About Jeff Hensel

I'm a software support representative for Algonquin Studios! In my spare time, I enjoy cooking, hockey, and heavy metal.

Why Gmail is Great – It’s Software Developed With the End-User in Mind

Technology in our daily lives is ever-expanding, so it should follow that software development companies are absolutely booming – in fact, MarketLine states that the global software market is expected to grow to a whopping $357 billion dollar industry by 2015, which is quite a boost from the $265 billion total from 2010. Companies already deep in this industry will certainly want an edge over their competition, and there’s no better way to gain the trust of their customers than building great software.

When you think examples of truly magnificent software, what springs to mind? For me, Gmail takes the cake – a simple yet intuitive piece of software that makes the mundane task of writing and organizing e-mail truly effortless. Every aspect of the software is designed to be as easy-to-use as possible, while providing the ability to use a wide array of features. Many times it’s difficult to strike a balance between simplistic design and power, but Gmail hits the nail on the head.

tabs

One thing separating Gmail from the other e-mail services out there is their recent implementation of category tabs. I have to admit, when this feature was released, I wasn’t thrilled – my knee-jerk reaction was something along the lines of “Why complicate things by dividing my inbox? Why fix what’s not broken?” Oh, how young and foolish I was – this feature has quickly become one of my favorite aspects of Gmail, allowing me to quickly jump to different categories. Do I want to check out all of my social media updates? One click of the “Social” tab will do that! How about any promotional e-mails outlining that day’s sales? You guessed it, just hit the “Promotions” tab. Additionally, you don’t even have to specify which e-mail is sorted under which tab – Gmail does it automatically. Brilliant!

If you’ve ever mentioned attaching something in Gmail, and then completely forgot to attach it, you’re greeted with the following message:

attachfiles

This likely didn’t take much time to develop at all, yet has likely saved many people from looking foolish (first-hand experience here). While it isn’t likely to make or break which e-mail service you choose, these details really impresses you when you need them.

It’s this kind of usability that gives me confidence in Google’s software – I’d be more willing to try software that they develop, since I’m comfortable with the kind of work they do from prior experience. On the flip-side, had my Gmail experiences been full of frustration or lacked the features that I’ve come to expect, maybe I’d check out alternatives – in fact, it was my frustration with Yahoo!’s services that led me to leaving it behind in the first place. The bottom line – usability matters, and if you aren’t able to put out simple software with powerful features, your customers will find someone else who can.

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Supporting New Software? No Problem.

One of the first stages of the software development life cycle is the roll-out of brand new software and with it comes that awkward honeymoon phase – it’s anyone’s guess as to what problems might arise during the first few weeks of use. With this comes a sense of uncertainty, but it doesn’t have to be all that scary! Since I’ve started working at Algonquin Studios, I’ve seen many old and grizzled systems scrapped in favor of bright and shiny new ones and I’ve learned a lot about piecing together a support process for when you aren’t totally familiar with the new software. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when venturing into uncharted territory:

There will be bugs. Probably more of them than you expected.

Even if you have the most fantastic software developers imaginable (like we do here at Algonquin), there are going to be unforeseen issues that pop up, so expect a sizable workload increase in the first couple months after releasing a brand new system. This leads to my next point…

Stay organized and consistent with bug tracking.

With an increase in bug reporting, it’s vital that the support team is clearly documenting all bugs reported and all team members tasked speaking with end users are kept up-to date on issues as they develop. Being diligent about your tracking will ensure that when it comes time to fixing those nasty bugs, everyone has as smooth a ride as possible.

Make sure you manage customer expectations.

As with all customer support issues, it’s important to manage expectations about bug fixes and requests for new features (Hey, I actually wrote a whole post about that here!). If there’s an issue or request that a user is anxious about seeing to resolution, let them know that you’ll be documenting the issue to be reviewed, but make no promise of when it will be completed. Not everything can be fixed or added at the same time and it’s best not to give false expectations.

Create and update a Knowledge Base from the get-go.

If you’re not keeping an updated Knowledge Base for your support team, you need to start… And you need to start yesterday. A centralized location for in-house use is crucial to being able to provide consistent answers on issues as they arise. Are you receiving the same questions on how to do a specific task in your software? Create a step-by-step “how-to” that you can send to customers quickly and easily, saving everyone a whole lot of time and confusion.

Have a simple way to escalate issues on a regular basis.

