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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 7/8/2004

This is your bi-weekly e-Newsletter from
Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.  Comments and suggestions are welcome and encouraged!


Development Methodology: Support – to Keep Happy Customers!

  By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]

In two previous e-Newsletters, I described the basics of development methodologies (see eN-030828 – Development Methodology Basics: Stages of Development, and eN-030911 – Development Methodology Basics: Management of Development).  Those e-Newsletters were able to cover only very broadly the basic elements of development methodologies.  The Stages of Development e-Newsletter briefly described Requirements, Architecture, & Planning (see also eN-030925 – Development Methodologies: Requirements, eN-031009 – Development Methodologies: Architecture, and eN-031023 – Development Methodology: Failing to Plan Means You Are Planning to Fail!), Build & Test (see also eN-040527 – Development Methodology: Build – to Last, and eN-040610 – Development Methodology: Test – to Verify), and Release & Support (see also eN-040624 – Development Methodology: Release – to Generate Revenues!) as the stages of development.  This e-Newsletter will cover Support in somewhat more depth.  

You’ve finally released your product.  Your marketing and sales efforts are working and customers have been convinced to buy your products.  Revenues are being generated!  Customers are beginning to use your products.  You can expect issues to arise, due either to misunderstandings on the part of the customers or to quality issues in the products themselves.  Whatever the problems, customers will turn to your Support resources for help.  You need to be ready to assist your customers with whatever problems they may encounter.

Happy customers can be your best friends and even your best salespeople.  If your product works flawlessly, they will salute you and sing your praises to others.  If they encounter minor problems, but you are there to help them through, they will retain confidence in you and your product, and will respond favorably to others when asked about their experiences with the product and your company.  If they encounter more serious problems, but you work closely with them and address and overcome their problems quickly, they will still likely remain confident in your support and willingness to help them successfully deploy your product in their environment.  They may be more reserved in their praise, but nevertheless be favorably disposed.

Unhappy customers can be your worst enemies and your worst nightmare.  If they encounter problems, and you don’t treat them well, not only can they become a constant and continuing source of aggravation (in your perception), but they can, and will, actively discourage other potential customers from buying your current product, or anything else, from you and your company.  If they’re really upset with you, they can actively campaign against you, severely diminishing your potential for success. 

How do you provide Support to your customers?  Typically, companies will provide different Levels of Support:

► At the lowest level of support is Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQ’s that are typically posted on your website.  These FAQ’s provide answers to the questions that most frequently arise, typically addressing configuration settings, or options, or other getting started issues that may arise.  Customers are encouraged to check here first to see if their questions can be answered.  Telephone help lines can also provide a similar level of support.

► The next levels of support gets people with more detailed knowledge of the product involved to address less common problems that customers may encounter.  There is typically an ability to escalate the problem within this level of support if the first person involved can’t address the problem to the customer’s satisfaction.  Problems relating to setup, configuration, options, common misuse, etc. can generally be addressed, and problems that have been previously reported and which are being worked on can be reported to customers.

► For cases where the problem has not been seen before, and where it may be unique to a particular customer installation, a senior support person will get involved, and in some cases, a field support engineer may be dispatched to the customer site to investigate and troubleshoot more thoroughly.

► The engineering group who designed and built the product will ultimately address the most serious support problems.  They will take all of the information gathered by the lower levels of support and will work with support and the customer to replicate the problem and determine a solution, sometimes unique to that customer, and most often a solution that will apply to all customers.

► The entire process of support needs to be handled as expeditiously as possible, as customers may be waiting for a solution in order to carry out their business.

The number of levels of support will be a measure of the size of your company, the complexity of the product, the importance of the specific customer, and numerous other conditions.  In very small companies, the engineers may be the support staff.  In very large companies, the likelihood of engineers even hearing about most problems is small.   If the customer is viewed as “unimportant”, he will get standard (or often sub-standard) treatment, and then may be ignored.  If the customer is important, then even trivial problems may get escalated to the top levels of support.  This may not be the way things “should” be handled, but it is often the way things “are” handled.

If you treat customers like treasures, they will become treasures, returning their value many times over.  They’ll do this in continuing purchases of new products and product enhancements, and in providing testimonials that you can use as endorsements for your products.  They’ll become active reference sites that new prospective customers can call to get an “objective” view of your product, and, in some cases, will become an active participant in critical sales situations.  They can truly be jewels to be nurtured and treasured.

If you treat your customers like burdens, they will become burdens, constant sources of trouble, complainers who are never satisfied, people who badmouth your company to anyone and everyone they meet.  And you will wonder why you never seem to grow.

The choice is yours, but remember that your company cannot exist without customers.  Do you want happy customers who are your friends and help generate new and continuing business?  Or do you want enemies, who, because of the poor treatment you have given them, who will take every opportunity to undermine your success.  If you’re smart, or even dumb but not stupid, you’ll choose to treat them well, to treasure them, and then watch your business grow!

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