Part 9 of 9
Customer support takes on greater importance for SaaS solutions – clients can vote with their feet and go elsewhere if they are unhappy with a vendor or the perceived value of a solution, and churn rates go up. Customer support is also an important element of the on-going sales process, finding opportunities to drive more value for a client by helping them expand the usage of your solution.
Supporting traditional services clients is different from supporting SaaS clients. While the basic objectives are the same – fix problems and increase customer satisfaction, the client expectations and your delivery platforms can be very different.
For one thing, as in so many other ways, you are penalized by the financial model. You will be collecting your revenues over time, but you absorb the customer acquisition and onboarding costs up-front. The more you spend resolving problems during onboarding, the longer it will take before you reach your break-even point from the monthly payments.
Speed is essential with SaaS. Customers today expect issues to be resolved quickly, which is one of the reasons it is important to build automation and self-service support platforms into your customer support.
Another difference is a key business requirement that is driving SaaS adoption – mobility. If you are catering to this market, your support platforms need to be available on mobile devices as well.
Additionally, support moves from internal IT to you, the vendor. With an on-premise solution, the users within a company would call IT. Now they will be contacting you instead. This means you will be dealing with less savvy users. All of those questions the internal IT person could answer will come back to you, and many of them will be questions about functionality. “How do I print a document?” “How do I change a field from green to blue?”
As a result, you will want to provide support that is less technical and more user-friendly. In many ways you will need to dumb down your support.
To the extent possible, you should try to eliminate the need for support before it even becomes an issue:
- A lot of issues come up during the deployment, especially in the enterprise market. With on-premise software, you or your partner would be quite happy to send a team of people on-site and bill for the implementation. SaaS clients, even in the corporate market, are increasingly looking for quick and inexpensive deployments. Across a wide range of technologies and verticals, we have seen SaaS solutions that are doing well, almost always offer a standardized remote deployment package, with fees ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand;
- Developers need to understand how the new breed of clients think and use technology. Rotate your developers through a few shifts in customer support to answer questions. Chances are, they will find ways to modify the product to help eliminate those issues;
- Usability labs can be a great way to test out your installation process during your product development;
- If you can, you should consider building pro-active notification into the technology – a system that automatically alerts users to known issues that can impact performance. It is all about communications and heading your clients off at the pass before they feel the need to pick up the phone and call you.
When you sell an on-premise solution to a customer, your knowledge of how the product is being used pretty much stops at the door. They may have purchased a 500-user license, but you have no way of really knowing how many people are using it, what features and functions are the most popular, or the problems people run into that discourage them from using your solution. This all changes when you move to SaaS.
If you have an analytics engine built in, you will be able to track which features and functions are being used. You might find that 80 percent of your customers are using a function that you thought was unimportant. How much are they consuming and what are the consumption patterns?
If the analytics engine is able to collect information on workflows, you can start to identify issues that impact productivity.
And you will be able to measure response times. In a client-server environment, customers are used to immediate response times. In the Cloud, latency can be a real source of frustration, especially for real-time applications. Tracking response times could trigger a decision to set up your application in a second data center so you are closer to your clients. This would reduce a lot of support calls for something you have no control over.
And finally, the analytics engine should be integrated with your back-end support automation, to make the customer case management and trouble-ticket processing more efficient.
Customer support programs can come in different shapes and sizes depending on the price and complexity of the solution. Some of the variables include:
- Your availability – something that will usually be documented in your Service Level Agreement (SLA). In the SaaS world, there is an expectation that support will be 24/7, whether this is through an automated platform, live chat or telephone;
- Tiered support programs, for example, with bronze, silver and gold programs. Pricing can be handled in different ways. Sometimes they are baked into the pricing model, so if subscriptions have pricing tiers, support packages would be included in the respective tiers. For others, case support packages are sold independently of the subscription. In this case, a base support package is offered regardless of the price of the subscription and advanced support packages are sold separately;
- The level of automation you use. High-volume, low-priced subscriptions have to have automated, self-service support programs, while complex solutions will require more handholding. You will need to find the balance that is right for you.
The good thing about self-service is SaaS clients overwhelmingly prefer it, in the same way marketing SaaS solutions is becoming self-service. Consumers of SaaS are much more self-sufficient throughout the entire business cycle.
