. Take a moment, locate the “About” option (usually under the “Tools” menu) in your browser, and take a look at what it says.

If you are using the latest version of Google Chrome, Firefox, or Opera, hurray for you! You have made a conscious choice to download and use an alternative browser, a browser that most likely did not come installed on your computer. Maybe you’ve even set that browser as your default.

Now, if you, like many users, are accessing the web in Internet Explorer, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re using Internet Explorer 9 (very soon to be IE 10). However, if you are using IE 6, 7, or 8, you’re really not experiencing the web to its fullest.

Recent browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, and IE9, have very good support for emerging technologies like CSS3 and HTML5, that are already being adopted by many web developers to present web content in new and exciting ways. But there’s more to it than just that. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the benefits you get from a modern browser:

  1. Speed: Modern browsers generally have more powerful rendering engines that handle JavaScript and other technologies better than older browsers. This means that web sites load faster and more efficiently.
  2. Security: Although modern browsers can be subject to security flaws, they’re generally far more secure than their predecessors.
  3. Support: Over time, support for older browsers will continue to diminish. Already, many leading sites like YouTube and Facebook have dropped support for IE 6 and many other sites serve up limited functionality and visuals to older browsers.
  4. More space: Modern browsers generally have less “chrome” and maximize your working space.
  5. Features: Over time, browser developers continue to optimize and expand their products. Modern browsers have some really wonderful and convenient features that serve a variety purposes and enhance user experience.

There are a lot of great features that modern browsers have started to adopt across the board and there’s no way that I can mention them all, but here are some highlights.

  1. Tabbed browsing: If you are still using IE6, you’re missing out on a major convenience that has been otherwise available for many years.
  2. Searching: Many browsers have a dedicated search box next to the address bar for running quick web searches. You can usually adjust the box to use your favorite search engine if the default is not to your liking. In addition, if you type a keyword into the address bar and it doesn’t match a site URL, then the browser will run a web search instead. Chrome has taken this a step farther and has eliminated the separate search field entirely.
  3. Add-ons: Browser developers have opened their doors to the community and allow other developers to create small pieces of software that add onto your browser. These are usually used to complete a discreet function like taking a screen shot of the current web page, but there are add-ons for all sorts of things like news, weather, and music, as well as number of great tools for web developers. In my experience, Firefox and Chrome have the most and highest quality add-ons.
  4. Syncing: Many browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, allow you to sign in to your browser and synchronize bookmarks, add-ons, and other data between all of your computers and devices. This is perfect for when you stumble across something at work that you want to check out later, at home. You can create a bookmark at work and it will be right there in your toolbar when you load up the browser at home.

If you’re running an older browser and it’s in your power to upgrade or download an alternative browser, I highly recommend that you do so. At this point, you may be wondering what browser you should download. Truly, there’s no correct answer because it’s a really a matter of preference, but here’s a quick breakdown of the most common options:

  • Google Chrome: Chrome is fast, secure, has tons of add-ons, and, not surprisingly, tends to work really well with Google products like Gmail. Chrome is the default browser on my machine. Available for Windows and Mac.
  • Firefox: Firefox has recently lost some of its market share to Chrome, but is still a solid browser in many ways. It may not be quite as fast or secure, but still boasts a solid feature set and a massive amount of add-ons. Available for Windows and Mac.
  • Internet Explorer: Although Internet Explorer 10 will be coming out shortly, IE 9 is fast and secure, but lacks the add-ons of Firefox and Chrome. IE 9 is the first version that has included support for CSS3 and other emerging technologies and is definitely a large step towards bringing IE up to current web standards. Available for Windows Vista and higher.
  • Safari: Safari and Chrome are built on the same rendering engine and have many of the same features, although, in my experience, Chrome runs more quickly and is far superior in the add-on department. Safari seems to have dropped support for Windows as of version 5.1.7, so I would only recommend it for Mac users.
  • Opera: Like Chrome, Opera is fast, secure, and has add-ons, though perhaps not so many as Chrome. Opera is also a leader in the web standards community and is constantly innovating new ways to experience the web. Available for Windows and Mac.

If you made it through this whole post without downloading a new browser, do yourself a favor and test drive one of the browsers listed above. You won’t regret it.

