Customer Support for Cloud Services – Expectations

December 18, 2012 Leave a comment

cloudThis is the first post of a series on how the profile of technical support is evolving with the advent of Cloud Computing.

I have worked with these kinds of services for over ten years now, starting back when a cloud on a diagram meant the internet in general, and as new providers and consumers come into the market it is worth sharing a few personal recommendations and considerations.

My hope is that support is not an after-thought and is considered as a core part of cloud service design.

Accessing applications over the internet is hardly new, but exactly what is being offered has reached a tipping point. Using just a modern web browser and a standard internet connection, it is now finally practical to access the internal business systems that were previously the reason people had to travel to an office. Evolution of I.T. security, networking capabilities, and user interface technologies has finally untethered corporate workers, not to mention allowed the delegation of their provision to expert teams, including from outside the organization.

This is all fabulous, however the reality of trying to work with Business Applications that are managed, maintained, and supported externally contains many subtle considerations that many providers seem to leave as an after-thought.

  • Transparent Processes. Often consumers of cloud services are frustrated by the fact they cannot get administrative tasks done quickly. This can be just as bad internally too, however usually someone knows someone who can help. Once you step outside the organization, the provider creates a process black-hole. As such everyone should be clear how each main category of request is raised, and who is responsible for its completion.
  • Severity Setting. If googlemail is unavailable it’s not critical but if work tasks are impossible things escalate quickly. Many people like to use the utility metaphor, inferring uninterrupted operation and consistent quality, but I think it’s more like TV service than water or power, as even a slight or temporary change in quality is obvious. Any issue that impedes task completion is inherently critical, so automatic fail-over or temporary workarounds need to be readily at hand.
  • Time To Resolution.Β  Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) are certainly good in principle, however they’re often vague commitments based on operating targets, with little negotiation available to include additional consumer requirements. A classic is the response time targets for different categories of problem, where the actual quality of the response is not-specified, meaning that it could just be an update saying thank you and they’re looking into the issue.
  • Service Administration. Like SLA’s, custom service provision is not scalable, however Business Applications require a certain amount of options. Just like website providers offer pre-built templates, utility tools, and ready-to-install components, the Application provider should consider what value-add services surround the applications use and how these can be implemented in a hands-off, totally reliable way. One example I have seen is a integration hub that allows setup and management of messages in-and-out of the application.
  • Functional Administration – Business Applications rely on extensive feature setup, and some of these items have dependencies that spill over into the technology stack. As such it should be documented exactly which features can be configured under the different levels of access available, including what might require assistance of the service provider – and how to get this completed.
  • Technical Administration – With cloud services now including Platform and Infrastructure as a Service, the provision of administrative consoles and management tools to service consumers should not be of concern. The problem is that for Applications they often run in standardized technology stack configurations that are locked-down to ensure consistency and reliability. Also multi-tenant deployments helps provider cheaper services but prevents any one consumer from changing the underlying shared technology components.
  • Configuration and Customization – In exactly the same way, messing with configurations and adding custom objects and code impacts standardization, the foundation of scalable service provision. Modern applications solutions understand the requirement and are offering ways that abstract changes away from the core instance, thereby retaining the stable base whilst offering the features demanding businesses require. More on this in future posts.
  • Troubleshooting Tools – They key here is to understand WHO is expected to do WHAT and WHEN, and WHICH tools are available to do it. Often cloud-based applications offer some diagnostic tools, however they are rarely publicized and getting solutions requires the service providers input, slowing things down considerably.

Future posts will illustrate in more detail how various features and recommendations can be used to enhance these tricky parts of Cloud support.

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My New Book #4 – Is that a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel?

December 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Hard Work

As the end of the year approaches the first book-related post to my blog reminds me that its nearly 12months since the inception of this project.

But although the end is almost in sight it seems that it’s taken an inordinate amount of time to get here.

Oh well, at least progress is being made even if it’s slow. Here are the highlights from the last month or two:

  • Delivered Chapter 7 First Write on (new) target date – 23rd November. This one was a big one since a chapter on managing performance is a good chunk of what I think the reader will want. Good amount of graphics again, as I work hard to show real examples of the tools and techniques I am describing. Also means my descriptions on have to be exhaustive making for a nicer experience for everyone.
  • Got some more Technical Edits back, comments all seem to make sense with some really valuable suggestions. I especially liked adding more consideration of use-case into my toolbox chapters. As such I am including an extra index table in each, orientated around which tools you might use during Troubleshooting, Monitoring, and Managing scenarios. Am still going to work on the incorp’s/changes once the first writes are done.
  • Also transitioned into a new job in my company, somewhat thanks to the books to help me get noticed. This currently means a little more writing-time during my UK evenings, as I am now out of numerous calls set on US west-coast time. Probably temporary as the new role ramps up, but the break is really helping getting more time to write.
  • Delivered Chapter 8 First Write pretty much on time – 18th Dec 2012, having sneaked in an extra weekend to finish it off. Mentioned to my publisher that I’m including a larger number of graphics that I had originally planned, roughly 1 per page of text, and despite the potential higher production costs it will produce much richer content. Most are actually screenshots so get printed pretty much as-is, keeping costs lower.
  • Given myself a little extra time for Chapter 9, the final of the larger toolbox chapters, so I get to enjoy a little time off over Christmas and New Year.
Categories: NewBook Tags: , ,

My New Book #3

October 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Got a bit behind in keeping the blog posting of this project. Don’t think anyone missed it however doing this more for future reference than anything else.

