Software Bytes: The Reality Behind Customer Support

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It's fair to say that we live in a service-driven society. It's a free market out there, and we're free to accept or reject products or services as we see fit. So it's really darn important for the retailer selling a product or service to reciprocate with a standard that is up to the consumer's expectations.I remember a few years ago when my Jeep's rear differential was damaged during an off-road excursion. I took it to the dealer for repair since it was still under warranty, and was later informed that I would have to pay in full because I drove my Jeep Wrangler, a 4x4 vehicle, off-road.Wrong answer, Chrysler. I was so angry that I took my situation all the way to arbitration until they finally agreed to pay my bill. That was after a customer service representative hung up on me because I asked him why an off-road vehicle would void a warranty for going exactly where it is designed to go.So what's so incredibly wrong with this experience? You've got it - bad customer service. When you're talking about a large conglomerate auto maker, it's almost expected to have to deal with fools who don't care one iota about you. But if you're talking about end-users of highly functional and often complicated software for EDA designers, your customer support representative is (hopefully) there to do anything and everything he can to answer your questions and send you off happy.Many of you think of EDA software company support in the same light as the Chrysler rep that hung up on me (and I know the large conglomerates in our industry can behave that way sometimes too - they should be ashamed). But for the most part, we are a completely different breed from the typical consumer product support staff. When you phone in or send us an e-mail, your need is funneled through an intricate triage put in place to ensure that you get the most accurate response possible in the shortest amount of time.So how does it work? Let's track an e-mail; we always urge our customers to use e-mail for the fastest response. When you hit the Send button on your e-mail, it is received by an entire team of people instead of bouncing around from phone to phone and often ending in a voicemail box.I also know that you can be frustrated with the time it takes us to respond, but this is because your e-mail has sparked a team of people into discussing your issue and looking at it in detail to make sure that you get the right response and not just any response. And, there is the inevitable delay when there's a queue - for that, we endlessly apologize. But we attempt to mitigate this problem by first documenting your issue in our support system and sending you an automated e-mail with the ticket number so you at least have confirmation that we've received and are working on your issue.If the issue is considered "first level support," or what we call a "training issue," the team stays quiet and lets the first tier of the triage respond to the customer. If the e-mail appears to be "second tier support," this means that it contains a request or problem that someone with intimate knowledge of a specific area of the software can diagnose faster than someone a little further removed. In this case, the team either lets the first tier triage formally escalate it to the second tier if they need help (which they rarely do - we have some very experienced support personnel), or the second tier grabs it and lets the first tier know so that no collisions occur. Mind you, this is all happening in the first few minutes upon your email arriving in our inboxes.Lastly, we have a "third tier support" issue, or what we call a "site down" situation. This is where our triage is your best friend; the support team goes into high motion escalating the issue directly to the headquarters and all eyes are on the issue until it is resolved.A third tier issue can be as simple as a user saying he can't proceed because he's just plain stuck trying to figure out how to use something, or as complex as a user pushing our software beyond its boundaries and getting trapped by a crash that he can't get past. (I've said it before and I'll say it again - I'm not going to pretend that software doesn't crash. It's a reality, and happens no matter whose software you're running.)

Support will work every angle to try to get the customer going again with a workaround or different methods of achieving the need at hand. If the team exhausts all those efforts and still can't get the customer moving, the issue is escalated directly to Engineering.When this occurs, we are faced with a few careful decisions to make. First, the bug at hand must be fixed as quickly as possible - usually within hours of the time the customer turns it in. But once the bug is fixed, we have to decide whether to give the customer a corrected database file with which he can proceed, offer him pre-released software so that he can continue moving forward, or rush a high-priority bug fix release to our Web site.Most often, we do all three. First, we give the customer a corrected database file and offer the pre-released software. More often than not customers don't want to run pre-released software, so we know to put our Quality Assurance system goes into high gear so that we are preparing and releasing an official bug fix release before the customer even requests it. This process takes no more than 12-24 hours and the customer's schedule is hopefully set back only by an hour or two and not by days (and NEVER weeks).So the next time you're tapping your foot in irritation, wondering when the heck that support person is going to get back to you, take a break and rest assured that we are working hard to help you as best we can. And if you're unfortunate enough to encounter some support person in a bad mood who dares to be rude to you, do me a favor and send that person a link to this article.There is no excuse at all for making an enemy out of a person who needs help (and has purchased the right to customer service!) - but don't forget that it goes both ways! You have no idea how much we appreciate patience, courtesy, and an occasional thanks from you; it's a rare and happy day when we receive it. Good karma goes a long way, and may even land you a free beer or two the next time we see you!

Abby Monaco is product manager at Intercept Technology. To contact her, click here.


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