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This post is first in an enterprise collaboration series, in which we will explore how knowledge workers, IT departments and business leaders can boost productivity, increase efficiency and transform their organizations with the power of collective wisdom.

Organizations looking to increase workforce productivity by introducing new technology often direct their focus mainly toward end-user behavior. It’s understandable—in order to get the most value out of technology, end-user behaviors need to evolve—but IT’s role should be considered equally important. If customer experience is not the top priority of the IT department, we’re building an environment of disillusionment.

One important consideration for customer experience is the structure of the support center. IT leaders need to assess their current support structure to determine if change is needed from within.

Traditional support models, such as tiered structures, were not designed for the current enterprise computing landscape. They are remnants of the old way of working (i.e., prioritizing IT efficiency over customer experience) and are not conducive to collaboration and end-user productivity.

As tiered support becomes obsolete, IT organizations are moving toward collaborative models like intelligent swarming.

As tiered support becomes obsolete, IT organizations are moving toward collaborative models like intelligent swarming. Image: Consortium for Service Innovation.

For a long time, tiered customer support was the help desk standard. Models often include three levels, with Tier 1 being the most basic. Issues are first handled by Tier 1 consultants, and then escalated to Tier 2 or 3 technicians, who are generally more experienced and have deeper knowledge of particular products or services.

In theory, the tiered model is intended to connect end-users with technicians who have the knowledge and experience to quickly and efficiently solve their issues. In practice, however, the tiered model is frustrating for both end-users and support technicians.

For end-users, a tiered support model can mean time wasted explaining the issue at each transfer, and waiting for callbacks. For technicians, especially at Tier 1, it can mean repetition, burnout and lack of accountability.

An alternative approach is “intelligent swarming,” a collaborative methodology that prioritizes the customer experience. It has been in practice at Vitalyst for more than two decades, and has been gaining significant industry recognition in recent years. According to the Consortium for Service Innovation, a nonprofit alliance of service organizations that focuses on finding new ways to address customer service and support challenges, the intelligent swarming model discards the tiers of support and relies instead on the collective expertise of a “swarm” of support technicians.

When a technician at the current level cannot resolve an issue, instead of escalating it, the technician consults the swarm for guidance but owns the issue through resolution. This means the customer interacts with only one person, which reduces customer effort and increases technician involvement. (Read the Harvard Business Review for more on its Customer Effort Score.)

In a 2013 Wired magazine article, author Robert Johnson pronounced the tiered support model dead and pointed to a collaboration-based model as its successor.

Johnson looked at ways in which collaborative support models like intelligent swarming can benefit an organization.

  • Providing learning opportunities: In collaborative models, consultants stay with tickets from start to finish, even if the issues are beyond their scope. At the end of the process, the customer’s issue is resolved more quickly, and the consultant has gained knowledge that can be used to help resolve future issues.
  • Delivering quality customer service: With a single point of contact in IT, the customer gets higher quality service.
  • Minimizing consultant burnout: In tiered models, consultants at Tier 1 spend a majority of time answering the same basic questions hour after hour, day after day. Challenging issues are usually passed along to more experienced techs. With a collaborative model, consultants participate in the problem-solving process and minimize boredom and repetition.
  • Encouraging accountability: Staying with a customer from start to finish increases accountability and can also improve company morale.

The benefits of intelligent swarming do not stop there. It enables IT departments with limited budgets and resources to handle a broader range of issues. It also ensures a more democratic work environment, facilitates quicker end-user adoption, and ultimately delivers the best possible experience for end-users.

Greg Oxton, executive director of the Consortium for Service Innovation, also stated that the tiered model is becoming obsolete and that collaborative or swarming approaches yield better results. In a 2012 SupportWorld magazine article, Oxton notes three factors contributing to this transformation. Of the three, the most notable is that support organizations are shifting their focus from internal productivity to customer productivity.

“This is a deeper, more philosophical transformation, one characterized by a broader sense of awareness that includes the customer and the customer experience,” Oxton wrote.

In the end, isn’t everything all about the customer experience?

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