4 Steps to Creating a Support Ticket That Surfaces Critical IssuesApril 3, 2014 by Holly Regan
Today, dissatisfied customers are only a mouse-click away from turning their service complaints into full-blown public relations disasters. Even when widespread issues don’t make it into the news, customers can just as easily air their grievances on social media—so the ability to identify widespread customer service issues quickly is more important than ever.
Creating a better support ticket is one tactic you can use to help your support agents spot critical customer issues in real time—and resolve them faster. I spoke with customer service, help desk and call center experts to discover how your company can design a more effective support ticket that will help you squelch issues before they become crises.
Here is a step-by-step guide to better support ticket design:
Step 1: Optimize custom fields with “structured choices.”
Many support ticketing systems come with standard fields, such as customer name and date—but they also allow you to add your own custom fields to capture additional information. These custom fields are critical to identifying widespread customer issues, because they can tie to analytics in your ticketing software that alerts support reps when an issue of a certain type starts occurring at a high volume.
In order for custom fields to work in this way, they need to correlate with queries that are as specific as possible. Simply asking generic questions such as “What’s the problem?” will yield generic answers, such as “It doesn’t work.” And you don’t want your ticketing system to send an alert that a widespread issue is occurring simply because lots of people said, “It doesn’t work.”
Instead, custom fields should effectively drill down into the specifics of the issue. This includes systems that are for internal use, meaning agents fill out the ticket while interacting with the customer, and those that are customer-facing, meaning the customer fills out the ticket themselves using a self-service support portal.
To optimize your custom fields, Sara Varni, VP of marketing at support desk provider Desk.com, recommends consulting your support agents. After all, Varni says, “Your agents probably already have a sense of what information they need in order to quickly help resolve a case. This includes information such as the specific product, issue type, confirmation number, what industry the customer is in and/or where they are located.”
Indeed, there are many different types of, and options for, custom fields. Varni says that in Desk.com, support agents may use up to 25 different custom fields for the customer and up to 25 custom fields for the case. She recommends that companies “use structured choices to populate custom fields,” meaning fields with a drop-down menu listing specific choices, as opposed to more generic, free-form text entry. “This helps with automating the process and identifying key issues… [and makes] your response time quicker,” she says.
Desk.com’s support ticket, including custom field “Labels”
Ted Choper, head of customer success at UserVoice, says their support ticket also utilizes such structured choices: it includes three custom fields with drop-down menus that customers can select from. These three fields are “Type,” “Priority” and “Product Area.”
“Type” custom field values that customers can select from are: Sales Report, Support Request, Bug Report, Praise and Feedback. “Priority” custom field values are Critical, High and Standard. And “Product Area” values list the various product categories, such as Pricing, Billing, Widget, iOS App and so on.
“‘Product Area’ comes in handy because it allows us to see if there [are] a high volume of tickets related to a particular part of our product or service,” Choper says. However, he notes, when it comes to “Type” and “Priority,” customers were often so quick to label an issue a “Bug Report” or “Critical” that the company was receiving more tickets with false positives than actual problems. Now, these options are only shown internally to support agents.
Luke Grimstrup, product manager at GoToAssist, also recommends using a drop-down list for custom field options. While the options you include will depend on your business, he suggests using “Location” in order to track whether a high volume of issues are coming from a particular office location or department.
As another possibility, Grimstrup says, you can include a custom field for “Knowledge Article,” which can be used to identify when a widespread issue needs to have a knowledge base article created for its resolution.
“Another common use case for custom fields is storing [ID numbers] to related records from other systems,” says Grimstrup. “For example, a customer may have an ID in a Salesforce database, and by setting up a custom text or number field, customers’ Salesforce IDs can now be tracked and be easily added to a record.”
A close-up of GoToAssist’s support ticket, showing custom fields for Incident Type, Incident Category and Salesforce Case ID
Finally, Grimstrup recommends that companies include recurrent and urgent issues themselves as custom-field options. For example, he says, if support agents are commonly asking customers the same questions, or if there are specific segments of the market that requests typically originate from, you can include these in your drop-down menus.
Step 2: Program software to signal when a critical issue is occurring.
As mentioned, custom fields are crucial for identifying widespread issues because they often tie to analytics that alert agents when a high volume of tickets with the same issue are submitted. However, the number of support tickets that constitute a critical mass could vary depending on the type of issue, time of day, timing of a release and so on, Varni says.
“For some companies, three cases about a new feature may be more important than 10 cases about where a pricing page can be found,” she explains. “The company needs to determine what the right threshold is before calling it a ‘critical’ issue. Determining those thresholds requires judgment based on experience and data.”
For companies that don’t have a customer base of hundreds or thousands, critical issues will be easier to identify. For example, Choper notes that UserVoice receives fewer than 60 support tickets per day. “Given this relatively small volume… a ‘critical mass’ is only two to three people reporting the same problem,” he says.
In just about any system based on ITIL (a commonly-used set of best practices for IT service management organizations), says Grimstrup, specific incidents can be linked to known issues to identify patterns.
“Some service desk tools have an option to use an ITIL priority matrix to quickly answer how urgent [the issue is] and how many users are impacted, so action can be put in place,” he explains.
