Establishing expectations is key in emergency support efforts

Best practices when facing unexpected support projects.

You have just found out in a staff meeting that the sales department has moved up the start date for its new mobile sales force project. Months earlier than you had expected—within a two-week period—100 employees nationwide will be outfitted with new laptops, new handheld computers, and new sales prospecting software. The VP of sales wants to have the new program up and running without a hitch. He has based his quarterly sales projections on the success of the new technology.

Such a bombshell can be a real shock, but you can take measures to cope. We interviewed industry experts for advice on providing support in a hurry and preventing "emergency" support situations. Here's what they had to say.

Set expectations immediately
Ron Muns, CEO and founder of the help desk training organization Help Desk Institute, stresses the need to get past the shock phase quickly and into what is achievable given the time limit.

"In a moment of such surprise, it is time to have a direct conversation about what is possible," he said.

Muns also suggests making all product support information gathered available to the support team and the sales team and to take the time to shape realistic expectations.

"Let everyone know that extra effort will be required during the first couple of weeks. Promise [everyone] to do everything possible to make the transition successful," he said.

Timing is important when it comes to shaping these expectations. Begin by setting up meetings within the first few hours to discuss the situation with your staff and your boss. You need not, nor should you, wait until you have all the facts in hand before you begin these discussions. Lee Levin, information technology manager at the Help Desk Institute, said that some of the crucial metrics can be estimated in a few hours.

"The support manager should focus on detailing the support than can be provided given the resources at hand. The goal is to set the proper expectation for the customers; in this case, the sales organization and the CEO."

Levin suggests that the early estimates answer the following questions:
  • What level of support can be given on the day the system goes live?
  • What greater level of support can be given one week after go-live?
  • What is the optimal level of support that the support organization can provide?

While you're talking with your boss, discuss how you'll inform the customers. They, along with your staff and your boss, need to know what they can expect when the system goes live. Establishing realistic expectations with customers as soon as you can will help offset problems later.

Develop as much support documentation as possible
You should also get busy testing the products and the system so you can have some FAQs and other basic support elements ready. Gary Volino, director of enterprise solutions for STI Knowledge, a company that provides outsourcing, consulting, and training to the help desk industry, says that as soon as the meeting outlined in the scenario is over, you need to get your hands on the product so you can start looking it over and developing support materials.

He also suggests contacting the vendors to see what support materials they have already developed. Ask, too, if you can get support from them as the system goes live. In a pinch, it might be possible to have support staff from the vendors sitting next to members of your staff. You won't know unless you ask.

Contact other companies that have already gone live with the system and pick the brains of the support staff at those companies. Ask them for the opinions and benefit from their experiences. Don't assume they won't answer your questions, but you may have to buy a few rounds of drinks for them at the next trade event. It's always worth the time to make the calls. The vendors may also be helpful in finding people for you to talk with and persuading them to be cooperative.

Don't dwell on the impossibilities of the situation
In the midst of your busyness to get ready for the launch, there are some things you don't have time for, such as moaning and complaining to managers and customers. You also don't have time to decide there is nothing you can do in the time you have or that the support requirements are outrageous. Dwelling on these issues will devour the little time and energy you have to set expectations and test systems for the project.

After the system goes live, make sure to point out to your boss how well the staff performed under the adverse circumstances. Make sure to tell the staff, too. Then, get busy making sure you won't be in this kind of situation again by taking proactive measures.

Be proactive: Prevent emergency support situations
Daryl Covey, NEXRAD hotline manager at the Federal NEXRAD Radar Operation Center, knows all about proactive measures. He says that during his 12 years at the center, he has been pushed time and again to "get something out fast." Consequently, he has developed a comprehensive defense shield against such drives.

"Early on, we had to define the four basics of what it takes for us to fully support a fielded modification, and we've constantly reiterated it to our management along with a reminder that anything less may result in substandard support and substandard effectiveness."

The four basic needs that Covey has developed include:
  1. Sufficient training for his staff and the users.
  2. Satisfactory documentation for both groups (staff and users).
  3. Access to the equipment in the same configuration the users will have.
  4. Enough lead time to gain support-level familiarity and proficiency.

If the company fails to supply these basics, he said, "We respectfully remind them that we will do our best under the circumstances, but cannot guarantee adequate support, and the decision makers must take responsibility."

To ensure that the decision makers are not surprised that the responsibility is thrown back in their laps, Covey makes sure he is always being proactive.

"We take every opportunity to remind them about our perquisites for technical support so that when crises arise they already have them in mind and hopefully incorporate them into the planning."

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