The cost of support: solving problems vs. just responding to tickets

Providing good customer support is the most important part of running a software business. When dealing with a support queue, it's very tempting to look at the list of tickets, and to try and work your way through them by responding to as many as you can, as quickly as you can. I had an experience today that reminded me about the importance of actually solving problems vs. simply responding to tickets.

Last week, I wanted to add a new AD domain to a Windows Azure subscription. I entered the domain, tried to verify it, and got told the domain was already in use. I couldn't figure out why, so I paid $30 for a support contract so that I'd be able to contact Microsoft support.

I lodged the ticket, and a few hours later got a reply. It turned out that I had an Office 365 account which must have had the domain already linked, so I'd need to sign in and delete it from there. As far as I knew I had closed the account and was no longer paying for it, but apparently it was still open. So I spent 10 minutes trying to remember my credentials for the service, and then eventually had to reset the password.

Upon getting into the account, I tried to delete the domain. It pretended to be deleting for 15 minutes, then eventually failed. I tried again and got the same error, so I then waited until the next day and tried again. When I got the same error, I emailed my support person again, and was told it's probably because I have users using that domain.

The steps to rectify? I need to create a new user account, then delete the other users, then I might be able to delete the domain. It sounds like a lot of work, so I'll need to wait until I can set aside the time to do it.

Now, in their defence, the support person at Microsoft has been very diligent and has done a good job - they have phoned me me every day to see where I'm up to on the ticket. They send polite emails and explain the steps properly.

The fact that it's taken too long to resolve is my fault. I'm busy, and this isn't a priority issue. I just want to add a domain, and figured it would take 10 seconds to do. Between the emails and trying to delete things and trying again and searching, it's probably taken a couple of hours (not to mention the $30). And when I see the support person's # on my phone, I screen the call, because it's usually not a good time - I just haven't had time to set aside half an hour to create the accounts and delete the other accounts and do whatever else they said I'd need to do.

We provide technical support at Octopus Deploy, and it's common for some issues to take multiple emails to solve. Being on the receiving end this time has helped me to realise a few things:

  1. If you can, just solve it for them. If the support person had just logged into my accounts and deleted everything for me (perhaps with confirmation first), it would have taken 2 minutes of my time to reply to that email and the ticket would be closed. We sell shrinkwrap software, so that's hard; but this is SaaS, so it should be easy.
  2. Try to think ahead and pre-empt what could go wrong when giving a solution. I got told to delete the domains, so I tried. Only when it failed did they point out that user accounts could be using the domain. That's probably a common issue; if they'd suggested that in the first email, it would save a roundtrip.
  3. Measure response times, not issue open times. I'm getting calls and emails each day from this (very diligent) support person. I'm sure they genuinely want to help, but I suspect the follow ups are more due to the fact that this ticket is "open" and they're reminded each day to follow up. Respond to the ticket quickly, but don't follow up every day to try and get it closed - give the customer time to work through it. Chances are, this issue isn't a priority.
  4. Don't change communication mediums. I contacted support via an online ticket system. Getting a phone call was unexpected and annoying. If I phone you, sure, call me back. But if I email you, just email me back. The fact that I'm not screaming down a phone suggests I probably want to solve this using an asynchronous communication mechanism.

Observation #1 is probably the most interesting. Between the time spent on emails and phone calls just from their side, I'm sure it would have saved Microsoft a lot of money if they could simply have deleted it for me.

A picture of me

Welcome, my name is Paul Stovell. I live in Brisbane and work on Octopus Deploy, an automated deployment tool for .NET applications.

Prior to founding Octopus Deploy, I worked for an investment bank in London building WPF applications, and before that I worked for Readify, an Australian .NET consulting firm. I also worked on a number of open source projects and was an active user group presenter. I was a Microsoft MVP for WPF from 2006 to 2013.