The HotLine Magazine Archives
For The Profession of Cloud/SaaS Product Support
By Mikael Blaisdell

At every SaaS industry event, I am certain to hear some enthusiastic proponent of the On Demand / Software as a Service model telling the audience that “customer support necessarily must be better in the SaaS ecosystem because the customer is free to switch to a different vendor at any time. Therefore, we have to constantly re-earn our customers’ loyalty month after month.” I’ll discuss the deceptive illusion of “switchability” in a subsequent briefing. For now, let’s take a closer look at that glittering promise of superior support that is supposedly inherent in the SaaS model.

The Definition of Customer Support

First, let’s define our terms. Customer Support is access to the vendor’s knowledge inventory concerning how the application can be configured, functions and is used — and how it can be integrated with other applications. In the eyes of the customers, Support also includes Training, both in how to use the application itself and in how to gain maximum value and productivity from that use.

Support is directly delivered through the standard access channels of telephone, e-mail and chat requests, and indirectly via the Internet through availability of web sites, knowledgebases, wikis, discussion forums, blogs, and product documentation. (No, Support is not “uptime,” the percentage of time the application is available to the user or its responsiveness. That’s System Availability, or Performance, which are separate issues.)

Right away, it can be easily seen that there is no difference between the SaaS world and the traditional perpetual license software market in either the definition of the term “Support” or in the delivery. Support is the same thing, delivered in the same way, for both. So how is “Support” supposed to be better in the SaaS world? By what metric? Are the SaaS vendors going to answer the phone faster or more courteously? Will the spoken accents on the other end of the line be easier to understand or more familiar to the customers? Will there be faster and/or more complete resolution of problems? These are what the customers will be expecting when they hear the claims. If this is not what the manufacturers are intending to deliver, then where will the promised improvement in support quality be manifested?

Better in Whose Eyes?

The SaaS promise-maker never answers the above questions, nor specifically states how much better SaaS support will be, but you can be sure that the customer will be willing to fill in that blank check to their own maximum benefit. The customer will also hold the vendor accountable for any perceived difference between the expectation and the reality. Here, too, there is no difference between the old model and the new; both are failing to set their customers’ expectations, and both will pay the price for that neglect.

A few vendors, such as Netsuite and Salesforce, are beginning to publish their uptime statistics openly on the Internet for all to see, and to guarantee a certain level of availability as a response to rising customer demands. That’s a good start, but it needs to go much further. Why are there no SaaS vendors publishing their customer contact center operational statistics on the web? Every contact center monitors call volumes, categories, on-hold durations, average handle times per call, resolution and escalation rates, etc. — why are these kept secret? I put the question to a former software company CEO, and the blunt response was: “Because it would be too embarrassing to reveal the truth.”

Show Me The Proof

Sooner or later, the customers are going to start demanding the proof to back up the promises. If/when it isn’t forthcoming, embarrassment is going to be the least of executive worries. But there’s a silver lining in that looming cloud, an opportunity for a competitive advantage for the SaaS vendor bold enough to seize it. Publish your contact center data openly, and challenge the competition to do the same. Stake your claim to the crown of quality support in the SaaS market, and defend your right to wear it. Anybody can promise. It’s the consistently measurable delivery that will produce the profitability rewards.

May 29, 2007