How To Train Your Newbie

I’m sure that most managers can agree that giving thorough training to new employees is critical but where they might differ is in the methodology used to implement that training. While some companies prefer to implement rigorous training programs, others have new hires simply shadow existing employees (unfortunately, a Rocky-style training montage isn’t an option for most organizations). But, regardless of the methods employed, training for a technical position requires a great deal of learning over a long time period. There are several things I believe can help improve the learning process, so I’ve compiled a short list of the things that especially benefited me during my ramp-up period at Algonquin Studios. Take a look to see if they can help you get the most out of the time training your new employees, as well:

Encourage The Writing And Use Of Documentation

Most companies have a detailed knowledge base available. Not only are these articles great for assisting customers with issues, they also provide a great tool to beginners.  Seeking answers to their questions from other employees is a good thing, but finding the answer themselves by doing some knowledge base research might be even better. New employees should also be encouraged to write their own articles, as the things they write will stick with them better than things they simply read through. If they have a question that isn’t explained in any existing documentation, it’s probably a good idea for them to write it up!

Teach In The Way That Works Best For The Employee

Some people, myself included, are visual learners. It’s much easier for me to grasp a new concept by viewing diagrams and reading instructions than it is for me to absorb verbal directions from a teacher. Talk to your new employee and find out how they prefer to learn;  while it’s important to be flexible and able to learn in multiple ways, it’s also important to provide people with an efficient and effective way to teach learn new concepts.

Offer Help, Even If They Haven’t Asked For It

Being the new person at a job can be stressful and stress might cause them to be hesitant to ask for help when they need it. Regularly check in and offer to help them, either by explaining something they don’t understand or reinforcing their training with some helpful examples or advice. The voice of experience from a willing and generous teacher can foster increased confidence in newbies.

Make Sure They Don’t Get “Too Comfortable”

This can sound a bit harsh but people learn new skills the fastest when they don’t become complacent. While it’s never good to completely overwhelm someone and cause them to break down from the stress, a little fire under them will keep them moving in the right direction. Gauge their progress, making sure that when they become familiar with basic tasks they’re assigned more advanced ones quickly.

Give Criticism When Warranted

It can definitely be tough to hand out criticism but it’s crucial to making sure first-time mistakes don’t become permanent habits. Remember that the point of constructive criticism isn’t to demean and punish, so it should always be done with respect. While it was never fun for me to be told where my work could use improvement, it gave me a clear goal of what was expected of me and I am better today for it.

And on the opposite side of that…

Recognize When They’re Doing a Great Job

Everyone wants to feel as if they are succeeding; positive reinforcement can go a long way towards motivating people to continue learning. Not only does this keep spirits high, it helps create a comfortable working environment and friendly company culture. Make sure your new employees know when they’re getting it right!

How does the on-boarding/training process work at your company? What are the similarities between my list and yours? Feel free to leave a comment below with any great new employee training ideas you use!

The Importance of Understanding the Big Picture

Many of us work Monday through Friday at breakneck speeds, trying our best to meet deadlines and produce quality code, with the ultimate goal being to deliver great products and services to our clients. For me, the feeling of accomplishment that I get when I complete a large task is one of the most rewarding aspects of software development.

And, while accomplishment is a great feeling, there’s a related phenomenon I’ve struggled with over the course of my 10-month tenure here at Algonquin Studios, and it’s what I like to call “tunnel vision.”

Imagine attempting to paint a twenty-foot wide mural without ever standing more than three inches from your canvas. Since you are so close, you’re able to add extra detail, and maybe even come up with new ideas while you’re working on the small section of the painting. But, what does this painting look like in the end, you might ask? Up close, the individual components of the painting appear beautifully intricate. However, if you step back twenty feet and look at the entire painting, you might realize that you accidentally have half of the people in the scene looking in the wrong direction or perhaps you gave someone two left hands. When you are in this tunnel vision state, you’re so focused on your task that you feel productive and it isn’t until you actually step back and look at the big picture that you realize the glaring mistakes staring you right in the face that will likely end up costing you time and resources.

So enough about painting, what exactly am I getting at here?

If we take this painting example, and apply it to any software development project, there are clear similarities. For example, if you have a large development team working on a project that’s estimated to take several years to complete, it’s easy to sit and simply focus on your task at hand. The issue is that, just like the painter I referenced earlier, your task may appear perfect up close but when you take a step back and look at how it fits into the rest of the system you may realize that things aren’t as peachy as you thought they were.  Maybe you’ve missed an opportunity to collaborate with someone who could’ve given you insight into how to better complete your task.Or perhaps you’ll realize that the extra functionality you implemented (which made sense to you at the time) actually breaks a significant part of the system or will require a significant amount of additional testing. Even something as mundane and simple as changing a database table column name can have a rippling effect throughout the entire system. These things can cost a project time and time is money.