Whether it’s a weekly meeting or a regularly-sent report, there needs to be a way to let upper-level management know what’s going on. It’s ultimately not up to the front-line team to decide what gets fixed and when, but it is their responsibility to make sure the higher-ups are able to hear about the most dire issues. If there’s no process in place to communicate this, make sure you create one so the development life cycle can progress naturally.

Remember, as bleak as handling support may seem at the launch of new software, it will always get easier as time goes on. Implementing a brand new system is a learning process for both end users and support teams, so treat it as such! Look at it as an opportunity to grow your own skills and knowledge and reassure everyone involved that the process will all be worth it in the end. Every company will handle the launch of new software differently; what are some examples of procedures that your team utilizes when implementing a new system? Leave a comment and let us know!

Jeff’s Guide to Managing Customer Expectations

Any reputable company will tell you that customers are your lifeblood–without them, your business can’t exist.  It’s crucial to keep them happy, and a large part of that is managing their expectations. When I first started working in this field I underestimated just how important expectation management can be to customer satisfaction but I quickly learned from my managers to always keep this idea in the back of my mind.

Imagine your experiences at various restaurants: if you’re stopping for a quick bite to eat at a fast food restaurant, you’re (typically) expecting low quality food, but you’re expecting it to arrive quickly and not put a sizable dent in your wallet. If you’re booking reservations at a Michelin star restaurant, the exact opposite would be true.  However, in both situations, it’s possible to be completely satisfied with the product and service you receive simply because of the different expectations that you started with.

Although it’s a different situation, the same concept can be applied to providing software support-a large part of how happy customers are with your company is due to the expectations that are initially set and then either met or not met on a regular basis. While it’s important to always strive to provide the highest level of support possible, it’s also extremely important to set realistic expectations. Here are a few of the things I like to keep in mind in order to better manage our customers’ expectations:

  • Consistency is key.  Providing fantastic service one day and poor service the next will frustrate your customers, since they’ve come to expect a certain standard. Making yourself available to assist a customer after normal support hours will set the expectation that someone will always be available to do provide immediate assistance, regardless of the time of day. Make sure that’s a commitment you can follow through on, every time.
  • Always mind how you word things.  Sugar coating may make things sounds better to your customers, but if it leads to the impression that you’ve promised something and failed to deliver, you’ll just end up looking bad. You should always be kind, helpful, and accommodating but don’t feel pressured to say or promise anything that you can’t back up. A temporarily frustrated customer now is better than an enraged customer in the future.
  • Make it clear what you can and can’t assist with. While always trying to help your customers as much as you can sounds like a great idea, providing partial assistance with things you’re not familiar with isn’t.  Unless you’re prepared to take full responsibility for any consequences or you’re equipped to continue assisting with that issue going forward (see the first bullet!), it’s best to have them contact the appropriate support team for help.
  • Make sure your customers are kept in the loop. This is a rather broad statement, but it’s an important thing to remember-nobody likes being left in the dark, especially when a product or service they’re paying money for is involved. Even a quick note, letting them know you’re still working on their issue, will reassure your customer that they haven’t been forgotten and are still a priority for you. Expectations for great customer service are higher than ever and, thanks to technology and social media advancements, there are a ton of quick, easy methods and tools to keep your customers “in the know.”

I highly recommend sharing these tips with new employees at any company, as they can help expedite the growth from rookie to seasoned veteran in the customer service world.  Every company has different support procedures, but these concepts should be universal whether you’re in fast food or software development.  What are some ways you’ve failed to meet customer expectations?  What are ways you try to meet them on a daily basis?

Improving Company Culture or Why You Should Start “Taco Thursday”

If you know anything about Algonquin Studios, you know that we have a deep-rooted love of food.  It seems to be something that really stands out when describing our company culture (heck, even our monthly F.E.A.S.T. was explained to me in my initial job interview).  I’d been thinking we should keep the food ball rolling, and when a local brewery tweeted “Today is Taco Tuesday,” my gears started turning… Why not have our own taco day here at Algonquin?  After all, who doesn’t love tacos?

So, I pulled the trigger and composed an e-mail to my coworkers presenting the idea, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. I proposed a build-your-own taco bar, allowing each person to pick and choose the toppings they want. Everyone who eats chips in for the day’s ingredients and we all seem to agree that $3 for lunch is a relative steal compared to lunch elsewhere downtown.

