Friday, June 27, 2008

Helping the Help Lines

A support line for a live online event is an interesting animal. An event is live for short spells of time, and a related support issue is not only live but also ticking. A 'live online event' simply means that a large number of people show up online by logging into the system simultaneously through the event website and use a variety of instant interaction and instant information tools for a short duration. Live events often end in 24 or 36 hours. Customer support delivered a little late could be too late. We are only as good as the last support request that we have resolved - how we resolved it, and how quickly we resolved it.

Our users come to us with a sense of urgency, because time lost on a live event could be opportunity lost for making the right connections with online visitors and exhibitors. Further, since the virtual events that we create happen over the Internet, we have to rely on a set of online tools to sense a problem, or be notified of a problem, and a swift and efficient mechanism to acknowledge requests, to escalate issues as needed, respond, resolve and also take measures to prevent other users facing a similar issue in the remaining hours of the live event.

A typical online support process in my experience starts with an emailed auto-response, and then an email follow-up in a couple of days. If we take that as the norm of online support, it does not help in the area of live online events. During live events, we sometimes even have to turn off auto-responders on support channels because they could cause needless aggravation to users who are already pressed for time. When the clock on an event is ticking, the last thing that an end-user needs is an impersonal auto-response. The best response in such cases is one that carries a resolution with it, a quick explanation and an apology (not necessarily in that order). The responses are delivered either through a quick phone call, an email or a broadcast message if it affects all users. It is important for the online attendees to know that real humans are monitoring the live online event. For high-traffic online events we have also very successfully staffed a dedicated text-chat room for live support and addressed users in private or collectively.

We learned the hard way that it is most efficient to steer all support requests to text-based channels so that little or nothing would be lost in transmission or translation. Users love the flexibility that they have in being able to screen-capture errors and send it to our support lines, or copy and paste anything they see that they do not understand, and our support system can act on them and respond to them with precision. An IVR (integrated voice response) system that places live online help-seekers in a queue is a bad idea when the count-down has begun for the launch of an online event, or when the clock on a live online event is ticking away.

These dynamic factors amid a ticking clock are what make the world of online events so different. I admire the nerves of our technical team, because they have consistently delivered with only one thought to guide them - how to make the online event participant's life easy. I almost see their work to be in the realm of air traffic controllers. The only difference between an air traffic controller's work and our technical crew's work I suppose is that instead of real lives being involved, there are real livelihoods involved - real marketing folks take part in our online events. They are very stressful. [ A shout-out to our technical and support team would be most appropriate here! ] However, the real help to the help-line begins at the design stage. While it is inconceivable to visualize every potential problem, impossible to predict every instance of users getting confused with the user-interface even though we could have vouched that the event is made to be highly intuitive, the more time spent in thinking and planning the user-experience and navigation before-hand, the lesser the strain on the support lines.

As we ramp up to the live online event, and even in the heat of a live online event, we have to stay nimble about our approaches to a resolution, sometimes being willing to modify user-interfaces to contain the spread of a support problem even as the first complaints are being invetigated. Every problem anticipated and avoided amounts to precious time saved for an end-user. Every potential issue nipped in the bud means a friend made in the online visitor. It is about making life easier for the customers. Consequently, it also makes life easier for the support line.

The first infographic that we got designed for explaining our company's offering depicts our role in a control tower. When it was designed in 1999, little did I know that the metaphor is true and timeless. Check it out below.