Evaluating Support for New Software Applications

(Originally published on the Vector Information Systems, Inc. website at www.vectorinc.com - January 2001.)

By William K. Pollock

A decade or two ago the software products used to support the services industry were generally highly complex, highly customized, and highly expensive. Over the past several years, however, the impact of rapidly advancing technology and increased competition has resulted in making some of these software offerings virtually commodity-like in terms of availability and cost, while others have remained fairly complex, sophisticated and expensive. However, today's complex and sophisticated software offerings may just as easily become the commodity-like, off-the-shelf packages of tomorrow - or, in some cases, shareware that can be easily downloaded right off of the Internet.

The key to marketing a successful software product may actually be more focused on the way in which it is implemented and supported in the marketplace, rather than on how many features it may offer, or how many "bells and whistles" there may be incorporated in the product. The publishers and distributors of today's software products have already learned what their counterparts in the hardware industry have known for years - that it is the level of support provided to customers that is the key to determining whether a great product can become a huge success, or a good product, a "best seller."

Software publishers in the 2000s cannot expect to succeed by relying on the traditional marketing and support standards of the 1990s. The market is much more complex and competitive now than it was ten years ago, and users are much more sophisticated and discriminating in their choices of vendors and applications developers. Key factors such as customization, technical support and customer service have become paramount for most users in their selection of a suitable software vendor. Today, users not only "buy" the product, they "buy" the vendor as well. As such, today's software "purchase" also includes the vendors':

  • Sales, marketing and applications expertise, or their full understanding of not only what the software can do, but also how the customer plans to run its applications;
  • Design and engineering capabilities, or the ability of the vendor to tailor or customize the software to meet the specific needs and requirements of the customers and provide them with practical business solutions;
  • Installation and implementation support, or the ability to get the software up and running in a timely manner while minimizing the degree to which the customer's operations are disrupted during the implementation process;
  • Technical support, or the capability to provide continuing, real time, technical assistance, as required, to assure that system downtime is minimized and the software is being used to its fullest degree of effectiveness and efficiency;
  • Training and documentation, or the ability to assist the user in its ability to use the full capabilities of the software in an efficient manner;
  • Customer service, or the ability to provide continuing assistance and support to assure that the customer is kept at high levels of satisfaction with respect to the use of the software and its specific business applications;
  • Technology, or the state-of-the-art of the software, its components, features and user applications;
  • Communications, or the way in which the vendor keeps its customers up-to-date with respect to new technologies, applications, upgrades, interfaces or support offerings that may become available;
  • Partnerships and alliances, or the ability to provide additional, "value-added", support capabilities through its various partnerships and alliances with other complementary vertical or horizontal industry vendors; and
  • Business management, or the way in which the vendor conducts its business and deals with its customers.
Gone are the days where a vendor simply could "throw people" at a software problem in order to "fix" it. Vendors now must deal more with "fixing the customer" rather than merely "fixing the product." And this requires more than just people resources. First and foremost, it requires sales, marketing and applications expertise. Without this expertise, the vendor has little chance of ever letting the marketplace know exactly what it has to offer, and how its software may actually deliver the solution that its users require. The vendor's sales, marketing and applications activities normally represent the first introduction that many potential users will have with respect to the vendor and its software offerings and, as such, is a critical point at which the vendor must make a good first impression.

Once the potential user becomes aware of the vendor and its products, the vendor's design and engineering capabilities become the area of focus. Without the ability of the vendor to design and engineer the software offering specifically to the needs and requirements of the user, there will be little chance of making the sale. This is true both for customized software where the needs of an individual customer are of the greatest importance, as well as for off-the-shelf software where the needs of an entire market segment are the primary focus.

Installation and implementation support are the next most critical elements of concern. However, these areas become important well before the actual implementation takes place. In fact, they typically represent a major focal point of the sales proposal that eventually gets the vendor the sale in the first place. Most users will look for new system implementation support that is of minimal duration and with minimal disruption to their ability to conduct their normal day-to-day business activities.

Technical support is the common thread that links the vendor with the customer throughout the entire life of the system usage. It typically represents the core of the actual day-to-day communications and support lifeline between the vendor and user, and is one of the most visible elements of any vendor-customer relationship. In many cases, it is the quality of the ongoing technical support that "pulls" the customer in and keeps it "in the fold" with respect to future software purchases, upgrades, modifications and system integrations.

Training and documentation are also important to the software acquisition; particularly for those customers that hope to gain maximum control over their ability to use the software capabilities to the fullest, as well as be prepared to perform impromptu troubleshooting should the situation arise. Many users look for vendors who are not afraid to empower their customers with the ability to "partner" with them in terms of maximizing system utilization, identifying and resolving problems and "sharing" overall system support.

The cornerstone of all vendor-customer relationships is customer service. Without the perception of good customer service, even a vendor with an acknowledged superior software product would still have a great degree of difficulty in penetrating the market. Numerous studies have shown that superior service can "pull through" product sales. No market is more influenced by this phenomenon than the software product support market.

