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

By: Mikael Blaisdell

The basic reality of the profession of technological and customer support is that the only constant is change, and nowhere is this more evident than in its toolset.    From the very first commercial case and knowledge management systems that replaced steno pads and 3-ring binders, the “shouter-base” and an incredible array of homebrew resources 25 years ago, the contact center management industry has come a long way.  What could only be dreamed of a few years ago has become commonplace.  Now we are starting another huge development in the support technology suite, the transition to the Cloud.  There are significant advantages to be realized in that shift, but the journey is not without its risks.  As with everything else in high-tech, the keys to success are careful planning and execution.

What is This Cloud Thing? — And What’s In It For Me?

When electricity replaced hydro-power over 100 years ago, every business built its own electric generator plant to supply their power needs.  After a while, the centralized power companies made investing in private generators largely unnecessary.  It was simply cheaper and more reliable to buy electricity from a central supplier than to own and operate a power plant yourself.

The advantages of the Cloud, of having your computer hardware, software and data located on shared resources, begin with a similar benefit. It’s both cheaper to buy and faster to implement computing resources from a company that, like the centralized electric utilities, sells them by the month as its business.  The subscription model inherently motivates vendors to get their customers up and running as fast as possible and to keep them going, for if the customer leaves, the income stream dries up.  The Cloud is also more scalable — when you need more server horsepower, it gets turned on.  When the peak subsides, dial the resources back.  You pay only for what you actually use.  Perhaps the best news of all is that the payment is an operating cost, which is much easier to get authorized than a huge capital investment.

If this were all the Cloud had to offer, it would be more than enough to justify the move.  However, beyond the advantages of lower system cost, faster implementation and significantly increased scalability, the Cloud offers a range of other potential benefits.  SaaS/Cloud-based tools tend to be newer in design and offer more features & functionality than the older traditional on-premise products.  The application vendor can now monitor the use of features and functionality across all customers in real time, enabling identification of best practices, deliver precise training and consulting services, provide packaged groups of features and a variety of pricing plans.  In some cases, the vendor may offer access to metadata — aggregate usage information from across the entire customer base that can allow highly accurate benchmarking and other analytics.

The rapid implementation typical of most Cloud applications has another benefit.  The vendor may offer free trials of their technology.  If you like it, keep using it.  If not, you may try another vendor’s products.  The Cloud also tends to encourage the creation of optional enhancement products from a range of vendors, so that a customer may assemble their own suite of applications if desired.

Fear of Flying:  Yes, but what if?

Common concerns about moving to the cloud include security, reliability of access and vendor viability.  Can my data be compromised?  What happens if the vendor’s infrastructure goes down?  If the vendor goes out of business, will I still be able to use the product?  While all of these risks apply to on-premised systems as well, the lack of a physical presence on-site seems to significantly raise the level of worry for some decision-makers.
Security vulnerabilities exist — and are constantly being invented — for systems regardless of where they are located.  The rapidly growing numbers of companies using Cloud-based systems for even the most sensitive financial operations show that concerns about security can be adequately addressed by taking proper precautions, doing due-diligence research and by dealing only with vendors that have successfully been audited and certified.

What if the system goes down?  All systems, whether located in your own datacenter or in that of a Cloud vendor, are subject to failure.  A reputable datacenter vendor is more likely to have invested in more extensive failover and recovery resources than the average individual company. This issue should very definitely be on your list of criteria for evaluating potential vendors.

But what if the vendor goes out of business entirely?  What you are buying from a SaaS/Cloud vendor is a license to use their technology for a specified period rather than the tradition perpetual license.  While many perpetual license purchases have a requirement for the source code to be placed in escrow to protect the customers if the company fails, the reality is that even with the source code, the most likely outcome is that the customer will transition to a different product and vendor.  Companies will fail, and their customers need to be prepared for that eventuality.  For a Cloud vendor, prospective customers need to be sure that there are specifications in the contract for data migration and for guaranteed continuance of the service for some set time after the vendor goes out of business.

Pre-flight Planning

There are some key questions that must be asked at the start of the planning process to build a foundation for success.  What do you want to make happen?  Why? What’s driving the desire for change?  What is it actually worth in verifiable dollars and sense to the group and company? How will you measure success?

The day in which Support executives and managers could hope to succeed by cobbling together a long list of “absolutely must-have” features into a Request For Proposal/Information/Quote and blasting it out to every vendor in the industry has long been over. Most, if not all, of the features of the standard support technology suite tools have become commoditized, available for free as open-source and in all of the competing products.  It’s not about the software anymore.  While many technology developers are still caught up in the traditional software game of adding ever more bells and whistles to their products in the hopes of attracting prospective new customers, savvy SaaS/Cloud vendors are realizing that what they are actually selling is a partnership relationship over time.  The essence of that relationship is the expertise that can make a customer measurably more productive and profitable, expressed both in the software and in the ongoing professional consulting that goes with it.

