|Issue:||North America 2009|
|Topic:||Service, support and professional services|
|Author:||By John Lazar|
John Lazar is MetaSwitch’s CEO; he joined the company as a software engineer and worked in several of the company’s divisions covering both communication/networking and Internet applications. John Lazar graduated from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, with an MSc in Computation and a DPhil in History.
The advantages VoIP are well known, but businesses often find it difficult to take full advantage of all that VoIP can offer. The complexity of the technology, the variety of equipment, the number of vendors involved and powerful applications that change the way business is conducted all make it difficult for the operator to effectively support companies making the move to VoIP. The growth of VoIP will depend upon the sector’s ability to build top-notch, professional, customer service and support teams.
North American service providers, from small to large, no longer wonder if they will use VoIP, but rather when. They are faced with an almost overwhelming number of choices with regards to vendors, solutions, security issues, network roadmap options and more. Because VoIP networks are inherently more complex than legacy networks, service providers are also struggling with complex network management requirements. In addition to the realm of choices and network complexities, service providers are also facing uncertain economic times and the impact this is having on many of the large established vendors in the VoIP market is yet another challenge. Competitive vendors with alternative solutions, however, can rise to the occasion and take advantage of the changing market by offering customer support and professional services, thereby not only ensuring a space for their equipment in a service provider’s network, but also securing an advisory and network management role moving forward. Recruit the best Many of today’s successful technology companies give high priority to their customer’s needs and focus upon them by offering them many levels of support and professional services based on the customer’s specific needs. The effective customer support and professional services for a diverse group of customers is vital to developing a successful business, but preparing a team to meet the full range of challenges they are likely to face on a day-to-day basis is a difficult task. Vendors must recruit the most talented people they can find and train them rigorously to ensure that they can respond rapidly and appropriately, to whatever problems their customers encounter. Vendors should look not only at experience, background and knowledge, but also for candidates who are able, flexible and highly enthusiastic, because these are the candidates that are most likely to succeed. Nevertheless, even the best recruits can fail unless adequately trained. Of course, many vendors’ support and professional services groups spend a great deal of time at their respective headquarters being fed information through a fire hose, but companies also need to back that up with practical hands-on training on an ongoing basis. Classroom and formal training alone are not enough. The informal mentoring that takes place on the job is an essential, highly effective, part of developing successful and productive talent. Support team members also need to know they can rely on their managers and teammates for help and can ask for their assistance when necessary – this is just as important as training. While recruiting and training are invaluable ways to ensure quality, assigning each customer a dedicated support provider is also essential to developing quality support services. Promising customers that when they call the help desk they will get someone they know – someone who knows their problems, understands their network, understands their deployment, and understands the challenges they face – sets a vendor apart from the competitors. Flexibility and partnerships Because of the broad customer base, the varying constituencies and different cultures that many vendors have to deal with today, they must focus on flexibility and tailoring their customer support and professional services to meet each customer’s requirements – whatever they may be. A rigid support menu does not always work, so support and services teams have to adapt to each customer’s procedures and cultures and respond to them appropriately. Flexibility is especially important while operators are deploying VoIP next-generation networks. VoIP networks are inherently more flexible – and in some respects more complex – than static legacy networks because they are packet-based and voice is just one part of the traffic that is moving on the network. The simplest problem, such as a crackling line, is an order of magnitude more difficult to solve on a VoIP network than on a TDM network. Therefore vendors must focus on not only providing customers with an excellent set of network management tools (see image of MetaView), but on developing a team that can create reliable, well-designed network and, when problems occur, can move quickly to solve them. Today’s networks are characterized by the complexity and variety of the equipment they are built from. Inevitably, the equipment comes from a number of vendors so building partnerships with other equipment vendors is essential. When customers have problems, pinpointing the specific piece of equipment responsible – and the actual problem, all the vendor can work together in partnership to resolve the problems efficiently (see photo of Interop Lab). Empower the end user Equipment vendors need to consider the current economic environment when supporting customers. Today, service providers not only need to consider how to drive revenues with specific service offerings, but also how they provide those services while concurrently reducing expenditures. Given the intense competition, equipment vendors must not only develop and support reliable networks and services, but also offer their customers the means to create and package sticky services for their own range of subscribers and give the subscribers greater control over the services they use. Knowledgeable subscribers do not want to call a help desk to change a service or a setting; they want to make their own changes from any device – their PCs, televisions, iPhones, or even SIP phones. Consequently, vendors are increasingly offering integrated, cross-platform subscriber interfaces – customer interface portals – that enable access to key telephony and messaging applications from anywhere and from any type of device (see image of CommPortal). These interface portals are invaluable; they can be designed to reflect a customers’ brand and, powered by an applications server, give subscribers a simple way to access features. Tools like this that give subscribers greater control of their own telephony and messaging services are increasingly important to service providers. These tools also reduce the number of calls to the service provider’s help desk, which helps cut operational expenses. Maintaining your reputation Surveying customers and responding to their feedback is another important aspect of customer service and support. Regular surveys of customer service and technology trends and challenges give vendors a benchmark to follow for on-going success. ‘Word-of-mouth’ – customer opinion – can make or break a company’s reputation and is critical to building its income. When a customer loves his/her supplier’s support service and speaks highly of it in public, it gives the supplier’s reputation a highly effective and credible boost and helps bring new business. Although the use of VoIP is growing throughout the world, it has taken longer than it might have taken had high-level support been more widely available to help customers make better, more profitable, use of the advantages VoIP brings. High-quality customer support and professional services are vital to VoIP’s continuing growth and the sector’s success.