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ASP Customer Service and Technical Support

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John Harney outlines what you should expect from you Application Service Provider in terms of customer and tech support — from the moment you log on to their web page to review their product, to testing, training, maintenance, and upgrades.
This chapter is excerpted from Application Service Providers: A Manager's Guide.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter discusses

  • Service provision
  • Implementation estimates
  • System sizing
  • Platform preparation
  • Client preparation
  • Customization
  • User policies
  • Data conversion
  • Testing and quality assurance (QA)
  • Training
  • Going live
  • Maintenance and upgrades
  • Monitoring and reporting
  • Call centers
  • Billing and mediation

Several factors contribute to the unique nature of ASP customer support. To begin with, in the ASP business model, the ASP guarantees near-bulletproof operation of the hosted application. So you expect that very little will go wrong and, if it does, that it will be fixed without untenable interruption of your core business. Obviously an ASP must support more than an application. It's also responsible for servers, the enabling software platform, storage, network, and physical infrastructure such as the data center.

The scope of support is much greater than for a conventional IT company like a software vendor, whose help desk personnel need address only a fairly predictable set of problems—things like software patches, hardware compatibility, upgrades, and so forth. With installed applications, especially mission-critical ones, the customer usually keeps support staff on-site or on-call around-the-clock to enable prompt troubleshooting. For the most part, ASP support personnel are not located on-site at the customer premises. In an ASP virtual support environment, staff are much more dependent on monitoring and remote support equipment to solve problems quickly. Obviously, that equipment, as well as the hosted application and other components of the total ASP solution, must also be absolutely dependable. Of course, because an ASP is the sum operation of multiple software, network, and other players, the partners are dependent on each other for reliability. And although partners typically have equity relationships or SLAs that provide them incentive to promote top performance, nevertheless, one broken link in the ASP chain can undermine all others. Players like telcos partnering with software vendors, for instance, might not be expert at supporting complex software, even though they are extremely qualified at troubleshooting problems with voice networks.

To complicate matters, the nature of IT support in general has become multidimensional. Call centers, for instance, increasingly handle queries by phone, e-mail, fax, and whatever other medium the customer prefers. They prioritize problems and address them accordingly. They use workflow and other systems to route specialized queries from the customer service representative (CSR) to, say, a database expert. They are increasingly aggressive in marketing their products and services to customers at every opportunity. For instance, if a CSR knows a new software release is ready, he may refer a customer to the sales department to buy an upgrade for $50 instead of to a database administrator for temporary troubleshooting. Yet customers expect all queries to be handled promptly and efficiently. And, with comparable IT functionality becoming more generally available from multiple vendors, vendors now realize that customer service is a key competitive differentiator.

Compared with traditional customer service and technical support, ASP customer support is complex. But to you, the customer, it should never seem so. Most of you want to call one number and have problems fixed quickly. When you call, you should be able to explain the problem very easily and have the support person understand and deal with it. For instance, you don't want to be on the phone for 30 minutes trying to explain a database problem to a network specialist because the CSR misdiagnosed the problem and transferred you to the wrong expert.

However, with more than 1,500 ASPs operating worldwide, not all of them understand or offer full-featured virtual customer service and technical support. This is especially true of small ASPs specializing in one or two very focused applications. Often these companies were service bureaus or VARs with modest sales and support programs, and they may tend to trivialize this aspect of an IT operation. This is not to say these smaller ASPs are necessarily slipshod when it comes to support. Indeed, their narrow focus may require fewer value-added services like complex support.

On the other hand, customer service—like security, storage, and infrastructure back ends—will likely become more outsourced and specialized as the industry matures. One call center may support six different ASPs by using the ASP's staff or by training their own. Such personnel could easily handle these low-level problems and pass on more difficult ones to an in-house support department at each ASP. Infrastructure service providers and MSPs will also absorb many platform monitoring and maintenance tasks from ASPs. It's not unlikely that they will specialize in supporting certain ASP operating systems, hardware platforms, networks, applications, and, possibly, vertical markets. However, although diversification and specialization are inevitable in any industry, the ASP industry will have to counterbalance that tendency with its marketing promise of providing a simple, all-in-one solution on a single bill.

Up-front Customer Service

ASP customer service starts as soon as you log on to the ASP's Web page or call its sales department to inquire about leasing an application. If you are inquiring about pricing and deployment time and it's not clearly conveyed by the Web site or by the sales rep, then that shortcoming may be indicative of the service your hosted application will receive later.

If you decide to lease, you can subscribe to out-of-the-box applications, like hosted e-mail, usually right on the Web site by virtually signing up and choosing your price/service level like Silver, Gold, or Platinum. Service can be up the same day. More complicated enterprise applications that require integration may take months. Many turnkey enterprise applications, though, require much less preparation, and subscribing is relatively quick and painless. Part of the subscription process also involves defining the terms of the SLA. Many ASPs offer standard SLAs that you can't amend, whereas others will negotiate special terms.

Then the ASP must provision the service by setting up, turning on, or ordering the following components before deploying the application:

  • Network—Capacity, quality of service, connection to customer via local provider, and so on

  • System platform—Extra storage devices, client installation/upgrade, middleware, and so on

  • Application—User names, and so on

  • Servers—Shared or dedicated, disk capacity, chip power, and so on

  • Billing—Customer billing data, and so on

  • Reporting/monitoring—Real-time or historical, the metrics to be monitored, and so on

  • Security—User profiles and policies, and so on

This activity, however, is still preliminary to the service relationship between you and the ASP throughout implementation.

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