An ITIL priority matrix rates impact level (on the top) and urgency level (on the side) so that issues’ priority can quickly be assessed: those with the highest ratings of impact and urgency should be addressed first. The same information could also be obtained simply by asking support agents or customers to assign impact and urgency ratings to issues.
An ITIL priority matrix
Taking this idea a step further, Grimstrup notes that in some ticketing systems, each occurrence of an issue, known in GoToAssist as an “incident” (which may be defined by custom fields such as “Incident Category” and “Incident Type,” for example), can be linked to a “problem record.” This record, Grimstrup adds, allows support teams to view the volume of each incident, group similar issues and better assess the impact each type of issue is having on a product or service.
“For example, if a problem occurring the most is, ‘Email server sometimes loses connections with clients,’ you can see at a glance if it’s occurred in the last seven days, and can see when there was last activity on the problem record itself,” Grimstrup says. “Using this support process, technicians can really understand what’s causing the most pain across their user base.”
GoToAssist’s Problem Dashboard, showing open problems with number of occurrences
Varni agrees that customized reporting is the best way to identify critical issues, since reports clearly show trends and patterns reflecting customer problems. For example, she says, case volume reports can quickly show you whether the number of overall cases is higher than average, and custom fields (or Labels, in Desk.com) can identify the issues behind them.
Step 3: Create an action plan for responding to issue alerts.
Your custom-designed support ticket will allow you to identify when an issue has reached critical mass, but your action plan for responding could vary depending on what the issue is. (For example, your action plans for an email server going down versus for a new software feature not working could be very different.) Regardless, the action plans you create should follow some basic guidelines.
Once a critical issue has been triggered using a priority matrix or self-service reporting, Grimstrup says, the next action might include sending “an automated alert to a problem management team for resolution, or using a knowledge management tool to provide a knowledge article in the customer portal alerting and helping users.”
Grimstrup provides an example: 30 calls come into the help desk saying that the email server is down. Using the ITIL priority matrix, this is identified as a critical issue requiring immediate attention.
Having linked past incidents of this to an issue record, a problem management team steps in to resolve the issue and/or communicate with the impacted group of users, either by providing a knowledge article through a customer self-service portal or by sending some other form of automated communication explaining how to solve the problem.
At UserVoice, support teams utilize social media to directly communicate with customers about issue status and resolution. Choper provides an outline of UserVoice’s typical action plan when responding to critical-issue alerts:
→ Spot the issue (including a description of which channels the issue was identified on).
→ Notify the appropriate team members, in the order which makes most sense for the situation (depending on whether it is after-hours):
- Contact a developer.
- Create a bug report.
- Inform everyone on the customer team.
→ Classify the issue as either “Critical,” meaning it requires immediate attention, or “FixASAP,” meaning it must simply be fixed before the end of the day.
→ Update the customer-facing status page, and Tweet a link to it.
→ Respond to any additional issues.
→ Close the loop by answering the following on the status page:
- When did the issue start? When was it resolved?
- What caused the issue?
- What are we doing to avoid it in the future?
- What are the chances that there will be related issues in the short-term future?
→ Send customer a follow-up Tweet, and answer any related tickets.
This process not only provides customers with regular updates on the issue’s status (which keeps them happy), it also helps provide support agents with a heads-up about related issues that may occur in the near future.
Varni says that when creating an action plan for critical issues, you should consider your company values and customer expectations. “Many companies that we work with at Desk.com value response time speed,” she says. “First response is an important metric, especially when you are a fast-growing company that is looking to win and keep customers. Some companies, on the other hand, put more value in average handle time, and would rather see their agents resolve cases faster.”
In other words, depending on what your company values most, you may want your action plan to include an immediate response to customers when an agent spots a critical issue—or you may want to delay this contact until the agent has a better idea of how to resolve the issue.
Step 4: Assess the effectiveness of your systems’ abilities to identify critical issues.
Grimstrup says that reporting is crucial for tracking the effectiveness of your company’s ticketing and response systems. After you’ve established your custom fields, you can run custom reports based on those fields to drill down into how widespread a given issue really is.
“For example, if an issue is the email server losing connection, then you can create a report for everything that contained the word ‘email’ or had the [custom field] Category set to ‘email,’” he says.
Then you can see if your system really is picking up every issue of that type, and correctly sending an alert when it reaches critical mass. “The team can evaluate and reuse the reporting knowledge gained to build out smarter knowledge bases and self-service,” Grimstrup says.
Building a custom report in GoToAssist
Varni notes the importance of keeping your frontline support agents, who are your best internal source of customer information, involved. “Customer service agents are the ones using this tool every day, so make them part of the process,” she says. Varni recommends meeting with agents regularly to get their input on what’s working and what isn’t, and to learn how they are benefiting from new customizations.
Of course, to truly gauge how effective your ticketing and response systems are on the front lines, you should get feedback directly from your customers, Varni adds. You can capture this feedback by asking customers who submit critical-issue tickets to report on how quickly and effectively your system resolved their problems.
“For example, including a quick feedback form after a customer completes an interaction online with an agent, or including a ‘feedback’ button within your product interface that links into their customer support system makes it easy for customers, and they are more likely to participate [when the process is] low-effort,” she says.
If your company wants to identify customer issues in real time and resolve them before they become crises, follow these steps to design a smarter, more effective support ticket. Your customers will thank you—and your support center will run more efficiently and effectively.
Screenshots provided by Desk.com and GoToAssist.