Friday, February 09, 2024

How Do You Define Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 in Small Business?

What Does "Tier" Support Really Mean in a Small IT Business?

One of my coaching clients asked me to help them define first, second, and third tier support for their service desk. See below.

Before we get to that, please note that the world of SMB support is very different from large companies and even mid-size in-house IT. First of all, all of the people in these tiers know each other in an SMB company, and work together all the time. In very small companies, there might only be one or two people, in which case these "tiers" are not very relevant.

Second, as you grow to five or ten technicians, the lines are never super-clear. We are lucky that the nature of our business means that we go back and forth between dozens of technologies all day long, year after year. That "generalist" experience means that technicians move faster from Tier One to Tier Two than they might in a more focused, specialist environment.

Third, most small IT companies don't charge different prices for different tiers. A "Tier Two" technician might bounce between lower-level and higher-level challenges hour by hour. It's nearly impossible to explain different rates to the client. And, besides, life is much easier when you only have one rate (and twice that for after hours).

Fourth, most small IT companies are lucky if they have ONE true Tier Three technician. And, very often, that person is the company founder who got into this business because they are just amazing with technology. They learn new things fast. They consume technical knowledge like a sponge. And they really do set the standard for the rest of the company.

In my twenty-two years of running IT companies, I had four Tier Three technicians, including myself. And I think they run the gamut you can expect from crazy-good technicians. 

One T3 tech got bored and wandered off to take on bigger challenges than my company could offer. One T3 tech was amazing with technology but could not follow a process or document work to save his life. He came to me when I bought his company, and moved on two years later. And the final amazing T3 tech bought my first managed service business and became the owner.

In my limited, two-decade experience, you are VERY lucky if a true T3 technician stays around for five years. The longest I kept one was six years. Keep that in mind. It's not the focus of this blog post, but I'll just note that it's easier and cheaper to train your own T3's than it is to buy them from job search sites. Stay tuned for that blog post.

The Tier Definitions in SMB IT

Now, here are some definitions you can use to define three tiers of support in your business. Tweak these for you company specifics, then use YOUR definitions for both employees and clients.

Tier One is literally the first line of support. It's the entry point. All "easy" and routine tickets should be handled by Tier One. And with great documented procedures, Tier One technicians should be able to handle most normal maintenance procedures. Any service you deliver routinely should eventually be done by T1 techs (or administrative assistants, but that's another blog post).

At the end of a first contact with a client, Tier One support should have verified that there is a ticket in the system, it has the correct description and title, and that all key settings are correct (status, priority, contract, client, device, etc.). Ideally, simple issues will also be resolved at the end of this contact. 

Tier One technicians should be keenly aware of the limits of their knowledge, skills, and accountability. And that means they should know when it's time to escalate an issue to a more advanced or specialized support team.

Tier Two technicians have more skills and experience than Tier One. They understand a wider range of tools and generally have more specialized knowledge in one or more technologies, whether topic-specific (e.g., routing) or vendor-specific (e.g., Cisco).

While technical training should always continue throughout a technician's career, a good, solid training in one area is generally the basis for elevating a technician to L2. Having said that, the most important Tier-Two-and-above skill is troubleshooting. Second level techs gain troubleshooting skills due to experience with a variety of technologies, hours on the job, and the wisdom to know what to do, what not to do, and when to ask for help.

In very small IT companies, most technicians with good common sense will elevate to Tier Two after one or two years on the job. This is because of the wide variety of technologies they will see and experience. As a rule, in the small business environment, they will see a wide variety of hardware in desktops, laptops, printers, conference room setups, telephones, network equipment, and even servers. The same is true for software brands. Even within the Microsoft world, they'll experience lots of on-site software as well as cloud services.

Tier Three tech support represents the highest level in an IT consulting company. These folks essentially have "a lot more of the same." In other words, they've seen a huge amount of different technologies and have a long history in the industry. Therefore, they've seen a very large number of problems and have a lot of stories to tell.

Here's an odd but useful indicator of Tier Three technical ability: They have a deep knowledge about a technology that is no longer widespread. You might think this makes them obsolete, but if they're still in the game, it's an indicator that they have next-level troubleshooting skills. They can abstract from one technology to another. They can dig back into knowledge that underlies current technology.

These folks must also have a level of wisdom that only comes with experience. They don't just solve the problem in front of them but ask, "How else can we approach this?" They have internalized an approach to solving problems that is over and above technical knowledge or skill. They have a complex view of technology and see a much bigger picture, often solving a problem in the context of the client's entire technical infrastructure.

For this reason, you don't get to be Tier Three just because you've been on the job two or three years, or you’ve got more vendor certifications than anyone else. Very often, a Tier Three tech can see a complicated technology for the first time and still be better at troubleshooting it than a less-experienced but more-trained technician. In a perfect world, T3 techs are also patient, good at explaining problems and solutions, and very good at educating T1 and T2 technicians. In the real world, this is rarely the case. 

Most SMB IT companies with fewer than ten technicians are very lucky if they have more than one true Tier Three technician. It happens, but it’s not common.

Over and above these tiers, technicians may move to a higher level with very focused knowledge and experience in to very specific technology.  This is common in enterprise organizations and extremely rare in the SMB space. In SMB, variety is the spice of life. A T3 Engineer who specializes in Exchange and email traffic shaping would be almost useless in a small IT company.

How Do You Define Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3?

As always, your business is not my business. How do YOU define these tiers? If you have no clear definitions, start with these. Clarify your definitions and then use them both internally and with your clients. 

It's important that people know where they stand. And it's important that clients know what's what. But always remember this: Clients don't really care about tiers. Clients just want their stuff fixed. For the most part, clients see two tiers: New/unexperienced and experienced. They want the good stuff. they always want your best technician.

You should always commit to training your technicians. They should all be moving up with both topic-based training and a variety of technologies. Experience and hours build great troubleshooting. Even training in troubleshooting is useless until it's put into practice.

Most disgruntled technicians are frustrated because the industry needs a lot of Tier One technicians, but skill levels naturally move to Tier Two pretty quickly. As a result, many technicians are stuck at Tier One well past the time that they are skilled to be Tier Two technicians. Again, in small business, we don't have to worry so much about that. But always be attentive to the fact that techs who feel "stuck" will be less motivated.

If you have very different definitions, I would love to see them. Drop your thoughts in the comments.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Feedback Welcome

Please note, however, that spam will be deleted, as will abusive posts.

Disagreements welcome!