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General Expectations

Although certain ASP players like software or hardware vendors may not traditionally excel at service, if they are involved in an ASP coalition, their partners should. Inasmuch as ASPs offer services virtually, and CRM has become a common practice, you may differentiate ASPs according to how well they carry out major CRM practices. Although not mandatory, ASPs may aspire to achieve CRM benchmarks to be more competitive.

CRM is the process of combining an ASP's best business practices, optimized work processes, apt technology, and relevant knowledge to service customers better and retain their business. However, CRM is not merely a means of guarding the customer assets that an ASP already has. The business intelligence and opportunities for customer interaction that it engenders also help the ASP more effectively market to customers and grow the services they use. This attitude transforms customer service from a reactive chore into proactive prospecting for increased business. Although this is good for the ASP (it transforms customer service from being a cost drain into being a profit engine), it is good for you too (it uses the ASP's basic business motive, profit, to promote superior customer service). Accordingly, although an ASP may win more of your business, your value for your dollar usually increases dramatically via bundling discounts and other bonuses.

To begin with, ASPs should minimize confusion by designating which of their employees may have contact with you. If certain IT personnel worked for months with your IT staff to customize the application, the ASP might capitalize on that personal relationship by also having one or more of that group do ongoing troubleshooting for you. Similarly, specific call center agents, customer account managers, and other liaisons often deal consistently with the same customers. These more consistent and intimate human encounters, whether it's an account manager solving a problem or a sales rep making a new service suggestion, are known as "moments of truth" in the customer interaction cycle. By exploiting them, ASPs keep you happy in the short term and keep your business in the long run.

By managing the customer interaction cycle from end to end with appropriate technology, the ASP can humanly "touch" you more often and more efficiently and boost its bottom line. For instance, an ASP might use integrated telephony tools to enable customer service personnel not only to communicate with you but also to access your service and billing history and to compare notes to satisfy you better.

Minimizing wasted time is also key to superior customer relations. Studies have shown, for instance, that the average user can tolerate about a two-second response time in applications they use regularly. Greater delay usually upsets their work rhythms so that, for instance, a manager approving loans forwarded to her in a workflow system might forget why she accessed a document, especially if phone calls interrupt, by the time it appears on the screen. The cumulative affect of such delays undermines service personnel efficiency.

Likewise, studies indicate that customers contacting a call center can tolerate about a four-second wait to speak to a representative. Most professional call centers make it mandatory that agents pick up before the third ring, for example. However, if they then put you on hold for 10 minutes, they've ruined a good first impression. Instead of putting you on hold, agents should always direct you to an expert who can resolve your issue. Prompt communication is especially important in an ASP setting because your user cannot physically contact the ASP. With installed applications, IT personnel and users tend to get to know one another and users will, if needed, walk down to the IT department and get someone to fix a time-sensitive problem. Users of hosted applications have no such outlet for their frustration.

The more methods an ASP uses to quantify its staff's customer service activities, the better. The ASP can offer bonuses to individuals who excel in this area, assign them to the busiest shifts in the call center, use them to train less adept agents, and so on. For instance, if—to resolve issues—an agent averages three minutes per customer call and rarely hands off to other experts or rarely makes multiple callbacks to customers, you have no grounds for complaint. However, if another agent averages 15 minutes per call and makes excessive handoffs and callbacks, then they are wasting your time.

Although putting the best agents on the busiest shifts is generally a good call center policy, putting more of them on those shifts is usually critical. For your monthly fee, you expect an ASP to have done its homework and to have calculated the cost of expedient customer service into the price of the service. By doing things like maintaining records of your behavior over time, ASPs can better predict busy periods to plan adequately for them.

Putting a face on virtual service promotes intimacy, and intimacy usually leads to customer trust and a long-standing business relationship. ASPs should pursue relationships as well as sales. Not only is this a fundamental premise of customer service, but CRM studies have shown that a long relationship with one customer is much more profitable than separate brief relationships with multiple customers. The marketing, administrative, and other costs associated with winning new customers or winning back dissatisfied ones can hurt both the ASP's bottom line and—as important for ASPs balancing their own payments to their service providers—its cash flow. The same goes for you. Changing ASPs, although easier than overhauling installed systems, drives up your costs and wastes time.

A related point is also true. In most cases, ASPs will give superior service to the 20% of customers that bring in 80% of their revenues. This is not to say that other customers get poor service as a result. Often, to avoid this, ASPs will offer tiered customer service plans—like Silver, Gold, or Platinum—so that customers can purchase different levels of customer service according to their budgets. For instance, Platinum might get a customer a phone response from an IT expert within five minutes of the inquiry and a guarantee that any application problem will be fixed within one hour of the call. Gold and Silver levels might merit a less-prompt response. The ASP may even provide incentive for customers to lease more services by offering Platinum customer service at the cost of Silver if they spend a minimum amount monthly. Neither strategy shortchanges you unless the resulting service proves insufficient to meet your anticipated requirements.

You have to remember, ASPs are in business to make money. If your excessive service demands consistently outweigh the revenues you bring the ASP, it's likely the ASP will pay less attention to them in the hopes you'll sign on with someone else.

You may save yourself a lot of trouble by, in addition to checking the ASP's reference accounts, finding out the number of customers an ASP has had and the length of the relationships. Numerous short engagements usually indicate either customer dissatisfaction or frequent revisions to an ASP's business plan and strategic mission. Neither suggests stability. Relationships, on the other hand, indicate customer satisfaction and intelligent business strategy as well as commitment to a market and financial stability.

Ideally, the ASP should offer such bulletproof hosted applications that you never tax the resources of its customer service personnel. However, it's probably reasonable to assume that the more customers an ASP has, the more likely something will go wrong.

Nevertheless, you should expect customer service commensurate the requirements of your hosted solutions for the duration of your contract. If your ASP fails to understand that customer service is both your right and an ongoing process, then it does not have your best interests at heart and should not have your business long term.

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