The complexity of technology is increasing at an exponential rate. A study by the Service and Support Professionals Association (SSPA) in 2006 showed that the percentage of highly complex problems reported to help desks rose from 41% in 2003 to over 60% in 2005. Much of this increase in complexity is attributed to the phenomenon of multi-vendor solutions.

As technology grows rapidly, it is outpacing business’s ability to remain competitive in diverse areas and has led to more specialization. It is becoming increasingly difficult for any one company to provide best of breed products on it’s own without incorporating some outside vendor products into an overall solution. These heterogeneous solutions pose a lot of challenges for support organizations.

Examples

A simple and ubiquitous example of this is likely in your pocket right now. Your mobile phone is a combination of products and services which includes the manufacturer of the device, the operating system and applications, any number of third party applications you may have downloaded yourself and the service provider. Since your contract is with the service provider, you likely think of them as being responsible for the operation of the entire package.

Cell phone service providers have done a lot of work to provide you with the level of service you receive. They have negotiated service contracts with all of the appropriate vendors and prearranged service level agreements with them. They can do this because they have the power to direct a lot of business to these vendors through strategic alliances.

But your cell phone is only one simple example. Spam filtering of email can be done at many levels. You’re mail provider’s firewall and server probably have forms of filters as well as your virus and spam control programs loaded on your client system. But spam and virus control in email has become so complex, that many providers are turning to turnkey alternatives to managing this themselves. Companies like MXLogic for example provide this service behind the scenes. Mail providers and corporations are outsourcing this aspect of mail service because the technology has grown so rapidly that it requires specialized services to keep up with it.

As another example, take you’re online banking experience. This is most likely a combination of in house and outsourced services. Companies that specialize in tracking point of sale data and rewards information are used to track and calculate your rewards points and offer avenues to redeem them. Applying for a credit card is often a completely separate service that is managed by yet another provider while the application you use to access your accounts online may be managed by the bank itself. The list goes on and on. Most of the time, consumers are unaware of these behind the scenes alliances…until they call for support.

The Problem

The problem is that customers are unwilling to accept any visible seams in support. They expect the first call to own the problem and not to get pinballed around. They want to tell one person about their problem, have that person understand it and take ownership of it from beginning to end.

Support organizations often must leverage resources outside their own organization. They have to be savvy enough to navigate the troubleshooting of a myriad of complex solutions. In the banking example above, if a user is reporting that he can not see his points displayed on the website, the agent taking the call must understand that this website front end is hosted with company A and pulls points data from company B over a network provided by company C. This is not a simple help desk anymore.

Even the best planned and integrated solutions face problems providing truly seamless support experience. When an issue (customer) is passed from one organization to another, there are disparate systems, training, accents, processes and culture that can highlight seams.

Ever wonder why you have to repeat information 2, 3 and 4 times as your issue gets escalated? Often it is because you are getting transferred to another vendor or organization that uses a system that is not integrated with the others.

Ever have a great customer experience with one rep then get tranferred to someone who just doesn’t seem to care? Often this is because each rep is part of a vastly different corporate culture.

Building seamless support becomes particularly tricky when the various support organizations have no binding contracts with each other. As is the case of the cell phone with third party application, the service provider has no affiliation with the application vendor, yet the customer expects support and is not satisfied with being redirected.

Recommendations

The challenge for support organizations in the future is going to be to lead the way in these complex support arrangements. They will need to craft methodologies to allow reps to own problems and provide the value added support of assisting the customer to a solution even when the problem resides outside of their direct control or obligation. Support organizations that can distinguish themselves in this way will quickly find opportunities opening in the market and will be able to charge a premium for this service. Those that do not figure it out and stick to a “hey, it’s not us” approach will find support to be a difficult road ahead.