Finding the right support model for your customers and product is not an easy process. With the amount of options out there, and the challenges in adopting a new methodology, this is a decision that needs to be carefully considered. Here is some advice from my experience with Intelligent Swarming (IS) while managing the Support Enablement Team at Red Hat (redhat.com/support).

What is Intelligent Swarming?

Intelligent Swarming is a support model that leverages the specialized skillsets of your Support Engineers and focuses on collaboration over individual contributions.

Here is a real world example:

If you have a leaky sink, you don’t hire a carpenter, an electrician, and a painter to troubleshoot the issue. You hire a plumber. And that plumber can most likely solve the issue all on their own. But as they are working on the sink and realize that there is an issue with the structure of the wall behind it, they might ask a carpenter to take a look. When they need to move the wiring around the problem, an electrician becomes a valuable addition to the conversation. And if the repairs call for a fresh coat of paint, a painter comes by to wrap things up. Ideally, the plumber can take care of this job because it is most relevant to their experience; but when the situation becomes more complicated, they have access to other resources and will leverage their expertise to solve the bigger problem together.

What are the biggest challenges in adopting Intelligent Swarming?

Our company, Red Hat, has a big focus on collaboration. As an open-source software company, we rely on the contributions of thousands of engineers, enthusiasts, customers, and competitors to make the Linux ecosystem as powerful as it is today. We were lucky to already understand the value of collaboration and see how it could positively impact our support experience.

If your company has a culture that focuses on individual contributions, proprietary knowledge, or structured hierarchy, you might need to use a tool from the Consortium for Service Innovation, such as the Collaboration Health Survey, to determine how your teams can grow into a concept like open-collaboration.

A big thing to remember is that this is not a structured set of guidelines, but a collection of characteristics for companies to build the model around. Iterating on the right combination and emphasizing the ones that deliver the most value to your customers gives your team the flexibility they need to dial in the right approach.

How do you get management buy-in for IS?

Focus on the customer experience. The customer experience with an Intelligent Swarming model is, in many instances, more supportive and less challenging. Because the case remains in the hands of the same Support Engineer throughout the engagement, the customer doesn’t need to re-explain their issue over and over as new people are introduced. And because the work being done by each support engineer is relevant to the work they are best prepared to do, there is less wasted time chasing the wrong problem for the individual’s skill set.

But if there is a case which is beyond the ability of the Case Owner, they have a chance to learn through collaboration. By not transferring ownership, they see the activity of more experienced members of the team, and can still participate in the support process. Because of the way Intelligent Swarming encourages knowledge-sharing, new associates can be on-boarded faster and contribute to cases with extreme complexity almost immediately.

How does AI fit into the Intelligent Swarming conversation?

Artificial intelligence (AI) can play as big a role in Intelligent Swarming as your support model needs. Some companies can match a case to a support engineer manually. Others automate it by product, or technology. Others can pinpoint the case to the skill set of the individual support engineer.

At the core of the concept, getting the case into the hands of a support engineer best prepared to solve the issue on their own is what makes this model intelligent. Just putting the case into a queue for a team of generalists to grab at random seems much less intelligent in comparison.

A lot of companies have customer-facing AI initiatives to help present relevant solutions to customers through search, case creation, or chat bots. As those issues become more complicated and the recommendations don’t meet the customer’s needs, Support Engineers will be able to engage with an Intelligent Swarming process. I believe that process should take into account the customer’s experience up to that point and account for steps already taken; if not, AI is playing the role of tier 1 in an escalation-based support model, and we aren’t fully leveraging the opportunity to collaborate.

Does KCS® fit with Intelligent Swarming?

These two models absolutely connect. In fact, it could be the thing to connect the collaboration and solution finding if your support model is designed that way! Because anyone in the swarm can all contribute to the solution article, KCS can evolve as the case does. Just like KCS is an integrated layer of a support model, so is Intelligent Swarming—we don’t stop support to write the article, we write it as we go; we don’t stop supporting a customer to escalate a case, we invite others to contribute. The draft solution is a critical tool in catching up the internal support team so we can take next steps faster.

These are complementary concepts, but must be deliberately integrated into your support model to get the most out of them together.

How are you measuring success with IS?

I believe a high-performing Intelligent Swarming team is capable of greater impacts than a team of high performing individual contributors. Still, individual measurements are tough to quantify when the team is responsible for the case.

Team performance is easier to gauge and has helped us identify product level support measurements that has led to deeper relationships with our Engineering teams and driven enhancements that are most relevant to our customer’s needs.

Experienced support engineers might struggle the most with the change. Their current identity as a professional might be based on case volume, closure times, and comment counts. By asking them to help others be successful you are asking them to do something against their nature and perception of success, or contribution to the company.

Another measurement consideration is Customer Satisfaction and Customer Effort. Customer Satisfaction is being replaced by some support organizations with Customer Effort; Intelligent Swarming seems to address the characteristics of a support model that customers don’t like and provides a more “effortless” experience.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to implement IS in their organization?

  • Be creative
  • Take the time to really assess the culture of your existing team and their readiness to work collaboratively
  • You are creating a Support Community rather than implementing a support methodology
  • Keep the customer experience front of mind (you are making this change for them)
  • Your Support Engineers can develop into key roles on your team, but you must be deliberate with prescribing challenges, or you’ll miss out on the opportunities

Finally, don’t give up! Iterate until you find the right combination of characteristics that work for your product, your support team and your customers.

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KCS® is a service mark of the Consortium for Service Innovation.

Additional categories: Customer Experience, Customer Support, Industry Trends