There are a number of self-service platforms you can use, including:
- FAQs, or Frequently Asked Questions, which have been a standard part of software support for a long time. It is simply a collection of questions and answers that have been documented in the past. They are stored in an on-line repository and potentially segmented by category;
- A knowledgebase is more comprehensive than FAQs, collecting more than just questions and answers. It also contains information from a wide range of constituents that can include internal staff, customers and partners. The search capability is more sophisticated than an FAQ and the documents can include both public and private documents, whereas an FAQ is all publicly available. A good knowledgebase platform will also have the ability to create user groups, tagging documents that are relevant to each;
- The next level up in automation involves setting up customer forums, which can be great for generating peer-to-peer support activity. Offering social support through customer forums lowers customer service and support costs while creating a positive customer experience. And since discussion boards or forums have been around in various forms online for quite some time, they offer a framework customers recognize, know how to use and can easily understand.
On-line communities are also becoming a standard support feature. Communities have been around a long time and are widely used in open source. That business model depends on large communities willing to share information and help fellow members resolve problems without any form of direct compensation. There are a number of key components, including FAQs, forums, content and a knowledgebase, so you can see having those components already in place provides a great platform.
It is the additional functionality that makes communities so powerful:
- Online community platforms also have a built-in email listserv so customers or members can participate in forum discussions through their email inboxes and not just online, which is the case with forums;
- Online community software allows you to get a better idea of how and in what capacity your customers are participating, for example, tracking the level of interaction;
- Community analytics also help you learn about your customers’ likes and dislikes regarding your company and products for better decision making on product development, as well as your on-going customer communications;
- Finally, online communities tend to have tighter integration with CRM systems or association management software, which allows you to push or pull data from the two systems and create a better experience for your customers.
Social media should be monitored on a regular basis, and from a business perspective, the pecking order is Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Twitter, in particular, has become a popular place for people to complain about a product or a service. You need to monitor any hashtags that could involve your solution to pick up on any potential discontent as soon as possible.
LinkedIn can, in some ways, be set up to work as your customer community with a closed group. However, it would be better to use a community portal that is optimized for support and interactive communications. There are 100s of solutions available, some of them free. Even the most comprehensive solutions are usually priced at less than $1,000 per month, sometimes much less.
E-mail support can also be incorporated into the system. This is what most companies start with because it can be assigned to an existing resource, such as a tech support person or a sales engineer. It has the benefit of users not expecting an immediate response time. In fact, the auto-response for most e-mail support systems indicates the user will get a response within 24 or 48 hours.
The risk is no one follows up. You should: 1) make it part of someone’s job description to answer the e-mails, and 2) have an internal tracking system.
Another benefit of e-mail is it allows templated responses. Many systems require a description of the problem. Keywords trigger relevant responses; such as links to an FAQ or a knowledge base.
Real-time chat is growing quickly as a preferred form of support. According to the Association of Support Professionals, roughly one-third of companies use it. They found the significant factors for deciding to implement chat support are:
- Deflecting or eliminating telephone and e-mail support cases
- A higher level of customer satisfaction, because they are getting a more immediate response to their issue
- Lower cost per case
- No need to worry about foreign accents and the potential for misunderstandings or frustrations
- It is more personalized than other forms of web-based support
- Each session generates a transcript which helps document disputes or trigger follow-up actions.
Here are some numbers and guidelines you might find useful.
- Live chat isn’t ideal for complex support issues – it just isn’t practical to describe or resolve some issues in a chat window
- Live chat programs are relatively inexpensive, with typical pricing in the $20-40 per user per month range
- At volume, an efficient support person can handle up to three simultaneous chats
- There can be short delays as the support person goes back and forth between chat windows
- Most live chat programs aren’t optimized for mobile.
Complex solutions might require trained telephone tech support personnel. Advantages include:
- This is the highest-touch, personal support for clients, next to going on-site
- Remote desktop sharing can be used to diagnose and potentially fix problems in real time
- It provides the tech support person with more information that can guide the decision to escalate or not, if the problem can’t be fixed over the phone
Some of the disadvantages include:
- It can be inefficient if you have dedicated staff sitting idle waiting for calls
- Conversely, in order to avoid idle staff, calls tend to get backed up, sometimes with wait times creating customer dissatisfaction
- It can be awkward to provide links to other resources without a chat window
- There is often a perception that outsourced call centers in exotic locations sometimes result in misunderstandings due to accents or poor quality phone lines.
Previous blogs in this series
- Every SI should be an IP company
- Repeatable IP – strategic or opportunistic?
- Overcoming the cash flow chasm
- Managing customer acquisition costs (CAC)
- Minimizing churn
- How marketing changes for SaaS solutions
- Building the right sales organization
- Sales compensation
For a complete guide to building a SaaS business model, download our free e-book, with more than 50 pages of valuable insights.