Technical support as an apt transition role from academia to industry

Published: May 24, 2017 By

Technical Support - Small [square]As researchers, we gather considerable technical expertise through the course of our roles and are accustomed to things not working first time. This is particularly applicable in the context of laboratory work, but also for engineering and software development. We acquire the ability to troubleshoot effectively, and read between the lines of limited information to progress with our research. In this article, we discuss how these exact aptitudes can prove invaluable in a career in technical support.

What’s involved?

At the most basic level, technical support work requires imparting knowledge you have with a customer who needs help, or has encountered problems using your product. Typically, you are not on site with a client but are in contact by phone, email or live chat. Consequently, key skills required include effective communication skills and significant patience to decipher what could be at fault. You need to be able to exhibit empathy for a customer. The main aim of your work is to remove their road block, and ensure they leave with a positive impression of the interaction. The latter will help maintain your brand and company reputation, even if there is a product fault to blame, rather than user error.

 

"You will likely be responsible for a portfolio of products, some of which will fall outside the bounds of your research training.

 

You will likely be responsible for a portfolio of products, some of which will fall outside the bounds of your research training. So there is a requirement for continued learning and keeping up-to-date with new products.

What’s day-to-day work like?

Although companies can differ in their setup, there are generally two or three different tiers of work in technical support departments. Each requiring an increasing amount of employee expertise and technical experience. A first line of support is commonly where calls or emails are received initially, and any straight-forward problems are tackled. An example of which would be a customer not using a product manual correctly or omitting a key integration step in software set-up, leading to user error. A series of questions are normally posed to the customer based on the information they have provided and the issue they are facing, to help find a solution.

It is often up to this first level of technical support to document the call or email exchange with care and ensure all obvious reasons for a product not working in the hands of a customer are ruled out. A customer relationship management (CRM) system is normally used to record the details of the call, attaching any relevant documentation and data in electronic format that the customer has sent.

 

"...some companies include targets for employees for the proportion of their complaints and enquiries that need to be resolved fully every month. As a consequence, there may be a pressurised environment..."

 

You may have a company policy that technical support enquiries will be responded to within a time limit, e.g. 24 hrs.. Also, some companies include targets for employees for the proportion of their complaints and enquiries that need to be resolved fully every month. As a consequence, there may be a pressurised environment.

If things require a more detailed evaluation and are not resolved, the next steps are referring the enquiry to a more senior member of the technical support team with specialised knowledge. This can involve an in-depth analysis of data and further information to be requested from the customer. Again, documenting information and advice given to the customer with care is vital. You may make suggestions to modify their procedures or conditions.

If no user error can be identified, it’s at this stage that a possible product issue has to be entertained. From experience when working in technical support for a life sciences reagents company, I would often communicate with the manufacturing facility and product development to ask for recent data for the exact batch of product the customer had purchased and if relevant, ask for further tests. Additionally, I would ask that the customer send back any unused product for us to test in-house. If a particularly large study was involved with a longstanding client, it was normal to bring this up with the Head of Technical Support. A decision was made and, in some cases, we would arrange for a small team to visit the client. Although, this wasn’t always practical based on their international location.

An additional aspect of the role was to identify trends in complaints or enquiries and to update any relevant department it might affect. Our team was required to be proactive and circumvent future enquiries. We took actions like updating manuals to clarify wording, or asking the laboratory to carry out further testing in a new application that customers were increasingly using.

Customers often request a refund or credit, and companies differ in their approach to handling this. It’s a fine balance, as you can’t credit and refund everyone who contacts you with a query, as there will be financial implications and your manager will certainly notice! However, from experience, if there was no other resolution and you can’t identify user error after investigating things, you may need to offer this as a good will gesture. Company policies can differ here.

Aside from answering enquiries—writing articles, technical guides and product manuals can all be in a technical support remit. Some of these can help customers self-educate on using products to reduce enquiries. You often need to liaise with marketing departments to produce new material to ensure company branding, design and style are maintained.

 

"You may also be required to train other teams, for example sales staff in-house, on a particular technique or product you have knowledge of..."

 

You may also be required to train other teams, for example sales staff in-house, on a particular technique or product you have knowledge of. Running online webinar training for customers on specific techniques and products can also be part of your role.

Will it be entirely desk-based?

Things aren’t always desk-based, and there is often an onus on you to keep your technical skills up to date and also interact in-person with customers. For many employers this means attending conferences, taking part in product training internally and making sure you keep your skills sharp with external training.

When I worked in technical support in the life sciences, I regularly took part in training sales staff and was also required to visit our manufacturing facility in the US. I got training from the Global Head of Technical Support and on specific techniques from product testing specialists.

Additionally, I travelled to a number of academic conferences worldwide. The aim was to attend talks and meet customers to discuss products, and help promote our brand on the company exhibition booth.

What is the career progression like?

As mentioned there are often a few tiers of technical support. Whilst titles differ across companies, entry level job titles include variations on Technical Support Specialist, Scientific Support Specialist, Technical Support Engineer and Technical Support Representative. Senior Technical Support Specialists and Team Manager positions follow on from this. Technical Support roles can be relatively meritocratic, where promotion is available if you are adept at your role.

It’s common for larger companies to advertise positions for those fluent in a second language, to engage with customers whose native language is not English. Spanish, French and German speaking technical support staff are frequently sought.

Your work will require that you liaise with several departments including, customer service, sales, marketing, product and business development. Given the valuable product area knowledge you will gain in technical support, there are often opportunities to move to different departments in a company. Technical support can, therefore, serve to be a valuable first transition role from academia to industry.

Key skills for Technical Support Roles

  • Excellent and clear verbal and written communication
  • Technical expertise and specialist knowledge
  • A patient and helpful manner
  • Ability to assimilate information and broaden knowledge

 

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