Often, data center staff view customer support matters as nothing but a hassle. When there’s a distressed customer on the phone, everyone just wants to make the problem go away as quickly as possible. Support engagements mean that somebody has a problem, and who likes problems? This is not the attitude that should be cultivated in a successful data center.
In my role as a CTO, I’ve sometimes been able to double the service revenues of a data center in a matter of weeks – while actually improving the work experience for support staff. Senior managers are shocked and delighted when a support department generates more revenue than the sales team!
With some effective communication and decision-making, you can turn your support department from a “necessary evil” into a “cash cow”.
More than anything, customers hate waiting for communication with the vendor. Support is all about effective communication, and timely delivery of comprehensive solutions.
CULTIVATING THE RIGHT ATTITUDE
Many data centers do not properly monetize these customer engagements because they are focused on “closing the ticket”, or “putting the customer to bed”. Some support department managers think that as long as the ticket system is cleared before they go home for the day, everything is fine. Hogwash! This sort of “ticket monkey” mentality not only causes the company to lose revenue-generating opportunities, it encourages problems to be brushed under the carpet, or for a nonsensical evaluation of support performance to prevail in the department.
“Joe closed 50 tickets today, boss. Bob only closed 5. Good work, Joe.”
But really, who cares? Do the shareholders care how many tickets were closed? No. Do customers? Not really – what matters is the value of solutions delivered.
Every time a customer contacts you, it’s an opportunity. While this is true for every business, it’s particularly relevant to data centers.
No matter how angry the customer is or how absurd their requests might seem, every customer engagement represents value in two forms – sales, or operational insight. Every problem can be solved with a solution – and solutions represent value.
Tight co-operation should occur between support, operations and sales teams.
The first decision to make when a customer initiates a support ticket is – is it our problem or their problem?
IT’S OUR PROBLEM
If the support matter concerns a solution that the customer is already paying for, then there are operational lessons to be learned. Yes, sometimes there are “acts of god” — a construction crew severing a fiber optic cable, for example; but even these nightmarish scenarios can be turned into profitable solutions.
To use a common example, a hosting customer’s server is down because the data center is conducting maintenance. A support technician might inform the customer, “we’re installing new routers, you’ll be back online in an hour”. It’s a start, but the matter is certainly not concluded. To properly address such an issue, concrete action must be taken to prevent recurrence of the problem. Why was a single point of failure allowed to exist? In this example, perhaps the solution would be to install a second, redundant router, so that maintenance can occur without disrupting the customer’s service. Naturally the objection is usually “but that costs money”. Fine – then introduce a class of service priced at a point that covers the expenses and maintains the desired profit margin.
The customers who didn’t complain might be able to tolerate an occasional hour of downtime, but not the higher pricing that would be necessary to provide them a higher grade of service. Other customers are less tolerant of downtime, and more tolerant of higher pricing. In this example, the solution is obvious. Provide two distinct solutions – a high-grade option for the customer who can’t tolerate downtime, and a low-grade option for the customer who’s more concerned with value. Now the matter can be considered concluded, and the new options on the menu will increase revenue for the data center. The insight gained from this common “I can’t access my server” call has thus been beneficial for both the customer and for the data center. You’ll retain existing customers (including the ones who did not call even though they recognized the downtime occurred), and attract new ones because the solutions offered are more appropriate – higher quality, or lower cost.
IT’S THEIR PROBLEM
On the other hand, quite often a support request is initiated because of the customer’s problem. Of course, we generally prefer this type of problem to the first category because it offers immediate sales opportunities.
Support department staff should never issue excuses like “we don’t offer that” or “it’s not our problem”. Listen carefully to the customer’s needs, and deliver a solution. If an appropriate solution is not yet available, create it. If the solution costs money to implement, let the customers fund it.
Assuming appropriate solutions are offered and pricing is reasonable, the only valid excuse a support person should hear from the customer is “it’s too expensive”.
Consider the following five real-world examples of problems versus band-aids versus real (and profitable) solutions :
PROBLEM : Customer can’t access their server.
BAND-AID : Staff member manually reboots the server and brings it back online.
SOLUTION : Remote RPC / KVMoIP (Remote Power Controller / Keyboard Video Mouse over Internet Protocol) service is offered at an additional charge to allow the customers to reboot, reinstall or reconfigure their server themselves.
PROBLEM : Customer server is hacked and launching DDOS attacks against other networks.
BAND-AID : Shut down the customer.
SOLUTION : Managed servers, intrusion protection systems, firewalls, security engineering etc.
PROBLEM : Customer server is sending bulk e-mails, causing other customers using the network to experience problems with e-mail delivery.
BAND-AID : Shut down the customer.
SOLUTION : Offer specialized service at an appropriate price point which allows the customer to operate his business, without adversely affecting other customers.
PROBLEM : Customer experiences a failed hard disc, causing loss of service.
BAND-AID : Replace the disc and reinstall, wiping out the customer’s data.
SOLUTION : Offer managed backup, RAID, data recovery, integrity monitoring and enterprise-class hardware components.
PROBLEM : Customer has trouble managing his resources and breaks his configuration, causing loss of service.
BAND-AID : Explain it’s not the data center’s responsibility to manage his server.
SOLUTION : Offer managed hosting, in-depth diagnostics and/or consulting services to assist the customer with his objectives.
Sure, sometimes quick-fixes are called for – but never at the expense of long-term solutions!
BAD APPLES AND MINE CANARIES
Yes, sometimes there are “bad apple” customers who manage to cost the data center revenues rather than generating them. They’re abusive, they complain about everything, they want it all and they don’t want to pay for it. They post bad reviews, demand refunds and ruin the mood of support staff. Such customers are toxic to the business, and they should be terminated. However, this is an extremely rare case – only 1% of customers, or less. Sometimes these “bad apples” are really “mine canaries” — and they provide valuable operational insights.
For example, there might be a customer who calls about high latency or dropped packets, even though the other 99% of customers don’t notice a thing. It’s easy to dismiss the matter with excuses like “he’s just a complainer”; but on closer examination, doesn’t this represent operational insight? Why does the customer care about network latency? How does he measure it? How does our latency compare with that of the competition?
A positive outcome to this example might be something like :
“We appreciate your insight into our network performance metrics, sir. We understand that you are operating a streaming media system which is much more sensitive to latencies than the general-purpose servers the majority of our customers operate. After consulting with our engineers and senior management, we have decided to introduce a new class of service designed specifically for your needs. The service is priced at $123/month and guarantees a round-trip latency of 20 ms to major North American cities. Attached is a document describing the technical details. Would you like to upgrade your service to our streaming media solution?”
As a matter of fact, low-latency hosting is indeed a very profitable niche market, and companies oriented to streaming media often charge ten times what a general-purpose provider would for similar services.
Every support call involves a problem, every problem has a solution, and delivering solutions is what generates revenue for data centers.