Monday, June 22, 2009

Support Amnesia

The product or service lifecycle can usually be broken in to four parts: the strategy for providing the service, the design and development of the service, the transition of the service to the live environment and the support of the service in the live environment. Very often, the estimate for the cost and effort required during the support stage is unrealistic and below the actual numbers that are experienced. Why is this?

Organizations too often have an inflated sense of their ability to create a product or service that falls within the customer’s requirements of quality and functionality. Due to this, they assume that once the product or service is released to the live environment, there is no further work involved besides taking a few help desk calls from some “non-techie” customers that don’t understand the” jargon” of the manual. The reality, of course, is that several requests for change will be demanded from the customers, which in turn will require corresponding rework, retest and release cycles. This, of course, requires time and resources that were not planned for which in turn throws the scheduling and budget in disarray. A great deal of trouble and anguish might have been averted if only the effort required during support had been accurately forecasted.

Ideally, the product or service should match the needs of the customer so well that very little effort should be required during the support stage. Indeed, the less effort required during support, the more successful the organization has been in delivering the product to the customer. However, as organizations are generally not at this level of delivery competence, they should realistically factor in the effort that will be required during the support stage. At the same time they should also continuously improve their strategy, design and transition stages so that less support effort will be required in the future and the maturity of the organization increases with time.

Having stated the ideal case, the reality is that most organizations do not adequately evaluate the effort required during the support stage. This is caused, in my opinion, by the following factors:

  • An inability to face up to the unpleasant news of poor delivery and the subsequent requirement for further resources. Management here can play a crucial role by not shooting the messenger and dealing with the bad news in a mature and capable fashion.

  • Lack of company maturity and metrics in place to adequately understand the status of the product and its true state. A collective effort by the entire organization will have to be made to resolve this.

  • Unrealistic demands by management on the system. Management should not allow themselves to be seduced by market conditions and demand more than is possible from the capabilities of the organization. It is really their job to have properly forecasted market conditions and planned their strategy in advance with respect to the capabilities of the organization.

  • A poor understanding of the support stage itself by the stakeholders will naturally result in the inability to accurately forecast the time and resources required to implement support adequately.

When cost and schedule are thrown into disarray by the emergency allocation of resources to support, the areas where these resources were drawn out of will then also suffer. The breakdown of one project tends to have a “ripple” effect that then affects the entire organization’s activities in varying degrees.

Support is easily the most visible stage because this is where the customer actually makes contact with the organization, typically with an issue or problem needing resolution. Of course, in the previous stages customer representatives were in communication with the organization in order to provide requirements and evaluate and approve progress. However, this is where the customers and not just representatives actually connect with the organization for problem resolution. This is where the organization can really impress the customer despite the fact that the customer may have a problem or be in a state of dissatisfaction. Despite all efforts, there will be problems and issues that the customers will experience. It is the way the organization handles the problem and the unsatisfied customer that will determine whether the customer takes their business elsewhere or not.

Therefore, it is evident that support must be planned for with an honest look at the organization’s capabilities and adequate time and resources should be allocated in order to provide proper support. Failure to do this will only cause needless chaos and instability with disgruntled customers taking their business elsewhere.

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