Building a Partner Relationship

Unlike using a checklist of specific features to quickly evaluate a particular product, identifying and choosing a SaaS/Cloud partner will take time and diligence.  A consultant who knows all of the vendors in the market can be of very significant assistance, but be sure that they are completely vendor-neutral.  (A number of vendors have special commission programs for consultants that pose serious conflict of interest questions if not fully disclosed in advance.)  The key tests for a relationship are transparency and consistency, and they should be applied to everything about the vendor.  From marketing materials to organizational structure and the behavior of the people you deal with; does the vendor really walk their talk?

How transparent is the vendor?  What is their uptime guarantee, and do they publish their actual operational performance stats?  Most vendors offer service level agreements, but what do those SLA’s actually include?  Is the guarantee only about uptime, or are response levels also given for screens, etc.?  What happens when a breach occurs?  Does the vendor automatically notify the customer and give a rebate, or is the responsibility for detecting the breach and asking for recompense left to the customer?  What certifications are offered?  Is there a documented and tested disaster recovery plan, with specific failover resources identified together with trigger points?

Who actually owns the ongoing customer relationship on the vendor side, and how is that ownership expressed in authentic accountability?  Sales teams are traditionally hunters, skilled at turning prospects into customers — but what happens after the contract is signed?  Who is responsible for keeping the relationship going, and what authorities do they have?  Does the company disclose their customer retention rate?

How does the vendor define “Support?”  What access channels to their team are provided for the submission of support cases?  The first on the list should be directly from within the vendor’s application itself, followed by telephone and email.

What resources does the vendor offer for training and ongoing advisory coaching to help customers get the maximum value from the technology?  Don’t assume that the presence of a “Customer Success” team is a guarantee of best-practices assistance; in many SaaS/Cloud companies, the Customer Success team is only about implementation or fire fighting to “save” at-risk relationships.

Finally, keep in mind that nothing lasts forever.  Most SaaS/Cloud companies seek to make the “on-ramp” to their service as easy as possible.  A good partner candidate will also frankly discuss the “off-ramp” resources they offer as well.  With this truth in mind, don’t throw away your vendor candidate list after signing a contract — you may very well need it again later.

SaaS/Cloud Product Pricing

One of the two defining differences between the SaaS/Cloud sector and the traditional customer support technology market (the other being the physical location) is in how you pay for the product.  The SaaS model offers a variety of possible revenue conduits, and vendors will often offer a range of payment options besides or in addition to the standard monthly subscription fee.

The basic approach is to charge a monthly subscription per user or seat.  Most vendors require a year’s commitment in advance, and some offer a price break if you pay in advance for an additional year or two.  There may be one per-seat price for entry-level versions, and a different per seat price for “enterprise” level usage.  Be very careful on this point, for the price jump on the enterprise level can be very steep indeed.

You may also be charged as a function of bandwidth or storage capacity usage, and this, too, can trigger that upgrade to the enterprise pricing level.  Be very sure that you have forecast your usage levels as accurately as you can, and try to lock in prices wherever possible.  Keep in mind that your ability to change to a different vendor is about your only major defense against steep price increases, so keep those exit plans up to date.

SaaS/Cloud vendors also often charge for support as a separate item, as well as training and the full range of professional services.  Embedded advertising is another revenue generator that may be in play.  As mentioned earlier, vendors may offer sophisticated business intelligence services based on their access to aggregate metadata.  A few companies have expanded into the outsourcing sector by offering the services of skilled employees who know the application well on an hourly basis.

Preparing for Takeoff

Several support groups have very successfully used limited beta-testing projects with small teams as an integral part of the vendor/product selection process.  Not only does this approach allow time to fully evaluate vendors as a potential relationship partners, it also encourages testing of design and customization options.  SaaS/Cloud vendors will often offer free or very low cost access to their products for such testing, and some even are willing to provide data migration services as well.  “Try before you buy” is one of the best advantages of the new model.

The enhanced ability to test ideas, approaches and products inherent in the SaaS/Cloud industry has another benefit.  Along with the change to subscription pricing, the access to testing tends to discourage the big-bang style of projects where a company or department tries to implement everything at once.  As a result, the incidence of “shelf-ware” is much less in the SaaS/Cloud market.

Will the SaaS/Cloud model largely or completely replace the traditional approach?  Opinions and estimates vary, but all across the industry, more and more vendors are shifting to the Cloud.  Most of the new firms are not even offering perpetual licenses or on-premised products anymore, and this trend is likely to increase as time goes on.  Support executives and managers clearly need to become familiar with how to effectively select and deploy Cloud resources.  It isn’t a question of if you will be using a Cloud-based solution in your support center, but when.

Vendor Acknowledgements

The following Saas/Cloud vendors of support center technologies provided much-appreciated direct introductions to their customers for research interviews:

  • Giva  (www.givainc.com)
  • Salesforce  (www.salesforce.com)
  • Service-Now  (www.service-now.com)
  • Zendesk (www.zendesk.com)