While technology is an area that generates much initial publicity, press and public awareness, in most cases users are not buying technology; they are buying solutions. Still, it is incumbent in the high-tech industries, such as the services-related software market, to be perceived as being at the vanguard of technology, and applying that technology directly to the needs, requirements and solutions of the marketplace.

Communications, in and of itself, may not be the most important item "purchased" along with the software; but without it, users typically feel like they have simply bought a package "off the rack", without any appreciable degree of after-sales support. By selecting a vendor that regularly communicates with them, customers believe that they have entered into a "partnership" with their vendor; a relationship that will continually provide them with updates, announcements, information, input and feedback that they, as users, feel they should be receiving to keep them current with the software they will be using on a day-to-day basis.

Partnerships and alliances also reflect a relatively new environment for most vendors. In the past, either one vendor offered it all to its customers, or it was not available anywhere. Today, however, many vendors have entered into alliances with "complementary" partners that provide "value-added" products and services to support a "full suite" of applications and solutions to the end user. A good example of this would be the partnering of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software vendors with wireless communications providers.

Finally, the item that makes it all gel; business management. When a user "buys" a software vendor, it is not only "buying" the product, it is "buying" all of the items described in this article, including the ability of the vendor to manage its own business affairs in a manner that is commensurate with the way in which its customers want to be treated themselves. Users do not want to get involved with vendors that cannot manage their own business affairs. The question would then have to arise, "If they cannot manage their own business affairs properly, how can I expect them to adequately support mine?"

In general, while these ten items represent the principal elements of a typical software "purchase", they read more like a set of academic guidelines than a manifest of how those guidelines actually work in the marketplace. The best way to prove their value is through example. Such examples are provided monthly in services trade publications like AFSMI's The Professional Journal and IT Support News , among others, and weekly in general business publications like ComputerWorld and Datamation.

Major software publishers have attempted to differentiate themselves, and their products, by focusing attention on factors such as customer support and usability. Independent software consulting houses may also contribute a wide range of customization and implementation services as well. To these companies, implementation and support for new software products represent key selling points for these offerings, and are heavily promoted in their sales and promotional efforts. Some vendors hold regularly scheduled users conferences to ensure that their customers are continually kept informed on the new ways in which they can receive support for their new software products. The most successful vendors are those that can back up their claims for implementation and support by providing the expertise and resources to get the job done in a real world business environment.

One of the newest means to provide initial support to users is through the Internet. Many software publishers use the Web extensively to provide users with basic technical information and support for their software products, both new and old. Thus far, the Internet has not replaced the traditional hard copy documentation that users have depended on for years, but there is little doubt that on-line documentation, self-enabled via the Internet, will become a much more important part of every software publisher's portfolio of implementation and support services in the future.

Whether a software publisher utilizes off-site user conferences; on-site beta testing; or real-time support via the Internet, or any other means of electronic distribution, there is clearly a movement away from the traditional mode of simply "throwing" support engineers at a problem. Human resources will always be an integral component of customer support - especially at the critical time of implementation and support for new software. But what many of the leading software vendors have now recognized is that by sharing all of their capabilities and resources with their customers, it becomes a "win-win" situation for both the user and the vendor. It will be primarily through this user-vendor partnership that full implementation and support for new software releases can ultimately be provided.

William K. Pollock is President of Strategies For GrowthSM, a full service management consulting firm based in Westtown, Pennsylvania. During the past 22 years, Bill has conducted more than 200 consulting assignments for a variety of clients in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Middle East and Asia-Pacific, many of which have involved customer surveys, competitive market analyses, evaluations of services operations, and the development of strategic recommendations for service performance and customer satisfaction improvement.

Bill has had numerous articles published on topics including strategic services planning, customer satisfaction and loyalty, services channel partnerships, Business Process Reengineering (BPR), and others for various services trade publications including AFSMI's The Professional Journal, IT Support News, and Medical Imaging. He also writes AFSMI's bimonthly Marketing and Business Development column, and is a regular contributor to PlanetIT.com, a monthly Information Technology Webzine. In addition, Bill has served as Managing Analyst, Services Industry for the Datapro Information Services division of GartnerGroup since 1997, having authored more than 200 individual services market reports and competitive market analyses for mutual clients.

Bill also speaks regularly at a variety of major services industry venues, including five AFSMI World Conferences and the association's Fourth Annual Healthcare Services Conference; Help Desk Institute's Support Systems Conference & Expo; PCI's Service and Support World Expo; HealthTech '98 and 2000; and numerous ASQ Quality Symposiums. He will be conducting a three-hour strategic planning workshop and a one-hour presentation at HealthTech 2001, and will be chairing AFSMI's post-conference Medical Services Symposium on October 31 at Anaheim, California. Bill can be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.

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