Building support capabilities to achieve differentiation

Perhaps contrary to popular belief, it is the small and medium size business (SMB) sector that leads the way in using support capabilities to secure long-term competitive differentiation and to lock in long-term customer loyalty. Integrating support capabilities into products and services does require a structured approach – based on people, process and technology. Fortunately several Customer Relationship management (CRM) software vendors understand the significance of helping organizations with their support capabilities. These vendors have built CRM software modules that include valuable support capabilities.

There also are a number of support trends that are beginning to change the way companies offer their products and services. Assuming an organization is serious about achieving long-term differentiation, building support capabilities into an organization’s products and services is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but rather a ‘need to have’. Given the varied use of terms in the industry, customer call, contact, interaction, service and support center have been used interchangeably.

Long-Term differentiation through support capabilities

While an organization can differentiate their products and services from those of the competition in the short term, in the long term all products become commodities. Why? Because an organization’s products and services may have an advantage over the competition one moment, but the next moment this advantage reverses. What this means is that competitive products and services, tied together with excellent customer support has become the most effective combination to differentiate an organization’s products and services in the long-term. Here is an example.

Company X is a global apparel manufacturer, concentrating on the teenager segment. As an active listener to their customers and to the marketplace, Company X knows that their products are perceived to be among the very best. They also know that they need to continuously improve their relationships with employees as well as with their retailer distribution channel. So Company X’s top management team has taken the decision to make support capabilities a key component of their long-term differentiation strategy. For example, for internal customers, Company X has launched a significant service management strategy whereby employees will have direct access via personalized portals to all types of company support functions ranging from the IT help desk to new job postings.

For their external customers, Company X has launched significant self-service capabilities for the smaller retailers. These retailers are now electronically linked to Company X; they place their orders, confirm stock availability, make payments, and lock on delivery dates on-line. For the mid-size retailers, Company X has opted to create multiple retailer segments, to build comprehensive customer profiles for each retailer segment, and to provide different levels of support per retailer segment. Within one such segment, Company X now utilizes wireless, handheld devices to take stock, to automatically generate replenishment orders, and to confirm in real-time dependable delivery dates. For the largest retailers, Company X has created an impressive account team program filled with tailored support capabilities. Each retailer account team has access to a common retailer profile, performs retailer planning, and delivers and monitors negotiated service levels on a daily basis. While the results are still being monitored, enhancing Company X’s products with support capabilities appears to be a sure way for them to secure product differentiation and long-term customer loyalty.

Start mastering support capabilities from within the organization

While support capabilities are eventually offered to an organization’s external customers, best in class support organizations confirm that the optimal way to perfect the process is to initially practice and support capabilities internally. Internal support capabilities may include, for example, IT services such as help desk support, asset management, hardware support, mobile computing support, and or network and systems management support. The idea behind mastering support capabilities from within is to demonstrate to employees, using real-life situations, how to achieve superior support capabilities.

This will also allow employees to feel the value of receiving the superior support that ultimately all customers crave. Based on this experience, when the time comes to extend support capabilities to external customers, happy internal customers take pleasure in going the extra mile to drive support excellence. Mastering support capabilities from within is exactly how the City of Des Moines, IA successfully built its well-documented Citizen Response System. The City of Des Moines strived to be one of the best-run cities in the country and wanted to automate the way in which it received, managed, responded to and ultimately resolved requests from its 200,000 citizens. The city had already implemented the HEAT Service & Support software solution, to assist its internal IT help desk in managing calls and providing problem resolution for users of its computer and network systems. After examining a range of possible solutions, the city’s process improvement team decided to leverage their internal support experience and settled on using HEAT as the logical extension for their external Citizen Response System initiative.

Getting Your Support Capabilities Right – What support capabilities are needed? While this will differ for each company, here are some essential components for internal support as exemplified by the internal IT Help Desk and for external support as exemplified by the external Customer Support Center.

IT Help Desk – Since adoption of distributed computing, IT departments have been faced with an increasingly difficult task of managing the support of IT services. The arrival of e-business has led to additional pressures on IT departments to provide things such as access to Internet-based applications 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Needless to say, this has amplified the need for a well thought-out IT help desk strategy, inclusive of effective processes (e.g., problem resolution), appropriate levels of technology (e.g., remote support tools), and a comprehensive data architecture. Poor implementation of the IT help desk can result not only in failure to realize the benefits of applying process enhancement and automation, but more importantly potential damage to the IT department’s reputation.

Customer Support Center – While there is commonalities with IT help desks, customer support centers tend to capture customer data into applications that enable more focused customer service and an increased emphasis on first-interaction resolution. Customer support centers also use this customer data to identify and realize cross and up-sell opportunities, determine future marketing activities, and offer more personalized interactions. Critical to the success of a customer support center is the company’s ability to employ ‘customer-sensitive’ personnel, train them well, and put into place the best tools and processes for helping these personnel deliver the ‘optimal customer experience’ each and every time.

Here then are some common and some unique service capabilities that a company will want to consider in support of long-term differentiation.

Start mastering support capabilities from within the organization

  • Logging of problem calls/emails
  • Assigning one owner to each problem
  • Escalating problems as needed
  • Tracking problems through to resolution
  • Building a resolution knowledge base for use by both internal personnel and eventually external customers . Identifying problem trends, and recommending pro-active corrections (e.g., product modification or enhanced training)

Unique functions for the IT help desk include:

  • Supporting and tracking configuration changes, tracking IT inventory, and managing the company’s IT assets
  • Creating and implementing meaningful service level agreements
  • Developing and utilizing management reports for evaluating vendor equipment, improving service-level agreements, and for proactively servicing IT-related customer issues

Unique functions for the customer support center include:

  • Dispatching and field servicing
  • Cross-selling and up-selling
  • Managing opportunities
  • Determining appropriate marketing activities (e.g., permission-based marketing)
  • Promoting personalized interactions (e.g., via personalized portals)