Edward Peters would like to thank Carol Esau, senior director, Worldwide SupportLink at DataDirect Technologies for contributing this month's column.

There are a number of questions that should come to mind when evaluating a new software vendor. Do the products meet your needs? How broad and deep is their product line? How proven are the vendor and its products? Is the company a leader in the field?

Once you've determined that your functional needs can be met and the vendor's comprehensiveness, experience and technical leadership has been established, customer support becomes as much of a critical differentiator as its products and services.

As a software company in today's highly competitive business environment, delivering outstanding service and product support plays a key role in closing deals and building long-term relationships. With increased pressure to deliver high-quality customer service, it's easy to find a software company singing the praises of its support organization. But, are all support offerings created equal?

Before investing resources in any software solution from a new vendor, measure the capabilities of the company's support operation in these areas to determine the quality and level of care that you can expect to receive.

Accessibility and Responsiveness

Knowing that technical support is available when you need it is critical. Excellent service starts with it being accessible 24x7 through various means of contact. When evaluating support options, there are several broad categories to consider: telephone support, e-mail support, knowledgebase support and resources specific to developers.

  • Telephone Support: Don't underestimate the value of exceptional telephone support. Beyond expecting to work with representatives who demonstrate a professional and courteous attitude on the phone, the ability to reach competent, technical personnel in a timely manner who can resolve your issues is extremely important. Many software vendors offer a live voice but having representatives who can actually relate to your issues and answer your questions makes for an entirely different experience. In addition, an ideal telephone support team will have representatives dedicated to each customer, eliminating the need for customers to reiterate details of their case each time they call for assistance - making for a more personalized and efficient support experience.
  • Online Support: The ability to resolve technical issues via online support systems such as e-mail, live chat and Web-based forms is another key component of assistance. Particularly for cases involving technical depth or complexity, online support works best because it offers the end user an easy format to transcribe error messages and related data, while giving the support technician time for a more considered response. Similar to telephone support, customers should expect a timely response to their requests - ideally, that same business day. Along the same lines, your software provider should be able to provide extensive product documentation, proactive product updates and software patches, technical briefs and white papers.
  • Knowledgebase Support: Becoming a more common form of technical support, these self-service databases integrated into the software company's Web site enable customers to search and seek resolution to issues via their own Web browser. Since the "input is output" with this type of application, an effective knowledgebase must be continuously updated, growing more comprehensive and accurate as customers and technical support personnel add their experiences to the database.
  • Online Forums and Developer Education Programs: Providing customers with a rich Web site complete with the latest technical information on products, standards and industry trends, will help users gain the maximum benefit from their software investment. Added to this, online forums for developers to share ideas, tricks and tips offer an extra layer of technical support. Complementing these developer resources, some software companies have started to offer "developer days," where technical experts from the software company come together with customers. Often half-day events, these sessions offer customers greater insight into product-specific features and functionality as well as an opportunity to provide input into product design.

Training and Measurement

Software companies that prize long-term customer relationships should always look to improve their support programs through training and ongoing feedback initiatives. The true mark of a smart support organization is one that constantly monitors the rate of cases opened and closed and overall customer satisfaction. As such, feedback initiatives both measured from within the organization and driven by independent satisfaction consultants are an extremely important part of a healthy support program.

Seeking feedback from customers all of the time - not just at renewal time - is a critical but often overlooked way for software vendors to gather intelligence data, increase customer satisfaction and foster loyalty.

For example, service advisory councils are a good way to maintain a steady level of customer input flowing through the organization at all times. Often comprised of the company's most vocal customers, service advisory councils enable vendors to connect with the end user through monthly surveys and regular in-person meetings to help identify areas needing improvement in support offerings and processes.

While there are a number of ways a company can measure the success of its customer support program and solicit feedback from end users, some of the best input comes from third-party satisfaction and retention experts.

One such company is the Omega Management Group, grounded in the service side of a wide cross-section of industries and specialists in measuring the quality of a company's products and service. Omega administers a variety of survey types and training programs to help software companies measure, monitor and gain objective, actionable advice and customer intelligence data to increase satisfaction rates and drive customer loyalty. Omega also sponsors annual awards to honor organizations for outstanding customer service and a strong commitment to customer satisfaction.

In addition to groups like Omega, software support operations can benefit from affiliation with industry organizations like the Technical Support Alliance Network (TSANet). The technology industry's largest vendor-neutral support alliance, TSANet provides a forum to facilitate servicing multivendor customers and an infrastructure for more efficient multivendor problem solving. Membership consists of more than 100 software and hardware companies, enabling their customers to improve resolution times for issues which involve multiple vendors.

The quality of technical support from one software vendor to the next can vary drastically depending on the depth of their services and understanding of customer satisfaction. However, across all means of support operations, the underlying indicator of a strong service team is one that places an emphasis on personal relationships through customized support and commitment to their customers' needs.

By aligning service priorities with those of their customers, companies with leading support organizations will be the ones to exceed the needs of their end users while building long and profitable customer relationships.

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