Running a Tech Support Department on SaaS

January 7, 2007 Appirio

There is a quiet revolution taking place in Technical Support departments. Without fanfare or a major marketing push, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is making real inroads, displacing traditional technologies.

Call Centers – The Last Bastion of Change
The “call center,” an old-fashioned label still applied even to high-end complex support departments, is one of the last bastions against change. The same vendors sell the same solutions, year after year, into what has become a stale marketplace. But this staleness has indirectly created a virtuous circle – as vendors have essentially lost interest in their now-commodized products, and their quality and innovation have slipped noticeably, today’s generation of support executives has begun to embrace solutions that provide more reliability and flexibility. What has begun as a ripple will soon grow to a full-blown tidal wave as SaaS moves into the heart of the call center.

Online Chat – SaaS Enters the Scene
Many support shops began experimenting with SaaS – without fully realizing it, or categorizing their efforts as “SaaS experiments” – when they started rolling out online chat several years ago. Vendors such as LivePerson, InstantService, Proficient(now acquired by LivePerson), and NetSupport 24-7 allowed support agents to use an important new channel – instant messaging – to talk to customers. Nobody called it “SaaS,” but it was a textbook example – no servers for the customer to install, and a true multi-tenant architecture at the vendor. Support executives noticed how easy it all was to set up and maintain – an early taste of the “freedom from IT” that has made SaaS so popular in the sales force automation (SFA) market.

Customer Surveys – SaaS Is The Answer
Customer surveys were another early area of SaaS adoption for technical support. At one Appirio employee’s former company three years ago, an eager support engineer wrote a survey system from scratch. Six months later they migrated their surveys to QuestionPro – it was just too hard to keep up with server status, change requests, bug fixes, database issues, and the like. More importantly, there was no reason to even try. Plenty of vendors offered robust survey solutions for surprisingly low fees – not just QuestionPro, but Clicktools, ZipSurvey, and others. The common denominator? All are true hosted SaaS solutions – with robust web-based configuration tools, 24×7 availability, and easy access. Even for a bunch of techies such as support team managers, the lure of ease-of-use trumps NIH (“not invented here”) every time. If a manager wants to change a survey question or view recent survey results, she can simply call up a URL – instead of asking “hey, who wrote that survey app for us? Where’s it hosted again? Do you remember how to get a database extract?”

You Mean SaaS Can Even Run My Phone Systems?
More recently, support managers, tired of dealing with instability and vendor indifference, have started looking for solutions to more traditional support-related services, like telephone automatic call distribution (ACD) and interactive voice response (IVR) systems. Traditional ACD/IVR vendors like Aspect and Lucent still, in 2007, product archaic documentation, impossible-to-configure products, and expensive hardware that requires dedicated IT staff. Support managers quickly learn to stop asking for configuration changes, and make the best with what they’ve got. Then, they learn of an alternative – SaaS ACD vendors such as Angel.com, Contactual, and UCN InContact, along with IVR vendors like Angel.com, Metaphor, and Five9. At first, it seems too good to be true – hosted ACD? But the success stories are starting to pile up – support teams can now change their queues and routing rules on-the-fly, troubleshoot problems without IT’s assistance, and react more quickly to their customers’ demands.

The Final CRM Frontier – Case and Contract Management
We are at an inflection point today in the support industry. Nearly all support shops are now running some combination of SaaS applications. But relatively few have taken the plunge and converted their core CRM case and contract management systems to SaaS. Vendors such as Salesforce.com are turning their focus from SFA – an increasingly saturated SaaS market – to Service & Support (S&S) systems. Their S&S product offerings are quickly maturing as the vendors dedicate ever-larger proportions of the R&D budget to S&S. SaaS is a natural fit for the support shop – especially within companies that have already adopted SaaS-based SFA solutions. Where the sales department has broken off from the corporate IT infrastructure to run their businesses on SaaS, the support department can now re-join the system and share a common customer data model. The legacy vendors in S&S have grown just as stale as those in ACD and IVR – just one glance at the agent GUIs offered today in systems from Oracle (Siebel, Vantive), Amdocs (Clarify), and BMC (Remedy) will confirm that these vendors have downshifted into maintenance mode. In contrast, SaaS vendors are innovating at a torrid pace, creating an inviting environment for any support professional interested in experimenting with new ways to better serve customers.

To be sure, SaaS vendors have a tough battle ahead in order to grab their share of the dollars currently being sent to the likes of Oracle and Amdocs for product maintenance. But support executives won’t keep sending in their annual maintenance check much longer, especially when they compare the size of these hefty payments to the cost of the same number of seats with a SaaS S&S vendor. The proven track record for SaaS in the call center has paved the way for the ultimate shift – a serverless call center, relying fully on SaaS vendors for all its operations.

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