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I have very good relations with a lot of clients I work with (Both in project work as well as support and consulting work). Often clients may try to circumvent the support chain and email/call me directly about an issue because they know it would be faster to do so. However as I've discussed with one of the managers, this is an unhealthy expectation and that I should encourage clients to follow the support process.

Well I am currently working on 2 projects - I am acting as the BA, Coder, SysAdmin, Product SME, etc. These projects have some tight deadlines so I've communicated to my manager that I will be working 1 week rotations on each project to get the most progress out of these projects.

For the past few weeks I have been getting emails from clients about support items as well as emails from the support department about some pending support items. The thing is I have no capacity to acknowledge let alone work on any of these items right now. (Our company is resource strapped in this regard).

How should I communicate to clients that I am unavailable? I don't want to make it sound like their issue is not important, but at the same time I need to be realistic with them in that I am truly not available to answer their questions or support them with an issue at this time.

I've notified my manager and I have asked him to prioritize my work. I have the ok from him to proceed full speed on one of the projects for the time being. However I still need to figure out what to do with the customer emails that keep coming in.

  • You can create a premium support plan and charge them for it – rath Feb 22 '18 at 9:21
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It seems that you actually have two problems here. First is an internal issue, that the support team is directing problems to you when you don't have the time to address them due to the new projects you're working on. You need to work with your manager to identify who internally can handle questions from the support team if that's something you don't have the time to deal with.

As far as addressing your unavailability to your clients, I think you just need to be direct, but then also help them direct their issue to someone who can assist them. It doesn't have to be long or overly apologetic. Something along the lines of "I apologize for the problem you're having [if that's appropriate] and I value the relationship we have. Unfortunately, my time is currently consumed developing new projects, and I am not able to give your question the dedication it deserves." Then, depending on how your support system works, either CC a support representative and introduce them to your client, or provide them with the relevant info for how to file a ticket.

My last bit of advice would be to try and keep them in touch with a real person during and after that hand-off. Think about how many commercials there are with people frustrated about dealing with an automated system. If they get the idea that they're sending their support issue into a this mysterious automated system, they'll reach out to you because they know you're a real person and have helped them in the past. If you can say "I know Bob in support, Bob is a good person, he's knowledgeable and helpful, and I trust him. I've told him about your problem, and he'll take care of you." that's going to make them feel a lot better than "Please send this e-mail to support@company.com instead." The feasibility of this may depend on the size of your company, but if you're filling as many roles as you say, I imagine you at least know a few of the people in the support department.

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    +1 for "selling" the support service and endorsing the support guys. – jean Feb 22 '18 at 11:09
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Preface:

Much of this depends on whether and how much these clients pay you and/or your firm for the product, for support, and/or for a subscription. That said, I'm assuming they pay something and that these are products they use for professional purposes (as opposed to something for entertainment purposes, although I'm not sure that would change the answer here).

Your overall strategy:

The week on / week off schedule sounds unreasonable. I understand that multi-tasking is found to be less productive and keeping a singular focus makes for more productivity. However, it does not sound like anyone is expecting you to hop back and forth between projects with cat-watching-a-tennis-match level frequency. I don't think many people would be very thrilled with a company or individual who has a week-long response time as a policy (even if it is only temporary with the current projects). The more the customer pays / the more it is central to a part of the customer's life, the more unreasonable that becomes.

In the future:

The problem isn't that you want to focus on what you need to do for your deadlines, the problem is the inflexibility with which you pursue that goal. It is not believable that you can't structure into your schedule some time for "Customer/Product Maintenance." Whether that turns into an hour a week or an hour on M/W/F (again, not knowing the frequency of these calls, the nature of the problems, etc, makes this just a random estimate), or maybe 30 minutes, after lunch, every M/T/W/Th/F, is up to you and your manager and the nature of the work. But zero minutes to customers who have already purchased your product or services (or are in the middle of a contract to obtain them, etc.), in favor of other customers, period, for an entire week, is simply not okay.

