Customer Service is Serious Business for IBM i Software Vendors
March 8, 2011 Alex Woodie
Question: What do ACOM Solutions and deposed North African dictators have in common? Answer: They both claim a 100 percent customer satisfaction rating. OK, nobody outside of Africa actually believes the dictators’ claims that they have the full support of their people. But there is good reason to believe that ACOM did in fact record a perfect score with its customer service during the month of November. That’s because, for many IBM i software vendors, delivering good customer service is a very big deal.
ACOM says its IBM i tech support center in Atlanta, Georgia, pitched a perfect game in November, delivering a 100 percent customer service rating in fielding 396 support queries. Like other IBM i vendors, ACOM routinely achieves satisfaction levels in the high 90s. But it wasn’t until the eleventh month of 2010 when it all came together.
“We don’t see that very often, only because people are reluctant to think that anybody’s ever perfect,” says ACOM operations manager Brenda Bush, who is in charge of tracking customer service. Thanks to a low turnover rate and lots of experience, ACOM’s IBM i support team is very good at what they do, Bush says. “It’s been years since we were below 90 percent. Right now, we’re running at 99 percent for the year.”
ACOM’s tech support reps must be knowledgeable across 18 different products, including the Windows-based EZContentManager product. They must be able to handle a multitude of questions, ranging from “How do I do this?” to “It’s dead in the water.” “We have to figure out the if-what and why,” says ACOM technical support supervisor Artie Blackburn.
ACOM uses the surveys to ensure a high level of customer service. About 30 percent of customers respond to the surveys, which are automatically sent out to every customer who contacts the support center. Bush says the process is automated within its CRM and help desk system.
The perfect score by ACOM was a rarity, and helps to make the rule. But judging from the emphasis that other IBM i vendors put on tracking customer service levels, and their willingness to share less-than-perfect scores (as they tend to be), it would appear that customer service levels are one area where self-reporting adheres to the honor system.
Take nuBridges, for example. Last week, the company shared with IT Jungle that its customer satisfaction rating was 98.4 percent. While it’s not 100 percent, that’s still ‘A’ work to most people. When you’re operating at that high level for months on end, getting the last 1.6 percent needed for ‘A+’ level work requires as much luck as being good.
But being good at customer service requires a lot of hard work, and nuBridges takes this job seriously.
“As we sometimes say, good old customer service is actually really worth something,” says Bill Reeves, vice president of product management for nuBridges. “Having satisfied customers, paying attention to their needs, responding to them quickly, and getting on the front line as much as possible to make sure people don’t get an answering machine or get somebody who takes a message and says they’ll call you back–that really matters, especially in today’s environment where speed and efficiency is really the name of the business.”
Like ACOM, nuBridges’ customer support calls number in the hundreds every month. After a support engagement, nuBridges will send the customer an e-mail requesting participation in a customer satisfaction survey. A couple of years ago, after the company began entering survey participants in a drawing to win a donation to their charity of choice, survey participation increased markedly.
nuBridges uses an online firm to run the surveys, but the metrics and results are managed strictly in-house, because it considers the information too important to entrust with an outside firm. “Customer satisfaction surveys are one of the internal measures that we use to make sure that customer satisfaction is ingrained into the culture,” Reeves says. “Obviously our stated goal is 100 percent satisfaction, but sometimes that’s not possible.”
Help/Systems also uses giveaways in conjunction with its customer participation tracking program. But in Help/Systems’ case, the prize is a year’s worth of free product maintenance for any unsatisfied customer. According to Jerry Stenzel, Help/Systems senior support manager, that doesn’t happen too often.
“Our product support is likely to be the best you’ll deal with in the software industry,” Stenzel says on the vendor’s customer satisfaction level web page. While other vendors will often post the current customer satisfaction level in its tech support center, Help/Systems actually publishes its levels–which are tabulated from follow-up calls by dedicated customer care specialists–on the Web.
The Minnesota vendor, whose hiring motto is “we don’t hire jerks,” uses a scale of 1 through 6 to measure its customers’ satisfaction. The most recent measure, for January, was 5.87, which is equal to 97.8 on a percentile basis. Help/Systems’ support operation is fairly large, as it handles calls for its own customers, as well as for its subsidiaries Bytware, PowerTech, and SEQUEL Software. Monthly support call volumes measure in the five digits.
Few vendors of any size will deliver perfect customer service to every customer for any length of time. Indeed, the fact that Monday mornings account for a full 10 percent of the workweek would seem to indicate that 90 percent would be a nearly perfect score. So when support managers wonder what’s going on when their customer satisfaction numbers dip to the 95 or 96 percent level, you have to give them credit for setting a very high bar–certainly much higher than the big consumer-oriented software companies, where buggy software rules and most customer service is a joke.
So who’s to blame for the very high levels of expectations that IBM i software vendors place on themselves? Perhaps it’s IBM Rochester’s excellent reputation in customer support? The high sums paid for licenses and yearly maintenance? Or is it the rotten economy and the looming threat of customer defections?
According to Tom Huntington, Help/Systems’ vice president of technical services, the high expectations have always been there. “The IBM i software companies are, in general, very good at customer support,” he says. “As vendors, we’ve worked with IBM and learned from what they do for customers. For those in the marketplace, it’s a second-nature thing.”
However, not all vendors make equal commitments to customer service. Some vendors have outsourced their customer care centers to non-native English speakers overseas, while others make customers navigate complicated automated voice messaging systems before reaching a human. Both techniques can be very frustrating to customers, IBM i or otherwise.
“I tell people, ‘We’re a high-tech company with an old-fashioned customer service staff,'” Huntington says. “One of the top reasons customers invest in our software is because they know at the end of the day they can call Help/Systems and we’ll answer their question, even if it’s not our problem.”
In the end, the quality of technical support a vendor can provide should be one of the factors that go into a product decision. Luckily for IBM i customers, there is a history of good support, and many reputable firms to choose from.