Our first Taco Thursday was an overall a success. Each person seemed to be happy with the lunch received and I was encouraged by all to do it again. Over the following weeks, we’ve had our ups (shredded pork, with leftovers to boot) and downs (cubed chicken, which we ran out of before everyone was served) but, for the most part, it has been a terrific undertaking and it’s quite easy, not very much work ever goes in to the preparation.  If you’re looking to boost your company culture, and enjoy some fantastic Tex-Mex as well, you should consider hosting your own!

Taco Fixin's

In case you do decide to start making tacos for your beloved coworkers, I’ll share with you some of the things I’ve learned from experience:

  • Collect money BEFORE you get your final count of how many are eating.  Unforeseen circumstances can prevent people from showing up, causing you to eat the cost of their meal.
  • Buy more food than you think you need. My biggest mishap to date was running out of chicken before each person had eaten their first plate – it’s better to have too much (and leftovers!) than too little.
  • Shop at wholesale stores. Ingredients in bulk (cheese, sour cream, taco seasoning, etc.) are ridiculously cheap there compared to grocery stores.
  • Prepare as much as possible at home.  For example, I cook and drain the ground beef at home – the next day, I place it on the stove top with taco seasoning and water and let it slow cook until lunch is served.
  • Rotate ingredients. Try to change things up, whether it’s your protein, salsa, toppings, etc. And additions like rice and black beans help stretch the total number of tacos that can be enjoyed – use them!
  • Don’t be afraid to turn people away if necessary. You can only cook so much food and it’s better to let people know right away if there won’t be enough for latecomers.

As cliche as it sounds, Algonquin Studios is a tight-knit family, and we’re constantly thinking of ways to bring our family together.  If you think your company could benefit by a weekly social gathering, why not try your hand at Taco Thursday as well?  Remember, there’s no such thing as too much employee morale – one of the reasons my co-workers love working here is because it’s flat out a good time, and being able to spend quality time with one another is just one of the many reasons why.

Feel free to leave a comment if you think this may be something you are interested in trying! I’d be more than happy to answer any questions or offer advice. Taco Thursday has been a marvelous experience and has helped further strengthen our company culture – nothing says togetherness like co-workers laughing and stuffing their faces with tacos.  ¡Olé!

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!

Web-based Support – The Way of the Future

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the evolution of support and customer service platforms, and it struck me that we’ve come a long way in such a short time. It seems like only yesterday that I spent close to an hour listening to cheesy hold music while desperately trying to get my apartment’s heat turned on. No matter how many times the automated recording thanked me for my patience, 5 minutes into holding, I was already frustrated at the wait. If it was the utility company’s goal to annoy me before I could even use their service, they were definitely succeeding.

In many instances, phone-based support is a necessary option – if immediate help is needed in the case of an emergency, for example. However, companies are slowly beginning to realize that web-based support offers a solution that is cheaper, more concise, and best of all for the customer – more convenient. These benefits are precisely why I believe we will see more companies put an emphasis on web support and more customers begin to lean towards the web as their preferred method of getting help.

Cost
While there are typically some upfront expenses and time investments needed to implement web support, it pays for itself in the long run. The more instances where the customer is helped without the need to speak with a representative of the company, the more man-hours are saved. This can eliminate the need to hire extra employees for the sole reason of handling simple, everyday issues.

Clarity
Clarity can often be lacking with phone support, especially after the call is over. Unless I’ve scribbled down every word the support representative said to me during our conversation, I’m left with only my memory afterwards. Chances are, I’m not going to remember everything and, in the event I need to review something I forgot from the conversation, I’m simply out of luck. Web-based ticket systems allow me to access all the information related to my issue at anytime and from anywhere, ensuring that if I happen to miss an important piece of information or directive, everything I need is still at my fingertips.

Convenience
We live in a world where breaking sports updates are automatically sent to our phones and Chinese food can be delivered to your door in 20 minutes – convenience has become a necessity in our every day lives. It’s expected. So, why do we put up with being placed on-hold when there are better solutions out there? Nobody enjoys hearing the static-laden music or the canned “your call is very important to us” message. If it’s so important, why am I sitting here waiting and becoming increasingly frustrated?

I recently had an experience with a computer peripherals manufacturer that helped solidify my position on the subject. I had an issue with the company’s product, so naturally I visited their web site, but not to find assistance online – I was looking for a phone number, as I had been taught to do time and time again. I wasn’t able to find a phone number to call, but I did locate a “Support” button. Clicking the button led to a ticket system that prompted me to type up a quick description of my problem and submit it for review. I did so, and then went back to my routine. A short while later the representative assigned to the ticket responded and he was able to resolve my issue without me ever feeling inconvenienced or frustrated in the slightest.

