Automating ERs through Support is Crap

A user operating a banking automation computer

Enhancement request tickets filed through support are a sign that the product team is failing. Here’s why.

How does a product team know what to do? There are three forces at play to produce product market fit: customer requests, market analysis, and engineering research.

Customer requests are the purest and most immediate source of information. Customers know what works and doesn’t work because they use the product for practical ends. At most IT companies, nobody in marketing and engineering can say that.

But, customers also produce chaff. They may blame the product for externalities, they may “ask for faster horses”, they may miss the big picture and ask for bad ideas. They may even rant about a bad day with the product without any actionable outcomes.

Market analysis seems very remote from a customer’s real work, but it’s just as important. If you can’t explain what your TAM is, how your features address that, and a ballpark value for those features, you’re probably not long for this world.

Market analysis is also a trailing indicator though, especially if you’re relying on third parties. You will probably be too late to capture an opportunity if you let this be your only guide; you’re effectively aiming at the center of Gartner’s MQ instead of the right side.

Engineering research is the most important piece. What can your team build, at what cost, in what time? Does it solve the problem? Will we get paid for it? Are you innovating?

If the use case is valuable but you can’t build it at a price the market will bear, then it’s not a use case. If it is obviated by a coming change, then it’s not a use case. If it’s too difficult for customers to succeed with, then it’s not a use case.

Customers, Market, Engineering. A product team gets at these three information sources through a lot of mechanisms, but none of them should be through a game of telephone. Unfortunately, that is exactly what a ER support ticket produces.

The customer with an idea or problem files a ticket. Maybe a CSR follows up to ask for clarification, maybe not. Maybe the ticket is clear, maybe not. Sadly, it’s rarely clear or actionable.

The customer has a real problem, but does not have full context of the engineering and marketing requirements. They do not know roadmap or budget, design history or strategy or your internal Overton window.

Now what? The ticket’s in a slush pile queue that the PM is supposed to go through. Or maybe it’s auto converted into a ticket tracker story — IOW, a slush pile with overhead. So far so good. With the best of intentions, a process is initiated, based on bug triage.

Customer ERs are then grouped like bugs: “Invalid”, “Cannot Reproduce”, “Already Fixed”, “Won’t Fix”,  and the rare “Open”. You’ll notice that 4/5ths of those mean NO. “WTF”, “Works for me”, “Yeah yeah”, and “we see and disagree”.

Only these aren’t bugs, they’re ideas, and most of those “no” answers produce hard feelings. No matter how cheery the automated email response is, it still feels like a shit sandwich to the customer who bothered to share.

Even worse, this process exists at all because of scale. No one starts down this road because things are fine, they do it because they’re already feeling overwhelmed. The triage meetings quickly devolve, fewer tickets are reviewed, and they may even stop happening at all.

What if an ER survives triage? Now you’re convinced the customer has a good suggestion. Odds are this ticket isn’t even near the level of detail that the team needs. No UX, security, integration, no idea how it will impact the plan. Just an idea that needs shaping and scheduling

If it’s a big idea, then it needs effort from the whole team. That means a bunch of established processes and artifacts which at best are linked to this ticket. You set up some customer meetings and discovery sessions, and the ER is forgotten in the rush of productive work.

If it’s a small idea, needing no real effort, it still needs to be scheduled. What are the odds that it’s more important than something else that needs doing? The ER sits on the slush pile. Or it’s scheduled into sprint at low priority, then punted or batch closed without action.

Worst of all are the medium sized ideas: too big to ignore, too small to work on right now. They just float along in the bathtub ring until they’re no longer valid and can finally be closed. Probably with a birthday cupcake for 1000 days in the queue without ever seeing a sprint.

Transforming ideas into software is creative work, and there’s no good way to automate and manage that. The only thing that works is product teams communicating directly and frankly with users. Explain what you can and can’t do, learn what they need and want, look for leverage.

Don’t just give up and ask customer support to do that product work for you, it’s not their job.

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