Birds, Bees and … Intelligent Swarming?

For a while now, forward-thinking customer support and call center managers have realized that the traditional ‘tiered’ support model (Level 1 staff escalating to Level 2 escalating to Level 3 staff) is outdated and inefficient.

Why? In a traditional support model, your least technically qualified staff are ‘the face of your organization’ to your customers and partners. This does a disservice to the customer and makes the staff member’s life miserable while they hunt down the information or the right person to resolve your customer’s issue. Is it any wonder that as soon as they are better trained, your team members ‘escape’ to Level 2 so that they don’t get ‘interrupted’ by as many customer issues?

This model doesn’t make any business sense to anyone anymore.

Then why do we keep doing it?

Because we haven’t yet found a different way. This is changing with a model called ‘Savvy Support’ or ‘Intelligent Swarming’. Many of our clients – particularly those in complex environments – are moving to this model.

Intelligent Swarming (aka Savvy Support) Model

In an intelligent swarming model, your silos are broken down and customer-facing teams are comprised of empowered, collaborative expert generalists. They understand the context of the customer and the business context of the organization they are part of, and they use their collective wisdom to work on resolving issues – with a ‘one touch’ model. There are no ‘escalations’ – just requests for help where people who have the context and ability to assist do assist — regardless of ‘level’ or hierarchy.

Why is it called ‘intelligent’ swarming? Because swarming by itself can cause excessive thrashing around – a lot of noise and heat, but little tangible results.

For an example, consider when one of your high profile customers has an issue, and calls support, support management, their sales rep and — if you are really in for some fun — your company executives. Because of the hero complex, every group contacted jumps in to solve the same issue without coordinating or following simple procedures. This results in a lot of wasted time and effort stumbling all over each other. That’s swarming, not intelligent swarming.

What can we learn from the birds and the bees?

In his fascinating book, The Smart Swarm: How to Work Efficiently, Communicate Effectively and Make Better Decisions Using the Secrets of Flocks, Schools and Colonies, author Peter Miller studies species as divergent as birds, bees, fish and termites to find out how are they able to do extraordinary things without a clear leader, a hierarchy, a blueprint, or weekly status reports.

He defines a smart swarm as “a group of individuals who respond to one another and to their environment in ways that give them the power, as a group, to cope with uncertainty, complexity, and change.”

Sounds interesting. What are some of the principles that can be adapted for my teams?

  1. Diversity
    The team has to have members with multiple levels of experience and expertise, with context about the customer and the business environment. When you think of diversity, don’t just think about your group – also invite adjacent groups all of whom can add value while improving the customer’s experience.
  2. Self-Organized and Self-Healing
    The team needs the power to solve problems with an ability to communicate easily and quickly without jumping through hoops. They should establish group norms – clear outlines of what is acceptable behavior and not. They should find and fix any issues around individual performance or team performance by themselves.Managers — I’m looking at you. This means get out of their way – let them come up with their own processes and norms for dealing with exceptions. Your role is to guide them and enable their success. If there are valid business reasons why something needs to be done (or can’t be done), explain the intent and the contextbehind the rule, not just the rule itself. Your teams may be able to find creative ways to address the issue without violating the intent of the rule.
  3. Indirect collaboration through a knowledge article
    One of the most fascinating sections (to me) was how (mostly blind) termite ants create sophisticated structures – termite mounds – using simple rules of thumb, all without a supervisor or even a blueprint.”…termite workers interact with the structure they’re building together. As that structure grows and changes, so does the manner in which they interact with it. The structure itself becomes their guide. Once a pillar reaches a certain height, for example, workers stop making it taller and start building an arch sideways to connect it to other nearby pillars. That, in turn, becomes the foundation for a new wall inside a termite mound.“The parallels to a knowledge-centered world are crystal clear. If individuals in a group are prompted to make small changes to a shared knowledge article that inspires others to improve even further, you can get sophisticated results in a very short amount of time. This is the essence of a wiki, and is closely aligned to Knowledge-Centered Support principles. Creating an environment where team members capture, structure and re-use information to share knowledge is a key component to enabling intelligent swarming.

Want to know more about how to start?

Leave a Reply