Friday, August 19, 2011

SOP Friday: Setting Job Priorities

The fundamental difference between "break/fix" computer support and managed services is planning your work. With break/fix, the standard operating system is to be constantly interrupted and to work on whatever the last thing is that fell in your lap.

Managed services allows you to schedule maintenance, and therefore avoid problems. And once problems arise, work should be prioritized. If you'd like two simple rules to make your business more successful and profitable, here they are:

1) All Work is done from service tickets

2) All tickets are worked from highest priority to lowest priority and from oldest to newest.

- Overview -

The basic flow of work within your office should be organized and standardized. As with everything else, you don't have to do it our way, but here are some thoughts.

Imagine that you have 1,000 service tickets in the system. You might be overwhelmed. Where do you start? Which do you work on first? The wrong answer is usually to work on the last thing that fell from the sky. That's called shoulder tap tech support and will keep you broke.

So, we prioritize all jobs from lowest to highest priority. Then we work on the highest priority tickets first. That assures that every technician is always working on the most important job. Once you do this, you'll be amazed at how much work you accomplish.

First you need some guidelines for setting priorities, and some basic examples that ring true in your business. Here are a few notes, As always, you need a human factor to fine-tune this. But this is a place to start.

- There are four priority levels. We human beings only assign three of them (high, medium, and low).

- Priority 1 means Critical. A P1 sets itself. That means
• Server down
• Network down
• Email System down
• Server based Line of Business application down
• Fire, flood, earthquake, hazmat spill, etc.

- Priority 2 means High Priority
• Backups failing – 3 days in a row
• Company Communications (e.g., email is being blocked)
• Client has requested it be done within 24 hours or less
• Critical use workstation down
• The problem is inconveniencing everyone in the company
• The solution will significantly increase productivity for everyone in the company
• The issue is a result of other work recently done by us or another vendor
• The ticket has been open for more than 90 days

- Priority 3 means Medium Priority
• Backups failing – 2 days in a row
• One or more users productivity is significantly hindered
• The problem is inconveniencing multiple users
• Workstation down
• Client has requested it be done within 72 hours
• Secondary communications having problem (Blackberry, Droid, etc.)
• The ticket has been open for more than 60 days

- Priority 4 Means Low Priority
• Any item not having met the criteria for Priority 1,2 and 3 and not specifically requested by the client to be higher priority than to be done on the Weekly or Monthly Maintenance
• We often refer to this as "Scheduled" work with the clients


The first thing you should notice is that we let clients set the priority (High/Medium/Low). With very few exceptions, clients don't abuse this. When necessary, we will adjust a priority. But, for the most part, we find that clients put things at a lower priority than we expected. We actually have clients say "Just do it the next time you're in."

The second thing you should notice is that "old" service requests are automatically elevated in priority. This is to prevent tickets from getting stale. You should use a PSA system and track the average age of tickets and the average time to close a ticket.

In reality, tickets just don't get too old. We haven't really had a problem with this. But it's a good practice to have in place, especially when you have a lot of new clients. The point of managed services is that clients will have fewer and fewer problems the longer they are on the system. So it's the new clients who have a ridiculous number of tickets.

Working Priorities

And what does it mean for a ticket to be P1, P2, P3, or P4?

P2 = High Priority
• Should be completed today before anything else. Must be completed before close of business, if possible.

P3 = Medium Priority
• Should be completed and closed within three business days. This is our default priority and this deadline is set automatically in Autotask when the ticket is created.

P4 = Low Priority
• Needs to be done, but there is no specific deadline. Usually these items are more of a reminder, such as Monthly Maintenance.

When tickets are assigned to a technician, or the tech is pulling tickets from a specific queue on your service board, the flow is the same:

- Find the highest priority tickets available to be worked (e.g., assigned to you, not on hold, and in a "workable" status. See Last Week's SOP Friday post). Let's say this is a P1.

- If there is more than one ticket at this priority level, open the oldest ticket available to be worked.

- Work the ticket as far as you can go. That means anything from connecting remotely to working with vendor tech support. Whatever you can do, push this ticket as close to completion as you can.

- Go back to the pool.

- Find the highest priority ticket that is available to be worked. Find the oldest ticket at that level. Work that ticket.

- Rinse, repeat.

As you can see, this general flow means that you are always working on the highest priority ticket, and on the oldest tickets before the newer tickets.


There are a few common sense exceptions to this work flow.

First, if work is scheduled, then you need to stop working on other things and do the scheduled work. For example, if a vendor is going to be on the phone at 2:00 PM, or a client will be off her desktop machine at 11:00 AM. This obviously allows for a lot of that "low priority" work to be completed.

Second, if a technician is going on site, he should list every open ticket at that client and attempt to work them all. Thus, if a client is going on site for a P2 ticket, he might as well work every ticket he can. In some cases, a ticket is so low in priority that the client will say "No. We have to get out some newsletters. Do that another day." Okey dokey.

If you assign tickets:

In many shops, especially with lower volume, technicians just take the next available ticket. In some shops, the service coordinator or service manager assigns all work. We basically do 50/50. That allows us to be free-flowing when things are slow (or when the service manager is working on a P1 and everyone else is free-range). But we often have tickets assigned when it makes sense.

Here are a few notes if you assign tickets:

• Once assigned as the resource for a ticket, a tech is the owner of that ticket and ultimately responsible for its completion.

• No work is performed on any ticket by a technician that is not assigned to that ticket without first checking with the tech who owns it.

• Technicians first work all the tickets specifically assigned to them (from highest priority to lowest, and from oldest to newest)
. . . then technicians grab tickets from the Service Board from highest priority to lowest and from oldest to newest.

We've already talked about Working in Real Time and Service Ticket Updates. And, of course, Service Ticket Statuses to Use and When to Use Them.

But this is a good place to reiterate a few points:

• A ticket is not complete until all notes are up to date and all time has been entered.

• No work is performed on tickets marked as "On Hold" without the Service Manager’s approval.

• Only the Service Manager changes a ticket's status to or from "On Hold."

- Implementation Notes -

Whether you have a system or not, laying down the "rules" and procedures here is a pretty big task. It will require that you document your rules, as we've done with ours. Whether you use these or your own, you'll need to put together some handouts for your technicians. No one will remember all this.

This process makes sense once you work with it every day. But it will take some time and effort to actually implement and get it working the way it should.

Hold a meeting. Describe the process. Use a white board for clarification. Address all the "what-if" and "but I" objections. Then implement. Just do it.

- Benefits -

This process takes some planning and commitment. It also takes dedication from the management team. If you don't believe in the system, you will never get technicians to believe in it.

When something goes wrong, evaluate it and figure out whether it was a one-time anomaly or whether you need to fine-tune your system. Ideally, with a system like this, Nothing gets old. Nothing gets lost. Nothing gets forgotten. And all the work gets done.

- Forms -

There are no specific forms for implementing this SOP. But the rules you decide on here must be programmed into your PSA system (Autotask, Tigerpaw, ConnectWise, etc.).

All of these systems allow for complicated and sophisticated work flows. Personally, I think you should keep it as simple as possible so that you don't create a small business bureaucracy . . . the worst kind there is!

Your PSA vendor should be able to help you implement your rules and procedures into their software.

Remember, the whole point of having processes and procedures is to make things run more smoothly. That will lead to more profit, more order, more efficiency, etc. BUT if the process is getting in the way of smooth operations, get the job done and then some back and fix the process.

Your Comments Welcome.

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About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

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Next week's topic: How Do Service Requests Get Into Your System?


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