Now your once fledgling startup has multiple implementation projects running in parallel and your engineers who should be working on improving the product are spending most of their time on these implementations. Your customers are clamoring for hot-fixes and wanting to know the date of the next release. Of course, this is starting to cause some sleepless nights for you and your engineers, so perhaps it is time to consider building a services team.
This can be a difficult pill to swallow for some founders. They started their company to build products and dazzle venture capitalists with grand margins based on software license revenue growth. Services is almost a dirty word in IPO-aspiring product company circles.
But as most of your larger brethren in the software space will tell you, services can make or break you in the long run. Lately, IBM seems to only want to focus on services with the acquisition of PWC and the fact that services accounted for over 40% of their revenue in 2001.
Three Critical Areas
Before taking the leap of faith into building a services team, you must define what services your company will need to provide. Usually, a software firm's services require fulfillment in three main areas: product implementations, product training and product support.
Each of these customer-centric areas will be crucial to your success as you move to stabilize your current implementations and customer base. Taking the time to establish these service functions now will also reduce the risk of future engagements and ultimately improve customer satisfaction.
Let's review what factors are important to each service area.
Product implementations will be your first area to address. For smaller software companies, product implementations usually start before the sale, with some sort of prototype or proof of concept (POC).
Identify how your implementation team can help drive sales to closure by building checklists that will assist in qualifying and closing deals. A POC checklist will help your sales person determine key implementation parameters such as number of total and concurrent users, batch and real-time transactions, and expected data storage volume.
After a successful POC, a statement of work template is necessary to help easily define the scope of a client's implementation addressing such requirements as data integration, reporting and legacy data conversion.
To ensure the successful, repeatable completion of implementation projects, it is critical to develop a step-by-step process methodology that will cover pre-installation preparation, installation, product configurations, and component-by-component best-practice guidelines that address such production success factors as optimization, scalability, security and disaster recovery.
While product documentation focuses on product features, how to use the product, and problem resolution, the process methodology will walk your customers or partners through the A to Z's of product implementation to guarantee a more stable and maintainable production environment.
Well-Trained Customer Is a Satisfied Customer
The second service area to consider is product training. This area is important because the better educated your customers and partners are, the less problems they will have with the product. A well-trained customer is a satisfied customer!
Training can be both functional and technical. Administrator and developer classes will teach product configuration and customizations. A functional class would teach business users how to navigate the product with the goal of improving their productivity.
Start off by delivering classes that are instructor led and hands-on, moving towards creating interactive web-based training and certifications down the road.
The third and final area is product support. Identify support mechanisms such as message boards, emails, live-chat and phone support. Determine the level of support necessary for the near-term, under your planned budget, and then build a long-range plan. You also will need to define hours of support, escalation levels and how after-hours support will be handled.
Eventually this product support should include a Web-based, searchable knowledge base and FAQ section that can be found on your company Web site. Finally, a customer service application for tracking trouble reports and determining escalation will be necessary to monitor support progress and identify critical bugs.
It is best to create a separate team to oversee your new services group. The first order of business will be for you to hire a manager to lead the services group. Try to find someone with a consulting background who has helped launch service groups for other small software firms.
Although someone with services experience in a larger, established software company might seem attractive, that person may not perform as well in a small, start-up environment where budgets are limited and staff members are typically wearing many hats. Entrepreneurial experience and creative problem solving skills are equally important.
The new manager should start off by building a strategic plan, outlining short-term tasks and long-term goals, while identifying the urgent and important service needs that are specific to your product offerings.
Your overall goal will be to create a team of experts that knows the product and implementation best practices inside and out. Eventually you can build a partner channel that will help you scale to thousands of implementations and your services team will be the experts that support that channel. Take heart that building a services foundation now will save you a few sleepless nights in the future as your company grows into a software leader.
Eric Spiegel is president of eXpert Technology Solutions, a technology consulting firm based in Baltimore, Md.