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

There is a tendency for some SaaS/Cloud vendors to think that Customer Support is the same as it was in the traditional sector, only with less demand and therefore a significantly lower staff. The core of that mis-perception is that Support is an unfortunately necessary evil, the group that only deals with problems resulting from breaks and interruptions in service after they occur. That’s a serious mistake for a company to make. The result is substantial losses from overlooked revenues, lower customer retention rates and wasteful utilization of expensive human resources within the organization. But if treating Support as an old-model reactive break/fix cost center is not the way to win in the new era, what is? The first step is to completely redefine the role of Support. The second is to align your organizational structure and management metrics for Customer Success.

It’s Not About The Software Anymore

I set up my first online discussion forum for customer support in 1980, back in the old CompuServe days. I was in good company, on the same platform as dozens of firms like Microsoft, Borland and Autodesk, and there were a large number of very knowledgeable people who were more than willing to share what they knew with the community. Self-service and/or community support is nothing new, technology companies have been using these concepts and tools for 30 years and more. Many years later, any company may now set up a discussion forum on their website for free. The basic functionality of threaded-message forum management has largely become a commodity via open-source software. The same is true of help desk ticket/case management systems, and other support tools. While there is some room for differentiation in features and functionality, such advantages tend to be very short lived. How then should contact center technology vendors expect to compete in the new market realities?

Let’s use the support forum management software sector as an example. It doesn’t take very long for a company to discover that there is a world of difference between just setting up a forum and actually succeeding in attracting and furthering an effective community. The features and functionality don’t in themselves guarantee success. Anybody can cobble together a collection of features. Good designers can produce a smooth product that works well. But the crucial factor is the expertise of how to use a tool to design, deploy and above all to guide and manage an online community from the beginning.

Beyond Support: Customer Success

In the realm of technology, there will always be something that breaks and needs fixing. But in the SaaS/Cloud era, while fixing breaks may be something that a team does at need, it shouldn’t be their their primary purpose anymore. There are much more valuable things that those expensive human resources could be doing to add significantly to both their own companies’ bottom lines and to those of their customers.

At Lithium, for example, a Customer Success manager will work with a customer to define that customer’s success criteria, then will help them configure and launch their community, oversee usability improvements, provide technical support, and continue meeting with the customer periodically through regular success checkpoints. The focus in on making sure that the customer achieves success according to how the customer defined that objective. To do so, Lithium’s team applies real-time visibility into how the customer is using their application plus a wealth of strategic and tactical wisdom about how a company can maximize the benefit from an online community. And the Success Program doesn’t stop there.

Update:  The Customer Success Management Initiative

A fast-growing number of companies in the SaaS/Cloud sector have either established their own Customer Success Management teams — or are planning to do so in the near term.  The HotLine Magazine has begun an Initiative to explore what companies are actually doing to increase customer retention by establishing dedicated teams.  Click here to learn more, or to participate in the research.

The Next Step

In the past, Customer Support has been about the answer to “how does it work?” Customer Success is about a much more vital question: “How can I use the application to increase my company’s productivity and profitability?” It’s time to get beyond the old reactive role of Customer Support. The key to winning in the SaaS/Cloud era is customer retention, and a successful customer is very unlikely to want to leave the vendor that was integral to achieving that success.

Is your company ready to consider establishing a Customer Success Management team?  If you’re ready to explore what  a Customer Success Program could achieve for your company in terms of strategically enhanced profitability and increased customer retention, give me a call.

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June 14, 2010