I was asked to speak on the topic: “10 Key Things to Look For in Customer Support With SaaS Vendors” at the SaaSCon 2008 event in San Jose. The invitation, the phrasing of the session topic, and the radically changing demographics for the event were and remain significant indicators of the gathering force of the SaaS/Cloud tsunami — and of the speed of development of the sea change in the industry. But there’s a haunting reminder at the edges of this brave new on-demand world, an unquiet Ghost of Computing Past. The lessons we still haven’t learned keep shadowing our success.
My professional career began at the start of the last such tectonic shift, when “microcomputers” turned into “Personal Computers” and swiftly erupted across the corporate and personal landscape, changing everything they touched. The rise of the Internet, for all its major impacts upon consumers and manufacturers, was in many ways just an aftershock of that earlier transformation. Looking back, one of the most significant challenges of personal computing was how it suddenly put tremendous power at the fingertips of all kinds of people — without thought for whether or not they were ready to productively use that resource or for the consequences of their attempts. The outcome of that error was the begrudged creation of “tech support,” break/fix contact centers filled with representatives frantically trying to teach, consult, diagnose, repair or avoid/divert — and to survive under the endless floods of calls.
Tech support was a necessary coping mechanism for the effects of product centricity — the belief of technological mousetrap makers that all they had to do in order to succeed was to build a system that had more/better features than the competition. The stance of the early support groups was overwhelmingly reactive: nothing happened until the phone rang or the desperate e-mail arrived. Unfortunately, that’s the operating mode that has persisted across the industry ever since, despite the cosmetic changing of the center’s name to “Customer” support. The deliverables are still about the technology rather than the productivity of the customer.
SaaS does look to be different in one pertinent regard. The support burden on the manufacturer is less because they have greater access and control over the software in deployment and use, and because the webtop location has made the PC operating system layer largely irrelevant. But product centric identity and break/fix thinking still dominate amongst the manufacturers, traditional model and SaaS alike, and the shades of those decisions still persist.
So the 1st key thing that a savvy customer needs to determine about a prospective SaaS vendor as a company is: are they product or customer centric? Anyone can claim to be customer-centric, but is the claim authentic?