I truly believe that, in nearly every way imaginable, web-based support is king, and this trend will only increase as time goes on and more ideas and technologies are put into practice. It might take a bit of convincing on the part of consumers, but I feel as the shift towards web-based support systems is an inevitability with all things considered. In what ways do support options influence your decision to use one company over another?  Do you have any feedback on web-based or phone-based support?

Getting the Most Out of Your Software

As we all progress further into the wonderful world of technology, more and more of our daily tasks are gravitating towards automation.  Whether it’s cars that can parallel park themselves (and much better than I could hope to, might I add) or garage doors that can be closed from another continent, technology can make our lives easier in seemingly endless ways and, to me, it seems counterintuitive for businesses, big or small, to resist the inevitable shift towards the technology-friendly way of the future.

Several of the software packages I support are geared towards helping companies in the service industry garner additional business opportunities and make existing business practices more efficient.  From my perspective as a software support representative, the companies having the most success are the ones who squeeze all the benefit they can from all of their software.

During my time working with companies in the service industry, I’ve learned that so much of what you get out of your software depends entirely on the effort you put into it and so, I present you with my personal list of things you should be doing to get the maximum bang for your buck. After all, if you’re shelling out good money for software licenses each month, don’t you want it to work as well for you as it possibly can?

  • DO take advantage of available training sessions.  SWRemote, for example, offers an open training session each week, completely free of charge. QuantumCMS offers free user groups, tutorials, and a community forum to all clients, as well. Not only does the training benefit new users, but it can also help users who have previous experience with the software by highlighting new tricks, tools, or shortcuts they may not know about.
  • DO keep an open mind when learning new software.  It’s easy to get frustrated and take an “the old way was better” approach but it’s important to judge if the old way was really the most efficient using facts, not just an emotional, “gut” response, and to understand that the benefits of a new systems can often far outweigh any learning curve that may exist.  On the other hand, staying open-minded will also help you gauge the true usefulness of the new software once you’ve become accustomed to it.
  • DO utilize your support team.  If frustrating issues arise during your use of your new software, you can be assured that the support team would like to hear about them. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. I’ve received comments along the lines of, “I feel bad bothering you with this issue” but that’s exactly what I’m here for – helping users is the sole reason my position exists!
  • DO discuss the use of the product with other users (colleagues or others in your industry).  They’re the ones putting the product to the test in real-world situations so they might be able to offer helpful advice or tips that can help your business thrive.
  • DO make feature requests or offer improvement suggestions on a regular basis.  Making a request is one of the only ways to ensure your software development team knows there’s a feature you’d like to see; for the software that I support, the vast majority of enhancement ideas come directly from our most vocal customers.  If there are changes you’d like to see, speak up!

The obvious goal of most technology is to make things easier. If a specific piece of software isn’t working for you, it’s in your best interests to figure out why but keep in mind that “easier” doesn’t always mean that you won’t have to make an effort to learn or change. Remember this and you’ll be sure to stay ahead of the curve and get more value from the things in your life that are designed to help!

The Often-Overlooked Value Of A Quality Support Team

My team and I are software support representatives – when end users struggle with issues they can’t resolve themselves or encounter bugs or glitches, they call us.  We’re the first line of defense – being there for our customers and putting their minds at ease.  Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about why the position I hold is necessary (and I’m pretty sure the developers we help would agree).

Frustrated customers don’t remain customers for long:

This one should be fairly obvious.  If a product or service you’re using causes you more grief than benefit, you’ll probably stop using it.  When a support call comes in, it’s the support representative’s job to provide the feeling that someone associated with the product cares about the customer’s issue.  If the end user is forced to leave a voicemail and wait for several hours before hearing a response, they might begin feeling like their problem will never get fixed.  No one ever wants to feel as if they are being ignored when they have a problem; letting customers fend for themselves is bound to have them looking for alternatives.

Support representatives are the face of the company:

Support reps are frequently the first people to have contact with a customer, and first impressions can be everything. A positive experience can make the customer feel confident that their issue will be addressed quickly.  A negative experience, however, can deter the customer from calling again.  Although support representatives often make up a very small part of a company, they’re usually closely associated with a customer’s opinion of the entire organization.  When a customer hears my voice, they have something tangible to associate with their product and my demeanor can set the tone for their continued relationship with the company.  Ideally, you want the person on the phone with your customer to be caring, kind, and patient, so the relationship will be as well.

