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How to Break Down the Barriers between Customer Support, Product, and Engineering

Craig StossCraig Stoss

How to Break Down the Barriers between Customer Support, Product, and Engineering

In each step of the customer journey, customer-facing teams strive to help customers maximize value from the product. In these interactions, customer-facing teams might receive hundreds, if not thousands, of feature requests, comments, and other forms of feedback from users. In order to make use of this valuable feedback, support, engineering, and product teams need to build a collaborative environment.

Why? With all of these requests, a collaborative environment between your customer-facing teams and your Product organization will create a better experience for your customers, produce an easier, more supportable product, and save your developers’ time. Sounds worth putting in the effort for, right?

Barriers to achieving a collaborative model are common. Support typically has the most customer-facing contact in an organization and often ends up as the owners of overcoming this challenge. As the owner, Support can enable positive changes, not only for the customers but internal teams as well. There are four common barriers to a successful collaboration between Product and Support:

Let’s break down why these barriers exist, and how each company can break them down on their path to collaboration.

Gaining Buy-in

The very first step to breaking down barriers is obtaining the agreement that customer feedback of all forms has a significant value to the company. If no-one thinks that customer feedback is useful, you’ll have a tough time getting Product to listen! Feedback comes in many forms:

This ‘Voice of the Customer‘ information is vital to your organization. It helps bring clarity to the actual problems or concerns your customers have. Ensuring your organization has a way to capture, review, and loopback on these requests is a significant way to increase customer loyalty and reduce churn.

Support leadership must work with leaders from all functions to gain this agreement. All functions could submit tickets on behalf of a customer or marketing survey responses can be integrated directly into your ticketing system. When all functions agree to funnel feedback into the Support team, it becomes easier to start the conversation on how this data feeds into Product. Breaking down the first barrier is about promoting data-driven product recommendations and getting necessary customer assistance to make customers, and ultimately the company, more successful. Creating a single source of customer feedback from every function will power your organization with clearer visibility into your customers’ needs and help Product make better data-driven change decisions.

The Assistance Barrier

Support teams are not omnipotent (as much as we might think we are). There are 2 main reasons why Support needs to ask for help: a gap in their technical knowledge and a product change request. When Support needs more knowledge to solve a customer issue, they often seek assistance from Engineering. The barrier arises because Product teams are often focused on longer-term development projects and may hesitate to encourage distraction on scheduled tasks. Rightfully, the Product team should never be in a position to have to answer the question ‘do we delay a release or help fill a support knowledge gap?’

To break down this barrier, support must show a willingness to learn from their assistance requests in order to avoid making the same request twice. To do so, the asks must be tracked to understand the gaps in knowledge that exist.

Assistance requests need to be tracked in a shared tool between Support and Product. It’s important to connect the two systems together to ensure accurate tracking. An example connection would be linking Zendesk tickets with JIRA using the built-in integration. Each issue should contain details such as:

The barrier truly comes down when you start to see a trend in the types of support cases that need assistance. You can point to these trends as a need for improving support training, creating new debug tools, making supportability improvements to the product, or changing product behavior. All of these changes benefit Support, Product, and the customer by improving the speed to resolution, Support’s capabilities, and removing some burden from Product.

The Feedback Barrier

Most requests for development come in the very specific form of ‘fix this defect, add this feature, change this widget, etc.’ Not everything your customers need is that specific. Support and Product collaboration is imperative in solving this disparity. To break down this barrier, implement a methodology to help Product make better data-driven decisions for customer success. That might sound complicated but it’s really as simple as tracking customer feedback smartly.

When all customer requests and feedback are stored consistently, they can be categorized and measured together. Many ticket management tools allow you to categorize tickets with keywords or tags, product area selections or natural language analysis that can be used to determine where your customers are being impacted the most. When all cases are categorized in a consistent way, the data and trends can be tracked and provide meaningful data. The example below takes ”Registration,” the #1 cause of support tickets for this company, and breaks it down by the most correlated tags:

This chart immediately tells a story. Almost half of all problems regarding registering are with International Customers. If you are expanding into an international market, this could be a significant problem. Note that this isn’t necessarily one specific defect, rather an aggregate impact about a product area on which Product should focus.

The value in this type of data is that you turn anecdotal examples into quantifiable evidence. For example: with some rough math, you could calculate the impact of losing international customers because they struggled to register. By scheduling a regular cadence to share this information with development, you can drive impacting product change through genuine customer use cases.

The Roadmap Barrier

Customer Advocates might often feel like it is an uphill battle to get the changes they deem essential onto the roadmap. Breaking down this barrier is frequently the hardest. There are numerous competing priorities: business needs, prospect demands, market/vertical shifts, user interface updates, etc. It is incredibly difficult to judge how support requests fit in.

This barrier is generally created because customers and Support focus on solutions, not the problem. But Product teams like to think about the problems that need to be solved or “jobs to be done”. Product teams frequently meet to review incoming requests as part of scheduling new features, defects, and release planning. Support needs to feed tangible, value-driven customer requests into this review process through integrated tools such as Jira. The integration links the customer conversation and contact information in your ticketing system to the resulting change request. It allows Engineering to follow up on more specifics or can feed into Product Management customer calls.

When posting a customer request as part of this review process, Support shouldn’t focus on the exact solution but rather the obstacle the customer is trying to overcome. As an example, this is the difference between a customer asking for the interface to be a specific color set where the actual need is that the product must adhere to an accessibility standard. The former may seem like a frivolous desire, whereas the latter is a fundamental legal requirement. Teaching the support team to write meaningful problems for Product to solve is a giant leap forward in getting on a roadmap.

Conclusion

Customer feedback is vital to your company’s success, but there are many channels to which a Product team needs to react to. Comparing relative priorities and impacts is difficult. Support can help Product by illustrating the customer needs and educating on the value of the ‘Voice of the Customer’.

By implementing these collaborative projects, you can lower the burden on the Product team, quantify real customer feedback, and present requests in a standard fashion. Breaking down the barriers to sharing customer data between Support and Product will increase customer loyalty, reduce churn, and make your company more successful.

Craig has over 19 years of customer facing experience. He has spent time in 30+ countries, working with Support, Success, Development, and Professional services teams building insight into Customer Experience and engagement. He is driven by building strong, effective, global Support and Services teams and ensuring his customers are successful. He loves watching the Detroit Tigers and is well on his way to visiting every MLB ballpark.