It’s clear that we need a way to recognize when we’re experiencing tunnel vision and find ways to eliminate it.

Here at Algonquin Studios, we might take a quick run up to the seventh floor, just to get our blood pumping a bit. Others simply take a few minutes to sit on a couch and read a book. In the rarest of cases, we’ll watch cat videos on YouTube. Even simple things like these can help clear your mind of distractions and stay focused on the big picture, ultimately improving your productivity and making you a more effective developer.

Do you ever experience tunnel vision? Have you managed to defeat it?  If so, leave me a comment with some of your favorite techniques. It’s certainly an issue that I struggle with on a daily basis and I’m sure that I’m not alone.

Dialing Up The Web

Originally posted by Algonquin Studios CEO, Steven Raines, on September 23, 2012, on his blog.

When I first met Stephen Kiernan over 15 years ago, my business partner, mentor, friend, and the former CEO of Algonquin Studios was already an experienced programmer, analyst, and professional consultant. Just a few years earlier, I’d been in college working on sites for this new thing called “the World Wide Web” but by the time Algonquin Studios was hired to build a claims adjudication system for a national third-party administrator people had decided that this “Internet” thing probably wasn’t going away.

Early in his career, Steve worked in a software development package called KnowledgeMan, an all-in-one database / UI / business logic development environment. He’d kept up his technical chops in the Microsoft Windows environment as the databases became separate and 4GL languages were taken over by object-oriented ones. I viewed him as supremely technically savvy for someone I then viewed as an “old guy,” which is why I found it funny that Steve, despite his keen mind, didn’t use any of the terms for the web that my other partners and me, or anyone else we knew, used. Instead, he used these weird terms that harkened back to the days of Tomcat BBS. As an example, when he wanted us to see something on the Internet, he’d always say “Dial up that web site” as though he was expecting the screech of a modem at the beginning of each browser launch. This engendered more than a little good natured ribbing from the other partners and myself in those early days when half of the work day was sitting around trying to figure out how to be a business that didn’t make “real” things.

In the last year, I turned the same age that Stephen was when I first met him. In looking back over those years I realized how many of his antiquated (in the sense that things that are older than three years are ancient in the technical world) ways of referencing things had become my own. Not that I’d adopted his specific terms so much as developed my own which must seem equally ridiculous and anachronistic to the young men and women we have hired.

It’s not that I don’t know what I am talking about. It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert and as anyone who has started a business knows, you invest far more than 2,080 hours a year to grow one. Technology doesn’t grow at a pace that can outstrip that much effort and experience, at least not in just a few years. Instead, it becomes a badge of honor to reference those earlier days when things seemed simpler, whether they really were or not. There is an implication that somehow the things that are done after what you have been through are less visceral and meaningful; somewhere between “you kids have it easy” and “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Steve could have done all of what we did. Most of the technology was based on things he’d done early in his career. Still, as far as the web was concerned, he decided that it was best left for new dogs. It may be that you can’t escape the technological mindset that you have when you are young and obligation free enough to throw yourself fully into the technology and as you get older you eventually hit a threshold after which the only thing that matters is whether something works… not whether you made it with your own hands. What he kept for himself and shared was his reflections on his triumphs and mistakes and the lessons he’d learned working in those early systems that were in some ways much simpler and in some ways so much more complicated than what we were doing. I know it was a hard transition for him to make… from player to coach, especially now that I find myself in the dug out with my only at-bats in a cage demonstrating mostly to myself that I can still hit the ball.

More than once I have found myself using my own “backward” terminology with my team on purpose, like an inside joke with only one participant. I wonder now whether it was really Steve who was the one messing with us when he used to “dial up” that web site instead of the other way around.

I do find it ironic after all those years of chastising him for it we are now on the verge of having the majority of web use being from mobile devices. It turns out that maybe Steve was right in hanging on to that old dial-up reference. We are now far more likely to use a phone to get to a web site (or at least web services) than we are to make a call. I was recently looking at my phone and found myself thinking “Why do I have the phone icon pinned to every screen when there are plenty of apps I use WAY more often?” Perhaps it’s time to revisit some of his other anachronisms to mine them for the next big thing. After all, don’t they say everything old is new again?