To some, product support is the festering jockstrap of the IT industry. Sure, it holds things in place during the cut and thrust of everyday operations. It even helps one to avoid undue pain or harm when one is forced to take a hit. But it’s not something to be shown off in public. It’s a utilitarian garment. It does its job but is good for little else. Nor is it worthy of significant investment or management attention. After all, surely jockstraps are all the same… Aren’t they? These same support non-supporters often consider the support annuity to be their god given right and can rightly be accused of commercial complacency and arrogance. Others argue that you only really need the support jockstrap when it cuts up rough. In times of economic woe, it underpins the business, helping it to survive the necessary roughness of the market and acting as the foundation for growth when the recovery eventually comes.
But this is only one view. In fact, it is a very short sighted view. Support is sooooo much more. Or at least it could be…
You don’t have to be Edward Fox in “The Day of the Jackal” to turn your emotional crutch into a deadly weapon!
So how can you leverage Product Support as a competitive differentiator?
In some technology sectors (e.g. Security tools, Systems Management solutions etc), support hasn’t yet evolved from its reactive break / fix roots. This represents a massive opportunity for the first player in those spaces who comes to market with truly proactive or predictive support services. Let’s consider the security market for example; If your competitor’s customer’s security solution isn’t working then it isn’t protecting them (Your competitor’s customers). They are vulnerable (Your competitors and their customers). Perhaps the only way for them to be truly safe is for them to switch to your solution and for you to protect them properly by assuring their system’s uptime through prevention-based support services?
The Systems Management solutions market is very similar. If your solution isn’t running it isn’t monitoring your customer’s environment. It isn’t alerting. It isn’t controlling change. It isn’t reinforcing process… In short, it isn’t managing their systems at all. This is perhaps all the more bizarre as the very tools the Systems Management folks are selling are the very tools they should be using to deliver proactive and predictive support services. Yes, the Systems Management market has some serious “eating its own dog food” related issues to address.
But what if the support offerings in your market have already started to move beyond reactive break / fix?
Fear not! Support can still be a competitive differentiator. Product value is proportional to product usage in many (if not most or all) instances. Getting your customers to use more of the capabilities of your stuff helps them to get a bigger bang for their technology investment buck. It also means that their perceptions of your product improve. Product advocacy services can help drive feature and function adoption. This in turn can drive improved product value. This will undoubtedly make existing customers happier and less likely to defect. The aggregated business peformance metrics of these happy and productive customers can then be used as a value added content stream. Content that can be leveraged as a competitive stick with which to beat your rivals into a pulp.
Support’s role as a competitive weapon remains largely untapped. But its potential power is frightening (in a good way).
So we have incident prevention and product advocacy in the competitive arsenal… Anything else?
Well yes. Yes, we do. Perhaps the biggest and best option for support to be used as a competitive tool is in the area of cost reduction. “How so?”, I hear you cry. “Support is seen as a tax…” “Support is the technical insurance policy…” “Our customers consider our services as a necessary evil, the cost of running technology if you will…” “Our premiums are incrementally additive to the cost of IT operations…” “How can you say that we are a cost reduction engine?” “It makes no sense…” Perhaps. But it is true nevertheless. Moving the discussion away from the cost of the support premium and focusing attention on the Total Cost of Support is the key. Support has the potential to materially redefine the IT Operations cost equation. Have a look at my research note “Maverick* Research: Sacking the Specialists (Surviving and Thriving in a World Without In-House Expertise)” from last year to see how… I’m not pretending it will be easy. But nothing that is truly worth having ever is!
It will require us to tackle the elephant in the room that is the Total Cost of Support. That particular elephant is elusive. It is also very big and very very scary. But its domestication is achievable. We’ll look at how we can capture, cook and eat that particular elephant another time!
Support is definitely not a festering under garment of any type. But is it really your current competitive weapon of choice? Probably not at the moment. Is it ready to used as such if it were needed? Maybe. Maybe not. But if not, then I urge you to begin thinking about how it perhaps could be… Support services will become a differentiator. If not for you, then for your competitors!
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