Could Customer Support Use Some Scenario Planning? You Bet!

Wired Magazine’s August 2009 issue has a very interesting article on the practice of scenario planning as applied to an individual’s personal life. Scenario planning is mainly used for corporations and other large concerns, but it can certainly be applied to a person. Or a department.

Scenario planning is a way of taking as much control of the future as possible. We never know what will be over the next hill, but with some thought about the events that could affect customer support and some plans in place to address those events, you can lay some groundwork about ways to deal with them should they occur. With your years of experience it shouldn’t be difficult to come up with the required pieces of information.

First, the scenario must be defined:

Customer support wonders how to keep communications open with their customers in the future.

Next comes the chance to use your hard won expertise. Create a list of what Peter Schwartz, the scenario planning guru, calls “Driving Forces”. These are the issues and trends that are likely to play a role in your scenario; in this case, forces that may change customer communications such as the advent of different communications channels.

Once the list is done, separate it into “certainties” and “uncertainties”, what you are pretty sure will come to pass and what you cannot easily predict for the future, such as the economy or new laws. Then rank the items in each sublist from most to least important. This makes the future of your area of interest more visible, defined, and easier to monitor over time.

The top two uncertainties are used as the axis of a grid, somewhat like Forrester Research’s Magic Quadrant. Only, your quadrants will hold the potential futures you want to plan for. The future in each quadrant should be defined simply: what would happen in the case these two variables collide? Though simple souding, the idea in the quadrant can still be tough to get your arms around. So you do this:

You come up with stories or cases that illustrate these futures best and more concretely to make it easier to think of the implications of each future and what you could do to address them. Now you have plans of action that have been thought out beforehand for these most likely future events.

It also gives you a way to look at events that unfold over time that could relate to your imagined futures. Keep notes of events as they come along to help you track which future seems to be headed your way. In all likelihood, one of the futures you imagined will start to become apparent, and because you have already thought about it, you can recognize it earlier and begin to take care of the event sooner, in an organized manner, rather than knee jerk reactions.

Bet you feel more in control already, don’t you? Considering what could be done in particular circumstances leads to more considered reactions, kind of like that fire safety training you get. It may never happen, but you will have a much better idea what to do if it does.

Regularly review your scenario and plans. Make tweaks to your lines of action.  Even if none of the futures you turned up occurs and the world veers off on another tangent, you can use this exercise as a learning experience and think everything over again. As you become aware of trends and events, you can better define the uncertainties and their implications which makes planning a proper response to that future better tuned to the real events.

Now this doesn’t have to be a huge project that is months in the making. Don’t make predictions that are large, overwhelming. Keep it simple, keep your planning simple, and the work will go faster and be less of a burden when the scenario is revisited. This exercise is great for really getting in touch with your industry and your workplace. Maybe it will even point out some workflow management issues, personnel issues, or other problems that can be resolved ahead of time to help deflect one of those futures.

We can’t know the future, but we can plan for it all the same if we slow down long enough to apply some thought to how the world around us impacts us and our work. 

The article has a great graphic that clarifies what I paraphrased above and none of the language is some sort of esoteric jargon that you can’t relate to. In fact, some of the language should be familiar to anyone who has to track and trend anything.

Now, go forth and plan! Then there will be one less thing keeping you up at night.

Keep notes of events as they come along to help you track which future is headed your way 

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