Ancient Greek tragedies are fundamentally about fate. King Midas’ obsession with money led him to acquire a golden touch and unintentionally turn his daughter into a statue. Oedipus’ single-minded pursuit of truth led him to discover that he had killed his father and married his mother. The message that the playwrights were trying to convey was that within the single-minded pursuit of one activity were forces that would undo the pursuer.

What the Greek playwrights portrayed dramatically, we understand empirically. There are unintended consequences of the pursuit of any single goal. In my last blog, I discussed the dangers of focusing on one single metric in a services and support organization. The primary danger is that we overlook the unintended effects of pursuing that single measure. As services and support executives or managers, we could be chasing a measure (with the best of intentions) that could be undermining our customer’s experience.

Peter Senge’s systems thinking (in his classic book, The Fifth Discipline) describes how many processes start to limit themselves as they grow or accelerate. Lots of services and support organizations function very well until they are faced with growth and must scale. Feedback within their own, very successful processes start to make the customer experience worse, rather than better. Organizations respond by accelerating these same processes, degrading the support experience even more. This is the fate of customer support, if we don’t relook at our measures and the behaviors they drive.

But there is a way to avoid this fate

Fundamentally, the way to avoid the fate of customer support is to understand more fully the effects of the measures we use on the behaviors of our teams. There are two concepts drawn from economics that can help us understand these unanticipated effects and take steps to address them.

  1. Metrics externalities. In economic terms, an externality is an unintended consequence of an action that isn’t reflected in its cost. We hear a lot about externalities in energy production – the health impact of smog isn’t priced into the coal-burning electrical plant’s cost model. Inside services and support organizations, driving improvement in one measure can have a negative effect on another. For example, focusing on time to close can result in lower quality scores for cases and knowledge articles.
  2. Tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is also a key concept. We all share common resources, like water or air, and our individual effects are small. Small effects build and, with no one owning the common resource, it degrades. Our customers’ experience is a common journey across multiple silos in our organization. Services and support organizations are measuring and rewarding one set of behaviors while sales might be driving toward another set. No one is measuring across the customer’s experience, so individual actions create disconnects and frustrate the customer.

So what, precisely, can we do to cheat fate?

Here are three ways to get started.

  1. Understand your metrics externalities. Start to look at the externalities your pursuit of a metric creates. Create a benchmark of all of your measures and then spend time and attention on one measure you want to impact. What are the trends in the other measures when you add this focus? What happens when you shift your focus to another measure?
  2. Visualize your measures differently. Stop presenting one or two measures in isolation. Visualize groups of measures together, drawing on your experience of how they might be interrelated (from your last efforts). Look at other ways of visualizing the data, including spider or radar charts (they are very easy to create in Excel).
  3. Think about the commons. What effects are your measures having on other parts of the organization? If you have Customer Success, Renewals, or Account Management teams, talk to them about what they are measured on and see if what you are looking at or driving could be impacting them.

We cannot understand measures in a vacuum. If we do, we will find that our organization has fulfilled the fate of customer support. We will keep working harder and never get better results. But understanding the measures and how they interrelated will help define productive steps that will enable services and support organizations to scale and cheat fate.

As support managers, we need to identify a key set of measures that will drive real value for our company and build projects that drive these measures toward a common goal. That’s what we are building with TSIA, a common set of measures that is generally accepted and that can provide real guidance for support teams. We would love for you to join the effort and our Metrics LinkedIn group!

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