Images by John 'K'

Life as seen through my lens…

Business as usual…

Well, it’s now been about 2 months since my last update, and as it’s Friday the 13th, I thought it best to do an update just in case some strange masked individual called Jason decides to end it all for me (we have a few Jasons where I work, so who knows!)..

From my perspective, work continues to keep me very busy. Being a ‘customer advocate’ in a company with a multi-billion dollar turnover is not a job for someone who wants a quiet life. ‘So why on earth did I take it?’ some might ask……

Well, I like to help out where I can, and find the best way to do that is by taking my own experiences, and using them in a way that others can benefit from them.

Up until 2 years ago (or there abouts), I’d always been in a role where I was directly interfacing with customers – those poor souls who buy the products of the company that you work for. I’d always strived to ensure that the buying experience was as good as possible, working on the advice of the old saying “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. If I am to buy something, the last thing I want is to be having problems with it, and if there are problems, I’d want them to be dealt with quickly and efficiently.

So I started my working life in in-store sales, selling electrical goods (TVs videos, stereos, domestic appliances), and made it to department manager by making sure my customers got what they really needed (as opposed to what they thought they needed), which kept them coming back. When they had problems, I worked the support system to make sure they were looked after, and as a result they kept coming back. Sure the commission helped (especially when you are young and working for something close to minimum wage), but my main drive was to build customer loyalty.

Skip my next job – it was a way to get into the computer industry back in the day where a home PC was Commodore VIC20 or Sinclair Spectrum, and had me working shifts as a data centre operator for a big international supplier of technology to the military. It got me a regular paycheck and the shift bonuses were just what a young married parent needed! It wasn’t what I wanted to do though.

So, when I heard about a support position working for the company that provided the data communication services for a pre-internet bulletin board type system called Compunet (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compunet), I jumped at the chance. I was a major home computer hobbyist geek back then – wrote software to control devices through the RS232 interface, was a member of a local ‘users group’, and the idea of being paid to play with the technology that was my hobby seemed to good to be true, so I went for it, and they hired me.

Compunet was a small company, and even a lowly technical support person could make a difference. Based on my own experiences, and the feedback of the users/customers, I was able to work with the developers to enhance the system, and add new functionality. I even wrote some of the code that went into the system enhancements and the software copy protection we had (the service would let you download commercial software and run it so long as an integrated ‘dongle’ was present). I also got to rule as in house ‘wizard’ over one of the first commercial multi-user games (MUD – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MUD). This was a fun job. It was all about seeing what the users wanted, and trying to make the service deliver that. Unfortunately, management lost their direction, and I left shortly before the company folded.

From there I went to work for an emerging business computer manufacturer called Apricot Computers (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apricot_Computers). When I joined, they had just started to get interested in the aspect of computer networking, and my experiences with Compunet and my interest in the whole emerging world of computer communication made this seem like a good fit. I joined as a technical support engineer, and quickly found myself specializing in PC networking with the emerging Microsoft MS Net, and Novell NetWare. As a manufacturer looking to specialize in networking PCs, I got to see Novell NetWare grow through its early adoption phase through its position of market domination, and saw the start of its demise as Microsoft looked to dominate the PC networking industry. I also got to see Microsoft develop MS-Net into LAN Manager, and then into Windows NT and beyond into Windows 2000 and Active Directory.

Working in technical support, I got to see first hand how the decisions of engineers could cause pain for the eventual users of the products, and so worked hard to drive ‘problem ownership’ to its correct owners. During my time there, I brought engineering closer to the customers, got partner companies talking closely together about joint support issues, worked out ways to deliver enhanced support services to our customers through the use of the Internet, and tried to give our customers the best experience possible.

Seeing how the PC network industry was growing rapidly, and seeing as how server centric storage was not a sustainable model, when Mitsubishi Electric (who had purchased Apricot Computers in the 1990s) finally decided they couldn’t compete with the likes of HP, Compaq, IBM and Dell, and so pulled the plug, I looked at a number of possible jobs on the table. The one that interested me the most was for a company I had never heard of (who had about 30 people in the UK at the time), and who had this cool idea of taking the storage away from the server and stick it all together in a big consolidated system that could be accessible by anything on the network that needed it.

