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Consortium for Service Innovation

Why Intelligent Swarming?

What Is Driving This Change?

In just about every support or services organization, complexity is growing. Leaders are asked to: 

  • Increase customer loyalty by reducing customer effort
  • Increase customer success to ensure steady renewals and growth
  • Increase operational efficiency to manage company costs
  • Increase employee engagement and reduce attrition rates to retain talented people

At the same time, leaders are faced with:

  • Dynamic shifting working environments with more external pressures than ever
  • An increasingly complex product or services portfolio that requires an ever-widening array of skills in the workforce
  • Multi-dimensional, multi-vendor issues that impact overall customer success
  • Shortage of skilled resources and difficulty building skills internally

Forward-looking leaders and organizations understand that services is a key driver of customer success, which translates into high levels of renewal, growth, and revenue.

The goal of any services organization is improving the success of the companies or people they are serving.  The traditional tiered model for solving problems, where all questions start at level one and get escalated based on need, appears to be an efficient way to provide answers to customers.  However, in environments of moderate- to high-complexity, the tiered model has serious flaws. It forces all issues through a linear process, adds inefficient transfers of work, limits the transfer of knowledge, creates an internal mentality of "us versus them," and most importantly, frustrates customers. 

As the traditional model breaks down, Intelligent Swarming builds organizations that are resilient to changing business dynamics. 

Key Drivers for Early Adopters of Swarming

  1. Organizations including support and services are undergoing a shift in focus from internal productivity to customer productivity.
  2. Greater employee engagement and development is needed to retain talent and grow the needed skills for success.
  3. Organizations are doing a better job of capturing and reusing what they collectively know, and customer self-service is changing the ratio of new to known issues that come into the support center.

Shifting from Internal Productivity to Customer Productivity

This is a deeper, philosophical transformation happening in customer support. It is characterized by a broader sense of awareness - one that includes the customer and their experience. The Effortless Experience raised awareness to the issue of customer effort, and many companies have put considerable effort into understanding the full customer experience.  The enlightened organization is as concerned about the customer’s productivity as they are about their own. We can no longer optimize our productivity at the expense of the customer’s.  Swarming improves the customer experience and minimizes their effort.

Many service and support organizations use the tiered organizational structure to handle requests. The tiered model is an efficient way of working if the majority (95% or more) of issues are simple and known, and resolved during the customer's first contact. More difficult or complex issues that cannot be resolved by the relatively low-cost generalist knowledge workers are escalated to higher skilled, more expensive resources. However, even moderate levels of complexity highlight the shortcomings of this model:

  • The tiered model creates organizational silos and handoffs/escalations that inhibit the exchange of information and knowledge, and thus inhibits learning.
  • Tiered support creates multiple queues. Any issues that can’t be solved by level 1 enters a queue, turning a real-time activity into a backlog item (which is problematic in the Lean philosophy).
  • Tiered support blocks the route to the correct responder(s).  The knowledge required to solve the issue may reside across multiple teams or queues, or even in development/engineering.  This is particularly problematic for cross-product or multi-vendor issues.
  • Tiered support leads to issues “bouncing"; the case needs more information to proceed, or is assigned to the incorrect team.  This is time-consuming and very frustrating for the customer.
  • Tiered support does not solve the problem of knowledge workers becoming overwhelmed, as high volumes of difficult issues are escalated to Level 2 and Level 3.

Improving Employee Growth, Engagement, and Retention

Retaining top talent has to be the main focus of any organization. People are what make companies, organizations, and teams successful. In all of our years, the Consortium has never come across a high functioning team that is not focused on people first. All indications are that retaining talent is getting harder and employee engagement and purpose are critical factors.

From Gallup's 2021 State of the American Workplace (registration required) report: 

  • Only 33% of employees are engaged in their jobs
  • 51% of employees are actively looking for a new job or watching for an opening
  • When compared with business in the bottom quartile of engagement, those in the top quartile realize the following improvements: 
    • 59% lower turnover
    • 17% higher productivity
    • 20% higher sales
    • 21% higher profitability

And these numbers have been very slow to move over the last decade.

“Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit”  - George Carlin

While a paycheck is important, the research shows that engagement is created through factors like autonomy, human connection, recognition, self-expression, a stimulating career path, personal growth, sense of community, and other intrinsic incentives (Larry Myler in Forbes, 2013). Organizations benefit from engaged employees when they offer more than just the demands of the job. An organization will thrive when employees offer their creativity, optimistic attitudes, and belief in the purpose, mission, values, and brand promise.

Harvard Business professor Shoshana Zuboff in her book  The Support Economy writes about the future of Capitalism. She concluded that today's business models, based on the frameworks of concentration and control associated with twentieth century “managerial capitalism,” have reached the limits of their adaptive range. Once the engines of wealth creation, they have turned into its impediments. The society of the twenty-first century requires a new approach to commerce based on a new "distributed capitalism.”

Improving Access to Organizational Memory

Organizations who have implemented KCS® (Knowledge-Centered Service), a methodology that focuses on creating and maintaining knowledge as a by-product of solving customer issues, provide knowledge workers with the ability to capture and reuse what they collectively know. Knowledge workers can quickly find answers to questions and problems that have already been solved. Reuse of the knowledge improves the rate at which issues are recognized as known, as well as the speed and accuracy in providing requestors with resolutions. As a result, known issues are resolved faster with fewer escalations.  To achieve a corresponding improvement in solving new issues, we need to facilitate collaborative problem solving.

Customer self-service is changing the ratio of new to known issues that come into the support center.

KCS creates content in the context of the requestor, so knowledge articles are findable and usable through self-service.  As use and success with self-service increases, the number of known issues reported to the organization declines, and so shifts the ratio of support requests to new issues.  (Known issues are those that are captured and findable in the knowledge base. New issues require diagnostic activity or research in order to resolve.)

As knowledge moves closer to requestors via self-service, the response processes in the organization must change. In the past, support tiers acted as filters, with each level resolving 70 to 80 percent of the problems it received. The problem had to be pushed or escalated toward the solution. By publishing knowledge to self-service, we are pushing the solutions toward the problem!

A number of companies' customers are now solving 80 percent of their issues via self-service. This is a great thing, but has two important implications.

  1. A positive self-service experience resets customer expectations about time to resolution.
  2. When customers contact the support center (for the smaller percent of issues that aren’t solved through self-service), the likelihood that problem will require escalation is very high - because it is likely to be a new issue. 

This has a compound effect.  Customers are expecting an immediate response, and the chance that the problem can be solved on first contact is much lower than it used to be.  The requests coming into the center are new, unique, complex issues.  As a result, customers who can’t find a solution through self-service feel like they have to “run the gauntlet” to get their problem solved…every time!  As known issues are removed from the support organization’s workflow and the percentage of new issues increases, we need to rethink how we align resources to work.

If we think of the organization as a network of people and content, our goal is to optimize the network by connecting people to content (knowledge articles) for known issues and connecting people to people for new issues. Intelligent Swarming improves our ability to solve new issues by connecting people to people with a high degree of relevance.  It is a new way to align people with work.

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To summarize, some of the current issues in support organizations are:

  • The tiered support model may seem efficient but it functions with the boundaries of organizational silos and does not optimize the use of our resources (especially when solving new or complex issues).
  • The escalation model, or "throw it over the wall" approach, does not promote learning and creates an "us versus them" culture rather than a "we" culture.
  • The workforce is often disengaged and its strengths are underutilized

It’s time for a change!

The opportunity: Can we create an environment that facilitates collaboration, optimizes the use of resources, builds the skills we need, and enables people to feel a sense of ownership, autonomy, accomplishment, and contribution? Adopters of Intelligent Swarming report a resounding YES!

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