Developers often don’t mix with customers:

While it’s not true in every circumstance, there are a lot of developers who don’t necessarily want direct contact with the customer. Certainly, it’s tough to concentrate on coding if your phone is ringing several times an hour, but developers can also suffer from being too “sophisticated” for their own good (and the clients’) – since they’re surrounded by colleagues who understand complex processes, it can be difficult for them to put a description into layman’s terms for an end user. Software support provides a bridge between end user and developer; the reps have enough technical know-how to work with the developers on more complex issues, but can easily relate to struggling (and, sometimes, impatient) customers.  Plus, I know some developers who just “don’t like talking on the phone” and that’s not the kind of person who should be communicating with customers on a daily basis.

Support representatives take pressure off developers:

This is obviously related to my previous point, but important nonetheless. When a customer loses patience (and nearly everyone does, at some point), they can lash out.  Support representatives are trained to handle this pressure and work to prevent it from reaching the developers. The goal of the development team needs to be producing quality software; the goal of the support reps needs to be managing the expectations of customers and helping them resolve problems quickly and with minimal pain.

It’s no coincidence that the most profitable companies have excellent support teams to back up their excellent products.  Now more than ever, these companies have come to realize that without a strong, committed support team, there would be no customers to support.  Don’t underestimate the value of a great relationship with your customer!

How Can I Help You?

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a project and you encounter a problem with one of the tools you use or services you rely on to get things done. Although it’s easy to immediately lose your temper, remember that there’s probably a team of highly-trained, friendly people waiting to help you, just a phone call away. Of course, talking to “customer service” can be painful in and of itself and so, I present you with some tips to ensure both you and your support representative are smiling when your phone call is over:

1. Remember – The Issue You’re Experiencing Is Probably Not The Fault Of The Person You’re Speaking With

This can be easy to forget when frustration abounds. It’s something everyone does – we hit our boiling point and start looking for someone to blame – but the first person to pick up the phone often unfairly takes the blunt of your rage. Take a step back – did this person personally decide to cause you any grief? Probably not. So, before losing it on the person asking “How can I help you?” keep in mind that he just offered his assistance. Which leads to my second tip…

2. Put Yourself In Their Shoes

It’s important to remember that, at the other end of the line, the person trying to deal with your current issue actually receives phone calls from frustrated, upset customers on a regular basis. Possibly all day long. Imagine for a moment that you’ve been put in his position – would you rather be speaking with a calm, patient customer or an angry, short-tempered one? It’s much less stressful for everyone involved if you can keep your cool at all times. Yelling at your support rep probably won’t move things along any quicker.

3. Give As Much Detail As Possible About The Problem You’re Experiencing

Sure, you might not know what’s causing the problem or even what the problem actually is, but you’re not doing anyone a favor by saying “It’s not working” and leaving it at that. Let the person trying to assist you know what you were doing when the difficulty began. Is this the first time you’ve tried to use the product or service? Or were you, perhaps, interacting with the product in a new or unusual way? Remember, the person on the other end of the line can’t read your mind (but rest assured, we’re working on it!), and while the odds are fairly good that the support representative you’re dealing with has resolved that issue in the past for another customer, the more clues he can get about the issue, the quicker he can help you resolve the problem and get you off the phone and on your way to success.

4. Let The Support Rep Know How You Feel

When you’re nearing the end of the call, give a hint as to how satisfied you are. Odds are,  the person you’ve been speaking to really does want you to be frustration-free so, if you’re happy and everything is looking up, tell him that you appreciate his help and that you’ll give a call back if you have any more problems. On the flip-side, if your problem hasn’t been resolved, or you feel like the support service didn’t meet your needs, make it known. It’s his job to put your mind at ease, even if it means transferring you to someone more knowledgeable.

5. Ask About Changes You’d Like To See

Most products aren’t perfect and there’s always room for improvement. If you’ve got a wonderful idea about how to make an existing product more beneficial for you and the others using it, let the support rep know. While he may not be directly responsible for approving or implementing changes, he’ll probably know who to refer you to or how to pass the message along. Companies should want to hear feedback from their end users – nobody knows how useful or effective a product is like the people who use it on a daily basis. If there are bugs or quirks that should be resolved, mention them! It’ll likely help create a better product in the long run.

The most important thing to remember is that most customer support/service reps really do love helping people. And, believe it or not, it really does make our day when a customer ends a call with “Thank you so much for your help!”

Love your support representative and they’ll love you back!