Anyway, here is a bit of detail to bring things up-to-date, and I’ll try to keep this moving with some insights/tips too.

  • I decided to defer doing the Introduction until the end of writing, so I can properly describe what is in the book. Hopefully it’s not far from what I intend, but you can never tell!
  • Chapter 1 First Write completed on target 13th July 2012. Few more pages than I expected, and flow needsΒ  a bit fine-tuning, but its a good first draft I think.
  • Chapter 2 First Write completed on target 25th July 2012. Nice to rework and refine my ‘model’ created in my first book.
  • Started getting my Technical Editor feedback on chapters. Doing the incorporation of these comments after the full first write, however obviously noting significant items so I don’t keep making the same mistakes!
  • Chapter 3 First Write completed on target 24 August 2012. Again good to rework existing material than start from scratch. Much easier.
  • Person responsible for the book art (3rd party consultant) gave feedback on some samples I sent. A few adjustments to my PC settings for screenshots needed, but seem OK otherwise.
  • Chapter 4 First Write completed on target 14 Sept 2012. A small chapter that bring together the others and launches the next 5 big sections.
  • Chapter 5 First Write completed on target 28 Sept 2012. This was tough as is all new stuff. Also I was traveling on business which actually helped give me the time at the end. Loads of great new content though.
  • Chapter 6 First Write didn’t work with my original target of 12th Oct 2012, just not enough time with some other major commitments in that period. Fortunately my nice publisher agreed on schedule rejig which means new achievable target.
  • Probably around 60 art items created so far, am hoping the visuals enrich my words.
Categories: NewBook

My New Book #2

Recent progress on writing my book – Research and the writing begins:

 

  • The contract/agreement from the publisher finally came through. Detail on advance payment was a nice surprise as wasn’t included last time around. Not loads of money after taxes and exchange rate, but an incentive for sure (staged payments upon manuscript delivery). Needs printing and copies signed and fedex’d back. 19-June-2012
  • Found a very similar titled book, but from more than ten years ago. Different content but shows my draft title is a bit misleading/unsuitable (originated from publisher). Shared this with the publisher and agreed to revise. Have to delay contract signing until this is firmed up. 20-June-2012
  • Sent out request to my best technical contacts to ask if they’d be Technical Editors for the book (review and feedback). Amazingly each one agreed! One (Scott) is very experienced at this and works inside our development org, so will be great. The other (Jim) is a real hands-on guy, generally regarded as the best we have, with a fabulous approach and lots of real product experience. I’ve also got an informal reviewer (Chris) who is working on another book that I am also assisting with -quid pro quo. 21-June-2012
  • Finally did an initial draft writing schedule sketch, 11 chapters into 9 months is about 3 weeks per chapter. Shared with publisher. Must write down hard deadlines, but keep delaying it! 25-June-2012
  • Finished my Basic Research phase, and now have 11 documents (one per chapter) filled with ideas, notes, links, and raw materials. They’re a mess obviously but it’s a start. Got a few hours in at the weekend too. 24-June-2012
  • With time ticking away started filling out Chapter 1 from my basic ideas and research. Got some great research notes on the product history, although needs putting into sentences. 25-June-2012
  • Seemed a good idea to try to describe all the features of the product I am writing about, so tech folks could better relate to what users are doing with the software. This has turned into huge task however, although I think it’s worth it as I’ve never seen such a useful or comprehensive summary (without opening the product documentation one by one). Should be a handy reference, although has taken >10hours to write. 26-June-2012
Categories: NewBook

My New Book #1

Having gone through this once before, I thought it might be an interesting side project to chronicle the whole book authoring process – from idea to reality. I’ve seen this kind of thing prove very popular, would make a nice record for me in the future, and I just read this blog post by Seth Godin that was kind of in the same ballpark.

