By Bill Pollock, Strategies for Growth
The sellers of today's software products have already learned what their counterparts in the hardware industry have known for years – that it is primarily the ongoing support provided to customers that is key to determining whether their product will become a huge marketing success or merely another undistinguished entry into a commodity-like software arena.
Most vendors have recognized that customers are far more concerned about how their products will ultimately be supported than on how many modules or "bells and whistles" are incorporated into the product packaging. Read on to see why some customers now believe they are not only "buying the product" – they are also "buying the vendor".
Today’s software vendors have learned that they can no longer succeed simply by relying on the same old product-oriented sales promises of the past decade. The market is much more complex and competitive now than it was just 10 years ago, and users are much more sophisticated and discriminating in their choices of software vendors and products. Further, we are finding that application support and customer service are increasingly being considered as equal in importance to software functionality for many prospective users.
While every prospect's evaluation process may be uniquely defined, most tend to place their primary focus on the following 10 aspects of the software vendor's perceived capabilities:
- Sales, marketing and applications expertise, or their full understanding of not only what the software can do, but also how the customer plans to run its applications;
- Application support capabilities, or the ability of the vendor to provide users with customer-specific assistance for "real world" software applications;
- Installation and implementation support, or the ability to get the software up and running promptly while minimizing the degree to which the customer's operations are disrupted during the implementation process;
- Technical support, or the capability to provide continuing, real-time, technical assistance, as required, to assure that system downtime is minimized and the software is being used to its fullest degree of effectiveness and efficiency;
- Training and documentation, or the ability to assist the user in its ability to utilize the full capabilities of the software efficiently;
- Customer service, or the ability to provide continuing assistance and support to assure that the customer is kept at high levels of satisfaction with respect to the use of the software and the benefits of its specific business applications;
- Technology, or the state-of-the-art of the software, its components, features, and user applications;
- Communications, or how the vendor keeps its customers up-to-date concerning new technologies, applications, upgrades, interfaces, "fixes", or additional support offerings that may become available;
- Partnerships and alliances, or the ability to provide additional, "value-added" support capabilities through its various partnerships and alliances with other complementary vertical and/or horizontal industry vendors; and
- Business management, or how the vendor conducts its business and deals with its customers.
Gone are the days where a vendor simply could "throw people" at a software problem to "fix" it. Vendors now must deal more with "fixing the customer" rather than merely "fixing the product." And this requires more than just people resources. First and foremost, it requires sales, marketing, and application expertise. Without this expertise, the vendor has little chance of ever letting the marketplace know exactly what it has to offer, and how its software may deliver the solution that its users require. The vendor's sales, marketing, and application activities normally represent the first introduction that many potential users will have concerning the vendor and its software offerings and, as such, is a critical point at which the vendor must make a good first impression.
Once the potential user becomes aware of the vendor and its products, the vendor's application support capabilities become the principal area of focus. Without the perceived ability of the vendor to support the specific needs and requirements of the user, there will be little chance of making the sale. This is true both for customized software where the needs of an individual customer are of the greatest importance, as well as for off-the-shelf software where the needs of an entire market segment are the primary focus.
Installation and implementation support are the next most critical elements of concern. However, these areas become important well before the actual implementation takes place. In fact, they typically represent a major focal point of the sales proposal that eventually gets the vendor the sale in the first place. Most users will look for new system implementation support that is of minimal duration and with minimal disruption to their ability to conduct their normal day-to-day business activities.
Technical support is the common thread that links the vendor with the customer throughout the entire life of the system usage. It typically represents the core of the actual day-to-day communications and support lifeline between the vendor and user and is one of the most visible elements of any vendor-customer relationship. In many cases, it is the quality of the ongoing technical support that "pulls" the customer in and keeps it "in the fold" concerning future software purchases, upgrades, modifications, and system integrations.
Training and documentation are also important to the software purchase decision; particularly for those customers that hope to gain maximum control over their ability to use the software capabilities to the fullest, as well as be prepared to perform impromptu troubleshooting should the situation arise. Many users look for vendors who are not afraid to empower their customers with the ability to "partner" with them in terms of maximizing system utilization, identifying, and resolving problems, and "sharing" overall system support.
The cornerstone of all vendor-customer relationships is customer service. Without the perception of good customer service, even a vendor with an acknowledged superior software product would still have a great degree of difficulty in penetrating the market. Numerous studies have shown that superior service can "pull-through" product sales. No market is more influenced by this phenomenon than the software product support market.
While technology is an area that generates much initial publicity, press, and public awareness, in most cases users are not buying technology; they are buying solutions. Still, it is incumbent in the high-tech industries, such as the services-related software market, to be perceived as being at the vanguard of technology, and applying that technology directly to the needs, requirements, and solutions of the marketplace.
Communications, in and of itself, may not be the most important item "purchased" along with the software; but without it, users typically feel like they have simply bought a package "off the rack", without any appreciable degree of after-sales support. By selecting a vendor that regularly communicates with them, customers believe that they have entered into a "partnership" with their vendor; a relationship that will continually provide them with updates, announcements, information, input and feedback that they, as users, feel they should be receiving to keep them current with the software they will be using on a day-to-day basis.
Partnerships and alliances also reflect a relatively new environment for most vendors. In the past, either one vendor attempted to "offer it all" to its customers, or it was not available anywhere else. Today, however, many vendors have entered into alliances with "complementary" partners that provide "value-added" products and services to support a "full suite" of applications and solutions to the end user. A good example of this would be the partnering of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software vendors with Field Service Management (FSM) solutions providers.
Finally, the item that makes it all gel; business management. When a user "buys" a software vendor, it is not only "buying" the product, it is "buying" all of the items described above, including the ability of the vendor to manage its business affairs in a manner that is commensurate with how its customers want to be treated themselves. Users do not want to get involved with vendors that cannot manage their business affairs. The question would then have to arise, "If they cannot manage their business affairs properly, how can I expect them to adequately support mine?"
The most successful software vendors are those that can back up their claims for implementation and application support by providing the expertise and resources to get the job done in a real-world business environment. Whether a software vendor utilizes on-site technical support; telephone helpdesk support; self-help support via the internet, or any other means, there is clearly a movement away from the traditional mode of simply "throwing" software engineers at a problem.
What many of the leading software vendors have now recognized is that by sharing all of their capabilities and resources with their customers, it becomes a "win-win" situation for both the user and the vendor. We believe that it will be primarily through this growing user-vendor partnership that full life cycle support for new software releases can ultimately be provided.