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Getting the Picture in Customer Support
How to chart activities and processes to deliver superior customer service.
Posted Oct 28, 2008
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The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" holds true in practically every aspect of business, especially when it comes to explaining and communicating customer support issues. Using charts and diagrams can help users save time, refine operations, and work more effectively, ultimately increasing the quality of customer support and service.

What kinds of graphics are useful in customer support activities? Quite a few, including flowcharts, mind maps, organizational charts, timelines, Gantt charts, as well as graphs such as pie charts and bar charts.

Flowcharts
If you're a customer support manager and you'd like to create your first graphic, start with a flowchart. Flowcharts are useful graphics that provide the ability to visually display customer support processes.

For example, if you are responsible for shipping products to customers, you want to ensure that each order is handled promptly with the correct shipping method. The best way to make sure this happens is by describing shipping as a process: a series of steps that are carried out the same way each time. Once you see the whole process, it's easy to identify ways that it can be improved. The most effective way to document a process is to create a process map (or flowchart). Another good example would be a flowchart showing how to walk a customer through the installation of product (such as a software application).

Documenting a process with a flowchart has three major benefits:

  1. You see the flaws and can fix them. You can't improve a process unless you can describe how it's being done now. Just the act of laying it out can identify problems and how to fix them.
  2. You get a better and more-predictable result. Following the same steps each time is the basis for quality and improvement.
  3. You can train someone to follow the process. Describing a task as a simple process and showing this as a graphic makes training much easier.

Bar Graphs and Pie Charts
Graphs, such as bar charts and pie charts, are useful in displaying a variety of values. For example, a bar graph would be perfect for illustrating the number of support emails answered on a daily basis, or support calls answered on a monthly basis. Pie charts are useful for identifying how something has been divided up. For example, you could create a pie chart to illustrate why customers are contacting customer support, i.e., for what reason, on what subject? Used over time, this type of graphic would enable the development team to know where improvements are needed.

Mind Maps
In its simplest form, a mind map is the product of brainstorming on paper. They consist of a central idea (normally represented by a large circle), a group of related ideas (smaller circles), and lines connecting them all together. When would you use one? Well, a great time to use a mind map is before you tackle a new project or decision -- for example, implementing a new return policy.

Taking just a few minutes to list all the tasks, issues, and ideas as a mind map makes it easy to get the "big picture" on your project. Mind maps are superior to a list in that it allows you to easily move topics around and reorganize them as you think things through.

Org Charts
Organizations work more effectively when the roles and responsibilities of each member are clearly understood. The best way to make this absolutely clear is with an org chart. Org charts help display the hierarchy of a department or company so the employees know whom to contact for various issues.

For example, whom will you contact within your company if a customer never received your product? What if the customer received the wrong item? Or if she couldn't figure out how to use the right one? If you have clearly defined roles illustrated in an org chart, it will be a matter of seconds before you know the correct person to handle the issue. Org charts are especially useful for new employees who have yet to understand the ins and outs of the organization.

Gantt Charts and Project Charts
Projects get completed on time when you can identify every task involved and the length of time each one is going to take. The best way to do this is to create a project chart (officially called a Gantt chart) that lists each task in a project with a start and end date. This allows you to see at glance the estimated completion date and your progress so far. Gantt charts and project charts are helpful for showing the development and timeline for a project in the department (e.g., showing the date-based completion goals for the creation of a new training document).

Just Do It!
New tools and capabilities are always a bit ominous or disconcerting, but when you get right down to it, using graphics in customer service is easy, helpful, and, in the long run, a big time- and money-saver. Using graphics in customer support -- instead of dry presentations like a bulleted list in a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet -- helps staff understand procedures and processes more easily. Additionally, it helps ensure that no steps are overlooked.

There are several easy software programs out there that help users create great graphics in minutes. Simply use the keywords "flowchart" or "mind map" on any search engine and see what you come up with. Many programs also offer a free trial download so you can try before you buy.

About the author
Alan Hays works as customer support manager at SmartDraw.com, a provider of business-graphics software, downloaded by more than two million people each year. For more information, visit www.smartdraw.com.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. If you would like to submit a Viewpoint for consideration on a topic related to customer relationship management, please email viewpoints@destinationCRM.com.

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