So here is the history so far:

1. Got the idea to apply the concepts, ideas, principles, and structure from my first book done for a brand new product, to an existing product set. The idea is to revitalize existing product use, plus speak to a wider audience. Discussed this in detail and decided it makes sense to pursue it, during a swim with wife in a swimming pool at Rushton Hall Hotel during a New Years Eve mini-break : 31-Dec-2011

2. Created a book proposal draft, just a two page word document. Chapter headings similar to previous book, so that made it easy!: 06-Jan-2012

3. Sent the proposal to the Publisher of my first book: 10-Jan-2012

4. First response “I like the outline” and vague promise to take to board as official proposal, once a few questions ironed out: 24-Jan-2102

5. Various questions back and forth about target audience, title, and such. Wasn’t rushed especially (new person at publishers) so took 3months overall.

6. Finally got “we got the green light on your project” from publisher: 23-May-2012

7. Proposed to my internal management chain for the required approvals: 24-May-2012:

  1. First Approval Received (my management) : 25-May-2012
  2. Second Approval Received (product owner), after follow up with associate:Β 08-June-2012

8. Created folders with blank word documents, one for each of the 11 Chapters. Gulp – as everything starts from zero right here: 01-June-2012

9. Submitted the approvals obtained (and some other details) to the Publisher and our internal legal/copyright teams who then create the contracts: 12-June-2012

10. Begun research by looking carefully at all existing published materials. Added significant/useful titles and references into each of the empty word documents where that was most suited: 05-June-2012

11. Added first book chapters into folders as some of the core principles (and perhaps format/structure) will be reused: 06-June-2012

12. Decided manuscript submission deadline will be 31-Jan-2013 based on roughly 7months to complete it: 08-June-2012

13. First bit of work at weekend, including added first draft image: 10-June-2012

14. Outlined to publisher the rough schedule (awaiting contracts). Emailed the top people on my list to request they become Technical Editors (reviewers) for the book. Begun this blog post series: 18-June-2012

Categories: NewBook

Stores of the future are ‘Service Locations’

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

With a slew of rumors that more technology and gadget companies (Google, Microsoft etc) are looking to enter the physical high street with their own stores, it seems likely that what they’ll be trading not in boxed products but primarily in associated marketing and advisory services.

This is an interesting transition, and possibly a glimpse of the future.

As online shopping continues its encroachment on traditional brick-and-mortar, it’s increasingly fueled by more and more comparison sites and related shopping apps. But instead of killing the high street, perhaps it simply gives it a different purpose. Less retail and more promotional.

Obviously emulating the Genius Bar or perhaps premium stores’ superior service, retailers may be forced to transform into a Service Location – a place to go for help, advice, maintenance, and most importantly to learn what to buy online.

Having a physical place to go for product information is great, improving things such as:

  • Conversations with face-to-face experts – much richer than web-forms or call-centers
  • See demos and get real hands-on with a product
  • Learn more about complimentary services and related products
  • Get tips and tricks by watching and interacting with like-minded people

And clearly the web has benefits for transactions, for both consumers and retailers:

  • Easy Product Comparisons
  • Peer Reviews and Expert Information nearby
  • Social Media integration to get friends input
  • Lower Overhead Costs (in-store stockrooms are expensive)
  • Delivery right to your door (often free)
  • Economies in Supply Chain and Fulfillment Processing
  • Some environmental benefits (e.g. fewer plastic bags, efficient drop-ship distribution channels)

So I hope that this leads to a high street of the future with more value-add services and infotainment and less trudging around aimlessly, carrying heavy bags, and general exhaustion!

Accepting Blame Makes Customers Happy

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

In customer support teams we’re trained to give empathy (and sometimes sympathy) although companies are reluctant to explicitly accept blame, presumably for fear of being taken to court.

The word “Sorry” is sometimes used, although this tends to be in standard templates and scripts. I am not a lawyer, however I suspect there is difference between saying sorry and accepting blame.

This came up recently as I read an apology letter from Waitrose (high-end UK supermarket) that contained the following interesting mixture of text:

“I have investigated this matter and would like to assure you that it has been taken up with the Partners concerned. I am very sorry that we have failed to provide you with the quality of service you expect from Waitrose.”

I think following points are interesting:

  1. Shifting the ultimate blame to “Partners”. I guess its capitalized to make it clear that’s someone else.
  2. Presumably the “we” is Waitrose and their Partners … although I suspect the same word would mean Waitrose alone as well.
  3. It seems the issue is closed in the “has been taken up”, presumably passing the complaint over. I probably don’t want more follow up personally, but might like some kind of assurance it will not happen again.

I must say the letter was signed in ink by a human (not a scanned signature graphic) and they also included some vouchers to appease me. So whilst this leaves me fairly happy, there were no “partners” visibly involved from my end and the lack of fully accepting blame might be factually legitimate however I don’t really care how they outsource internal tasks.

I propose companies to swallow their pride and accept blame upfront (irrespective of the consequences), with statements like “… we made [XYZ] mistakes here…” – as it will allow everyone to move on towards a solution.

Categories: Customer Service