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Aberdeen InSight: The Value Of Support Automation

By Karen Smith

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Overview: Many companies are faced with having to spend more of their precious -- and shrinking -- budgets on support and service issues. And, in many cases, the cost of providing support to customers, partners, and employees is placing an increasing burden on corporate profitability. This trend is forcing many companies to look at new ways to meet support requirements through innovative automated service and support solutions. The secret is a willingness to test and redefine new business models. Companies must also be willing to invest in the IT infrastructure, resources, and required training necessary to deploy support automation technology and build user acceptance for the capabilities critical to long-term success.

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The service and support process is an integral part of any successful business landscape -- high-cost implications notwithstanding. Yet enterprises continue to struggle with how to offer reliable, fast support without breaking the bank. If the effort is minimal, organizations risk losing valuable customers and irritating employees and partners. However, if the effort is beyond what is needed, the cost could be very high.

The inherent challenges that come with providing IT support can be complex. It is made even more difficult when customers, value-added resellers (VARs), partners, and other important indirect sales and service channels are scattered across hundreds of different locations; as well as when new, complex applications, business processes, or methodologies are introduced into the environment.

What Is Support Automation?

Aberdeen defines support automation as the technology, solutions, methodologies, and procedures that allow organizations to address the needs of customers, employees, and partners. Support automation technology can be deployed as a point solution, or to complement or enhance earlier investments in customer relationship management (CRM) or partner relationship management (PRM) deployments.

A Component of CRM and PRM

As a point solution, support automation applications can help enterprises create seamless integration between self-service and assisted support. It also improves the enterprise's ability to manage the increasing complexity of managing IT support, while servicing the end customer within multitiered sales and distribution channels. Within CRM and PRM products, support automation technology is playing a more prominent role. The applications are being used to extend capabilities for self-service, assisted service, and problem diagnosis and resolution. They also help enterprises with large, complex sales and distribution channels improve their ability to manage assets and resources, and increase the communication, interaction, and uptime through sales and partner network channels.

Business and Market Dynamics

Mounting demands on service and support functions have not gone unnoticed. IT budgets are down, and IT service and support staffs are being spread thinner and thinner. Yet expectations that IT support and infrastructure systems will stay up and running are higher, particularly given today's round-the-clock, 24×7 business demands. These conflicting pressures are boosting the need for new approaches that can help alleviate some of the pressure put on IT support staff -- and their budgets.

Aberdeen research has identified several market and business dynamics driving increased interest in support automation applications that enable businesses to operate and communicate more flexibly as single entities. Some of these dynamics are highlighted below.

Today, IT is a critical component of most modern businesses. Aberdeen's global IT spending forecast for 2002 puts total worldwide IT expenditures at $1.24 trillion. Aberdeen predicts worldwide IT spending will reach $1.43 trillion by 2005. Although certain sectors will exceed this growth rate, Aberdeen research indicates that, overall, GDP growth and corporate top-line revenues limit long-term growth. Not surprisingly, North America leads all other regions in IT spending, followed by Europe and the Asia/Pacific Rim area.

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The inherent challenges that come with managing cross-cultural and global IT infrastructures -- as well as the need to provide 24×7 service and support to different users around the world (e.g., customers, partners, resellers, and employees) -- increase the degree of specialization in service and support automation software. An organization's capacity to penetrate new geographical markets, deliver operational economies, leverage product and service initiatives, and parry the thrust of competitors can often depend on its capacity to assemble and effectively support a multitude of business processes, IT systems, and internal and external users around the world.

Many companies still have a widely distributed, costly support process that is largely paper based, relies heavily on people, and has limited automationcapabilities to let customers, partners, resellers, or employees locate answers to questions, make changes to profiles, or resolve simple IT support issues on their own. These slow, complex processes hinder a company's ability to be nimble and quick and, ultimately, lessen its competitive advantage. Additionally, inefficient and time-consuming processes can beleaguer and frustrate customers and partners, both of whom may be forced to spend a considerable amount of time waiting for an appropriate person to respond to their issue. This can result in missed opportunities.

As the demand for support automation increases, the composition of successful solutions will evolve from traditional support mechanisms (e.g., telephone support, automated recordings, etc.) to "smarter" support solutions that are more personalized, cost-effective, and instrumental in improving an organization's productivity.

Keeping a Balance: Human Interaction vs. Automated Support and Self-Service

In the rush to establish an online presence, many companies have overlooked an important component of service and support: direct human interaction. Despite all the rich content that is increasingly available on the Web, hardly any company should depend on self-service alone to respond to all of the issues that arise from customer/partner interactions. Yet dependence on human interaction alone puts constraints on the effectiveness of the support process, and at a high cost.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for enterprises is striking a healthy balance between preserving strong, traditional support channels and doing what it takes to prosper in today's global economy. To achieve this, companies must constantly modernize their business practices and IT systems. However, it is equally important not to dismiss -- or underestimate -- the value of long-established, conventional services or the needs of loyal customers, partners, and employees. Although self-service and support automation capabilities often will be vital components of CRM and PRM solutions, they will rarely be the only ones.

Aberdeen Conclusions

Unfortunately, support automation often operates without the process discipline common to other enterprise areas, such as CRM, PRM, or ERP. In the past, companies have generally focused their attention and corporate resources on sales and marketing, as well as back-office accounting and administrative initiatives. Often, it is only when a company's IT problems affect its bottom-line profit that it begins to think seriously about how to improve its support processes.

Companies tend to forget about -- or ignore -- the necessary support and associated problem-resolution infrastructure necessary to support and enhance the organization's productivity, and that of its sales and distribution channels. However, Aberdeen expects this tendency to shift as companies are forced to find new ways to cut costs, and improve uptime and productivity. To achieve this, companies will seek more automated self-service and assisted service application functionality, which can be used internally. In addition, they will reach outside the organization to customers, partners, VARs, resellers, etc., to help them minimize service and support costs and maximize return on IT investments.

When deploying these products -- as with new applications -- companies must focus on creating a win-win situation that delivers real value and benefits to end-users and meets corporate objectives of cutting costs and improving efficiency.

Companies need to ask the following:

Does this solution engage the user in support automation terminology and system features and design? A technology only becomes a "solution" when the end-user adopts it. Too often, organizations involve end-users only after an IT application has been installed, which often leads to end-user dissatisfaction and confusion. It is critical to involve the end-users from the start, to increase their acceptance of new applications, and to identify the most effective -- and least obtrusive -- methods for application deployment and training. In interviews with organizations, Aberdeen found that deploying new technologies and applications in phases helped to minimize disruption to business and eased the adoption process among end-users.

In addition, including executive management is equally important. Many people may think that executive responsibility is limited to paying the bill, but organizational politics suggest the boss must demonstrate to the users that a project is important; otherwise, results will be uneven at best.

Karen Smith is research director for Aberdeen Group's Customer Relationship Management practice. She is located in the Boston office. For more information, go to www.Aberdeen.com.