I joined my current company as a professional services engineer in a newly formed division of the company (I believe I was the 3rd such hire world-wide at the time I joined), doing installations and on-site troubleshooting. My desire to have customers get the best from their purchases quickly led me to develop standardized installation processes, performance audits, ‘system availability’ audits, and other such services that we could provide to customers to ensure they got a consistent experience, and could get the most out of their purchases. These early ideas were seen by our corporate folks back in California, and soon got rolled into standard service offerings that are even now being delivered world-wide. As our team grew, I realized that I didn’t just want to be a people manager, so looked to build on my problem solving experience, so started specializing in on-site diagnosis and resolution of the difficult issues that time and time again seemed to stump our remote call centers.

One thing I found was that as solutions get more and more complicated, and as technologies from different suppliers get more and more intermixed, having a component level view of support doesn’t always work (and in this game we are typically just a component in a much bigger ‘machine’).  Being able to understand the whole machine, and being able to look at everything that happens inside that machine (as opposed to the very restricted view that a remote based support engineer typically sees) is key to quickly diagnosing and fixing problems, and so I became our first ‘field escalation consultant’, working as a troubleshooter for the really hot and painful customer escalations that we could never seem to get to the bottom of with a remote support infrastructure.

Many times, the problems our customers had were not as a result of our contribution to their overall infrastructure, but were more often than not integration or environmental issues, and being able to quickly identify these issues and work with the customers to resolve them earned our company a lot of loyalty with our customer base- we became people they could trust. We’d deliver a solution that did what they wanted (and needed), and we’d understand their environment such that we could even deliver support for parts of their infrastructure that on paper had nothing to do with our part of their solution. Having that level of customer trust and loyalty is invaluable.

For the times where a defect in our products was to blame for the problems, I’d work closely with the various departments back at our corporate HQ to get a quick and effective resolution to the problems, and always made sure that the folks in support and engineering were aware that the customer experience always came first. This was great, and helped us to build a strong base of loyal customers in the UK, however it was always reactive.

As such, when an opportunity came up to take this experience, and take it closer to the folks who design and build our solutions, I jumped at the chance. I’d always been interested in the idea of moving to and living in America, and many visits from the UK to California only helped strengthen that desire, so when an opportunity came up that would take me to our HQ, and have me working on behalf of our customers world wide to influence the ongoing quality of our products, I did everything I could to make it happen.

Over the past 2 years, our products have seen a lot of extra complexity added, and the scope for screw-ups increases exponentially the more complexity that gets designed in; however as a part of a small group of dedicated folks who consistently strive for positive changes in our product quality, we have not seen that trend. In fact, we have seen our quality get notably better over the past couple of years. Sure there are still issues (what company doesn’t have them), but we spot them early, deal with them early, and make sure that our customers are looked after every step of the way.

Oh, and by the way, the role I started (that of Field Escalation Consultant) has now been mainstreamed by our services organization, and we now have teams of such folks dotted around the world, ready to help our customers through those difficult times.

Only the other day, I ran into the area director that I used to report into while working in the UK, and after upsetting him by assuring him that I didn’t want to move back, he said that in his position (as director of customer services for Europe), he’d seen a notable positive change in our quality over the past 2 years. Needless to say this felt good, knowing that at some level I had contributed to this change. If folks at that level are having to spend less time talking to customers after a painful escalation, and can focus more on making our service and support deliverables even better, we all win.

… So what brought on this outburst from me? Well, two things really. One thing that made me sit back and appreciate my job recently was a thread on a message forum that I participate in where someone posted a message titled ‘My Job is FUN (post your job)’, and proceeded to post a number of photos of where he worked (which looked like fun), so I looked at my job, which is now mainly office based, but has over time taken me all over the world in support of our customers, so I dug out a load of those photos and put them together in a collection. Sure enough, as I look back, not only do I get job satisfaction, but I really have gotten to visit some cool places and have fun, and that continues, even now.

The other thing was a comment left in response to a blog entry on one of our competitors sites, where the head of worldwide marketing for HP was singing the praises of their own products in our technology space, and threw a challenge to his peers in some of their competitors (including us) to show that our products were as good as theirs. In response to this, one of our customers independently posted a response that hit home that we really do have that level of customer loyalty that looking after our customers at all levels brings. (see http://h20325.www2.hp.com/blogs/campbell/archive/2006/09/27/1658.html#comment1716 – this really made my morning).

Oh, and let’s hope it’s not another 2 months before I do another entry…..

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