So step 1 is to figure out how and where you can work whatever duties of customer care you have into your calendar (I'm assuming the support staff would handle many/most calls, but if there is a specific issue, you're consulted or the customer is forwarded to you). Next step is to figure out a new process for handling such situations. This is likely to include the support folks and your supervisor.

One idea is to use implement an email scenario through which you can send meaningful "away" emails (basically, vacation responses). Ideally, these would include a brief and straightforward explanation of why a response from you may be delayed (please not for a week, though!), somewhere else they can call (if applicable), some typical troubleshooting processes they can execute to see if the problem can be solved or at least isolated, and then a closing that reiterates that their concern is important to you/the firm and that you will get back to them ASAP. This will solve the issue of the tech support folks mistakenly forwarding calls/emails/issues to you while you are focused elsewhere.

If your email client can't do that, consider asking your supervisor if you can get another company email address. That way, client A has John.Doe@company.com while client B has Johnathan.Doe@company.com. If you're working on client B's project, then John.Doe@ gets the auto-reply message and vice versa.

Your current problem:

Your only choice is honesty. I'd be a little more apologetic than the other answer suggests, as this is nonetheless a customer-based interaction and, unless they are submitting questions like, "How do I right-click?" or some other asinine and frivolous inquiry, then it really isn't his or her problem what else you have going on. That's on you and, ultimately, your supervisor.

  • While you have a point about not neglecting current customers, it's possible this just isn't practical. If each issue needs multiple hours to resolve, OP may have to spend half their time with customer issues. Then it's better to say right away you don't have time,rather than fiddle for an hour an then stop. But that's for OP to decide – sleske Feb 22 '18 at 8:40
  • Before this project work, I was over allocated coaching our staff (who are mostly new hires) and supporting clients. Support issues take multiple hours to solve and they are bugs in the core product (or feature requests). – Igneous01 Feb 22 '18 at 14:28
  • Fair points. My statements about spending an hour or some amount of time doing such support was based on two things. First, OP stated, "I have no capacity to acknowledge let alone work on any of these items right now." I was speaking to the acknowledgement as a bare minimum. Second, while no doubt there are complex issues that come about, isn't it true that a larger proportion of tech support calls than anyone would tend to predict amount to "restart your PC"? Because of those points, and the existing answer which addressed the support team problems, I didn't feel it necessary to restate. – A.fm. Feb 22 '18 at 14:56
  • That would certainly be the typical support for this industry, but that does not apply to our support. We don't have clients calling asking how to use their computer - most cases are something along the lines of 'I was trying to fund a loan and was about to upload to banking when it failed to upload because of an error' – Igneous01 Feb 22 '18 at 15:00
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    Ah, well, definitely not an array of easy solutions for your issue, though I still lean toward prioritizing some sort of consumer contact. However, and I forgot to put this in my answer, I wonder how much overlap of troubleshooting processes various problems have. Your "away" email could include some common issues people tend to have and the preliminary checklist of things a user should do to eliminate or isolate the problem. Could even get your tech support folks to set up a knowledge base / wiki. Depending on size of userbase, could be as simple as a forum, too. – A.fm. Feb 22 '18 at 15:15
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Your lack of response is a strong signal that you are not available.

Direct email communication regarding any actionable task (e.g. bug, support request, enhancement, e.t.c.) is wrong because all such tasks should be managed using issue tracking system.

If necessary open a new ticket on behalf of your customer and use issue management system to reply (instead of answering directly by email) when you are available.

It might be helpful to advise customers regarding 1st level support contacts or about where they can find issue management interface to create their own requests.

Once communication flows through issue management system it becomes easier to prioritise, escalate, (re-)assign issues and to help the support team to work on problems collaboratively without hijacking support hierarchy.

Effective (and perhaps exclusive) use of issue management system is a key to addressing such problems.

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