Bring your support staff closer to the customer.
Posted May 2, 2005
Developing prospects into loyal customers requires more than delivering useful products. Customers want to work with vendors that understand their business and help them bring differentiated products and services to market at a minimum cost. Savvy vendors are now looking to their support departments to provide this enhanced customer value and competitive advantage.
An effective support department helps ensure that a vendor's products are absorbed smoothly by a customer into day-to-day processes, transforming a technology investment into business worth. By providing this value, the support staff becomes closer to the customer than any other part of the vendor organization. Support engineers experience customer issues firsthand, and understand the problems customers encounter and the successes they enjoy. The support department is involved from the moment of purchase, through the initial implementation and beyond, with upgrades and future plans.
Customer Data Is Useful to Multiple Business Functions
As a result of this close contact, support departments can amass a wealth of knowledge about each customer. Vendors can dramatically increase customer value by feeding the knowledge learned while providing support services back into a product's life cycle. This enhanced data resource allows companies to create products that are better targeted at precise business needs, with configurations that are easier to deploy and require less support. Integrating customer information with product development transforms technical support from a function that provides reactive assistance into a resource that maximizes customer value.
Using the information gained through support services to increase product value requires a fundamental shift from today's focus on the immediate gratification of problem resolution. Vendors must make the support investment the basis of a longer-term process in which product designs evolve to fit customer needs more closely and provide greater business benefits.
This shift in viewpoint can also yield another benefit: more efficient support technologies. For example, the support knowledge base can be translated into business rules stored in databases accessible by customers or through machine-to-machine interfaces. Expert systems can use this information to anticipate how a customer will describe a potential issue, locate the solution, and provide detailed instructions for implementing that solution. Such tools can empower customers to fix many problems on their own for extremely fast results--and greater satisfaction.
The Components of an Optimal Support System
Five key components in a support structure allow companies to channel knowledge back into the product development cycle and help create new support resources:
Process-based infrastructure--Beyond the high-level processes used by most support departments, a process-based infrastructure provides detailed instructions for procedures such as problem identification, solution development, and closed-loop feedback systems. When properly implemented, these detailed processes can reveal potential issues that require remediation by upstream operations such as engineering, manufacturing, finance, and sales. A business can create a more satisfactory customer experience through proactive intervention in product development.
Advanced support technologies--Advanced support technologies help identify service needs and initiate service actions without waiting for human detection and reaction. These tools are necessary to provide the increased service levels that customers demand over time. Organizations can improve service levels by moving beyond today's reactive human-to-human and human-to-Web interface support models with new, proactive support propelled by machine-to-Web interaction.
Segmentation--Segmentation, which refers to tailoring our services based on customer location, company size, industry or market, and other common elements, improves support efficiency by delivering support offerings that are designed to meet the diverse needs of various customer groups. For example, a support model that delivers segmented service offerings according to specific customer needs can provide customers across all geographies with the right level of support through the most appropriate channel.
Strong partner ecosystem--A comprehensive network of business partners gives customers a wide selection of companies that can help address issues such as outsourcing for multivendor support, obtaining a needed capability in a specific region, or satisfying a particular brand preference. An ecosystem of quality partners provides both choice and value.
Service-oriented culture--The final hallmark of successful service departments is a culture that embraces the fundamental values of dedication to the customer, personal accountability, and an innate service attitude.
Employee training is an important part of creating and maintaining this culture. Ongoing training can help ensure that employees are technically competent, as well as able to develop a rapport with customers that adds value to the support process. Without a service-oriented culture built around well-trained employees, the support organization is destined to disappoint both its customers and the company.
A support organization with these components can excel at traditional service delivery, as well as grow toward a future in which service is integral to delivering enhanced customer value across the business and throughout the product life cycle.
About the Author
Joe Pinto is senior vice president of worldwide technical support at Cisco Systems. Pinto's 2,000 worldwide employees provide Cisco customers and business partners with a full range of technical support services. Visit www.cisco.com
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