October 28, 2009, 11:54 AM — An enterprise content management (ECM) implementation is more than just a solution to inefficiency, a way to address unique business challenges, or a chance to get ahead of the competition. It’s also a relationship between you and your vendor’s support team. Unless you have a highly skilled and underutilized IT support team in house, the quality of that relationship will be a determining factor in your long-term success with ECM. If you’ve conducted a painstaking evaluation of solution providers and are making an investment, why wouldn’t you choose a partner who you’re confident will help you to succeed over the long haul?
An ECM system should serve you well for many years. After all, your business information is vital to business continuity, and you need to entrust it to a system that will manage it well. As you evaluated your options, you probably scrutinized multiple vendors, narrowing the list to those whose products suited your requirements. Yet what you need from your ECM solution today may differ from what you will require in a few years. Your software must be adaptable, and your support team must be able to respond to every inquiry with the expert guidance you need. Products are only part of the equation; quality, timely support is critical to success as your company grows and your needs change.
Asking the right questions at the beginning is crucial. These guidelines and the ensuing checklist should help you to get the answers you need so you can march on with confidence.
Criteria for evaluating your vendor’s support team
1. Customer references that verify the quality of support services
There’s no substitute for recommendations from customers who have used your preferred vendor’s services. Ask your ECM vendor – ask several, if you haven’t yet chosen – for references of customers in your industry and clients with needs that are similar to yours.
Suggestion: If you work for a large company that’s planning to use ECM to store and process large volumes of information, make sure the solution provider references customers who have done so successfully. Verify vendor claims with customer experiences. Every customer deserves prompt, top-quality service. Managers of smaller organizations should feel confident that the vendor’s service will not be dependent on the size of the installation or amount of the sale. The bottom line: you should feel confident your needs will be met, no matter what size company you represent.
2. Live, personal support whenever you need it
Sometimes online convenience and phone messages are distant choices to discussing a challenge in person. Make sure your vendor’s support team has a reputation of being available when they’re needed. Beware of automated messages that apologize for delays due to unusually high call volumes. When you need service, those messages will not be reassuring.
Suggestion: Call the customer support line. Can you reach a real person? If so, is that person part of the professional staff, or an outsourced employee halfway around the globe who has limited product knowledge or is difficult to communicate with? Is the person professional, friendly, and helpful? If you ask a difficult question, does that person guide you to a resource or person who can help? Ask about the customer’s experience with problems that are determined not to be caused by the ECM vendor’s product. Does Support guide the customer where to turn, or leave the customer in the dark without a clue what to do?
3. Response time and first contact resolution
In today’s 24/7 world, customers expect immediate response to inquiries. When you’re talking with a solution provider whose products and services are designed to promote efficiency and instant information access, there’s no excuse for untimely response. Some issues require more than one contact, but you should be satisfied from the start that the support staff is proactively addressing the need. Each interaction, if more than one is required, must bring the issue closer to resolution.
Suggestion: Ask Support about their process for handling inquiries. Ask customer references the same question. Compare responses. Other questions to ask:
Are multiple messages required before calls, messages, or emails are answered?
If online support is offered, are responses timely?
If the customer requests status updates on a particular issue, can Support access updated information regarding where the issue stands, or is the customer subject to constant call-backs and delayed response times?
Does the customer have direct access to the system used for tracking support issues?
4. Dedicated support representative
Getting support from a professional, helpful and friendly person is reassuring, but it’s still frustrating if you don’t have a dedicated support representative. Re-explaining issues, recounting details, or sorting through differing advice from multiple support reps is aggravating and wastes your time.
Suggestion: If you and your vendor are in this relationship together with the goal of long-term success, you should expect – or demand – a dedicated representative and a backup when that person is unavailable. Ask customers about their experiences. Is someone dedicated to their needs? Is that person a good listener, able to understand problems and provide appropriate advice?
5. 24/7 support
Downtime is costly. If you need remote access to corporate information beyond business hours and your system is down, productivity is lost and service is compromised. Downtime carries a heavy cost.
Suggestion: Ask references whether they ever needed 24/7 support. If so, were they able to access staff (or information about how to contact someone), or were they stuck in voice jail with a dead-end message? Make sure you know what services are available should you ever require support. If you discover a shutdown or other issue, the problem may not be your ECM vendor. Still, Support may be instrumental in helping you figure things out or showing you where to turn. Make sure office hours and time zones aren’t barriers to reaching a person who can help you when a situation demands it.
Questions to ask your vendor directly
___ Where do you draw the line between support included in our contract and paid professional services? What is your policy regarding resolving issues that borderline between support and paid services?
Tip: Make sure there is a clear, written statement of what comprises technical support and what constitutes professional services. Ask about professional services that are available if you decide to expand your implementation enterprise wide, custom applications may be needed, or specialized services such as workflow process design are required.
___ How many (or what percentage) of your customers have you retained for longer than three years? Five years? Ten?
___ What percentage of your customers renew their annual support maintenance each year?
___ How are customers notified of product upgrades and new releases? When new products are released, what is the upgrade process? Will staff be available to support new and existing products?
___ Does the company offer product training that’s customized to company needs? To what extent are support services available before and after training?
___ What measures do you take to monitor or ensure customer satisfaction?
___ What vehicles are available to address support needs? Online help? Telephone support? Customer forums? Mentoring relationships?
As you ask these questions, take time to notice whether the support person is a good listener and a clear communicator. Does the support rep speak in a language that both IT staff and business personnel can understand? Are your questions restated to ensure they were understood correctly? Is it clear what the next steps are so you can feel confident about the process and timing of resolution?
Questions to ask yourself before implementing ECM
___ How skilled is my IT team? Do they have the expertise needed to implement ECM?
___ To what extent will my staff need training to support the software? What steps need to be taken to ensure that everyone who needs training gets what they need?
___ Are there parts of the ECM implementation that we should outsource to the ECM vendor’s professional services team so our IT staff can stay focused on supporting everyday business needs?
Do your part
Remember, a relationship is a two-way street. It’s vital for you to keep your side of the bargain if you want to maximize your chances for success. An unasked question can quickly become a frothy brew of discontent. Do your part.
Take time to ensure your vendor will be a truly committed partner in your success. Make sure communications are proactive and clear on both sides before your sign the statement of work, as you go through the implementation and testing process, and as you encounter questions or challenges. By investing in your relationship as well as choosing top-quality products that will address your needs – now and in the future – you’ll get off to a good start and will be well positioned to achieve (and maybe even exceed) your goals.