May 18, 2011

What's New: Support Still Wants to Hear from You!


This week is a look at some of the new happenings at Perforce as we lead up to the User Conference in early June. While support certainly isn't anything new to Perforce, we are always looking for new support challenges. If you have anything, no matter how minor, that troubles you about your Perforce install, we want to hear from you! Below is a little bit about how support works and evolves to (hopefully) meet your needs.

In today’s competitive business environment, the importance of customer support is significant. Consumers have several options to choose from in the market and other than price and product quality, the treatment they receive from a company is a key factor in attracting new customers to a company and maintaining the loyalty of existing ones. We realize that most interactions between a customer and a software company, aside form the initial sale, are with the technical support organization. We value this relationship.

Perforce management has long realized that good customer support can be an effective differentiator in the marketplace. Perforce Technical Support is integral to and an equal partner with the other organizations Engineering. The three founders of Perforce were two developers and one support engineer, and the proportions are still about that – about one third of the total engineering staff world-wide is in support.

I have managed Technical SupportPerforce for the last eleven years, after years elsewhere, doing and managing both Tech Support and QA. Also, over the years I've read a fair number of blogs on tech support; most are about how hard it is to get a good resolution. Perforce has always had the clear and stated intention to not do it that way. In fact, the goal we came up with internally was to "give the kind of support we’d want to receive". How do we do that? We focus on the staff.

They know how it is to be you, working in your environment with your stresses and priorities. When hiring, we look for experience in the software development cycle, as well as some support. We interview for technical depth and breadth, for communication skills, for dealing well with stress and interruptions, and most importantly, for the sincere desire to help people get the most out of using Perforce. And we want to keep them here helping you. This is not an entry position, but a career choice. The job is varied enough that boredom isn’t a problem, as long as we find the right kind of person.

And we do find the right people. We have an average of 15 years technical software experience each before coming here, and at last count, 9 support engineers who’ve been doing technical support here at Perforce for over 10 years. We’ve hired 15 new staff in the past year, diluting our average tenure down from 7.5 years to a little over 5 years. Two of the new staff were returning to Perforce Support after doing other jobs for several years.

Over the years we've encountered a few scalability issues, as we've added products, and customers. We’ve also notice that as our customers have grown that it takes a different perspective to support our largest customers as well as we do our smaller customers. We've grown from 5 people in the US and 1 in the UK to 50-some in four offices; from one manager to six team managers, a few support-infrastructure staff, and a Global Specialized Engineering Services group, all overseen by me.

It used to be small enough that even without much in the way of metrics I could generally keep my finger on the various pulses. But as we’ve grown, we have begun to collect grouped statistics by product and type of call, so that we can focus on the areas that need more attention, whether by Knowledge Base docs, bug fixes, software improvements, or usability.

Each support engineer chooses an area of the product to focus on, bringing the voice of the customer to product development and keeping peer support engineers informed about the details of in-progress development work. Support engineers all also contribute to the Knowledge Base, write tools and scripts to help our customers, and assist third-party developers who are integrating Perforce with other products.

Perforce managers for the most part are very light-handed. We don’t use timecards, or metrics to encourage too-quick call closes, or rushing through to the next issue. We do want you to have your resolution quickly, but we also want to make sure it’s the right one. We are not in competition with each other; we are all part of the team to serve you, our users.

And we welcome your feedback – we want to know when we do it right, and when we don’t.