Fog Creek

Scaling Customer Service by Fixing Things Twice

As a bootstrapped company, we’ve always had to work within a budget and avoid unnecessary costs without harming our mission. One area that has the potential for suffering in the face of limited budgets is Customer Service. When a company is growing, customer service can suffer or it can grow to consume a considerable amount of your budget. We’ve been able to grow our customer base by more than 10 times, maintaining a high level of customer service while keeping our support costs manageable.

How? By Fixing Things Twice using the 5 Whys.

Check out the video and read more about how these techniques can help you scale customer service without the cost.

Fixing Things Twice

When a customer has a problem, don’t simply resolve their issue and move on – but rather take advantage of the issue to resolve its underlying cause. This is Fixing Things Twice.

We think that for each customer issue, we have to do two things:
1. Solve the customer’s problem right away
2. Find a way to stop that problem from happening again

How we solve the first depends on the specific problem at hand, but to resolve the second we use the 5 Whys method.

Resolving Root Causes with 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a problem-solving method and form of root-cause analysis. It involves recursively asking the question ‘why?’ five times when faced with an issue. Doing so enables you to get to the bottom of it, allowing you to fix and stop it from happening again.

Just ask why

This technique was recently popularized by Eric Ries in his book ‘The Lean Startup’. Yet it was developed by Sakichi Toyoda in the late eighties at Toyota. Over the years its use has spread beyond the motor industry to software development and other areas such as finance and medicine. It’s a recommended technique used by the UK’s National Health Service for example.

Lets take a look at how it works using a hypothetical situation:

  • The initial problem – The machine won’t start
  • 1st Why? – There’s no power
  • 2nd Why? – The power supply is not working
  • 3rd Why? – The capacitor has broken
  • 4th Why? – The capacitor was old but had not been replaced
  • 5th Why? – There’s no schedule to check for ageing parts in the power supply units. This is the root cause.

This technique is especially useful when you’re able to focus on processes as causes, like in the example above. Whilst other factors like time, money and resources might play their part, they’re beyond our immediate control. 5 Whys quickly exposes the relationship between the various causes of a problem – yet it does not require any analysis tools. This means it can be adopted and applied throughout an organization. We’ve extended its use beyond Support to include System Administration too. Watch the video above to see an example.

What does Fixing Things Twice mean for Support?

Here’s a couple of examples of using Fixing Things Twice provided by Adam Wishneusky, Technical Support Engineer here at Fog Creek:
When we had people asking a lot about our security practices. We fixed the problem once by giving the customer an answer. Then fixed it twice by putting up public docs at http://www.fogcreek.com/security/

Another example from a few years ago, is when we found that FogBugz wouldn’t let you create a new LDAP-authenticated user if one already existed in the database with the same LDAP UID even though that user is deleted. We showed customers how to manually fix the data to get them working, but we also pushed the dev team to fix the bug.
support and development
From this example you can see that Support must have access to the Development team. It’s often the only way the underlying issues will get fixed.

It takes commitment too – it’s easy to skip the second fix and it’s tempting to do so as it means spending more time on any one issue. But it’s a false economy to do so. When the issue crops up again and again, you’ll have to spend even more time on it.

If you stick to Fixing Things Twice then over time all the common problems get resolved. This frees up your Customer Service team to look in to the unique issues that need more time. Resolving your most frequent issues overcomes the support overhead that typically comes with adding new customers.