CRM Basics--Infrastructure and Listening: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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Even good problems are still problems. Successful software companies not only see client growth, but each client changes the way they want to use a product. With a growing client base and proven product value, it raises the question: Can there be too much of a good thing? Client Support departments at successful companies usually find the answer to be a resounding yes--that is, if you don't have the proper infrastructure and you don't actively listen to your customers. A good example of an infrastructure challenge is the rising demand in higher education for e-Learning solutions that include distance learning and Web programs to supplement the classroom environment. This has created a new challenge for those enterprise solution providers in the e-Learning space: Universities are not equipped to handle the support that the faculty, student, and researcher needs as a product becomes mission critical on campus. As call volumes to their help desks increased, larger demands on the enterprise vendor support staff are created. As a result, many companies that provide solutions to these universities have their own customer service problem. These institutions begin complaining about unreturned phone calls and poorly written email responses. Ideas such as managing client expectations or tracking key performance indicators are completely foreign concepts. Companies are becoming victims of their own success. There is yet another valuable lesson in a growth environment that gets learned very quickly in order to meet the client expectation and successfully turn the support infrastructure around. It is one of the best rules, but is rarely followed: listen to your clients. Too frequently companies don't realize that the complaining customer is one of their best resources. Who else is going to audit and give feedback for free? Many software support operations are now giving each of their clients personalized service through a dedicated technical support manager (TSM) who champions all reported issues to resolution. The traditional software support model is no longer enough. In most companies, software product support is about fixing problems. People and processes track a problem and attempt to resolve it. When customers call support, someone is assigned to fixing that specific problem. Most often, it's a different person for each problem. Even though some companies make efforts to enhance team communication, they frequently get different people working simultaneously on different issues for the same user. Traditional software support resembles what is frequently said about modern medicine; that for all of its scientific advancement, the weakness is that it's disease-based rather than wellness- or patient-based. Who's working to keep the system well? The question is whether or not the company's organizational structures and values will support the ability to do it every time for every client on every question. The TSM builds a relationship with his clients to develop a deep understanding of the environment, history of reported issues, and other needs that are specific to the institution. This type of interaction has become instrumental in building client confidence and loyalty with a company's support services since it now has a direct relationship with an individual who knows the institution's specific needs. This then leads to an organization and a support model that is scalable. It's the biggest challenge for any service organization--growth by the service provider and growth at the customer sites. As more software applications become mission critical there is a requirement to provide a different kind of support structure. When users move from supporting 100 users to a 30,000 user environment, the service demands of their users will change. There is new capacity planning issues, end user service requests, integration demands, not to mention tens of thousands of additional fingers on thousands of keyboards banging away at the software. Software support must adapt in turn, and adapt differently for each client who is at a different stage of the growth curve. So can there really be too much of a good thing? If you're a growing company with a growing number of clients all with varying support needs, there certainly can be. However, a commitment to matching your support infrastructure with your revenue growth will make a tremendous positive impact. And by actively listening to your clients and their valuable feedback, you're far more likely to make the right judgments on how best to meet and exceed their expectations. Whether the challenge is more personalized service--as in the TSM example--or scalability to meet different levels of client support requirements, infrastructure and client feedback are at the heart of CRM basics. About the Author Craig Chanoff is vice president of client support services at Blackboard, a leading provider of educational software and services to schools, colleges, and universities.
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