Where Customer Service Goes to Die

“Sorry to bother you…”, the email from my client began. It was Monday morning, and I knew the company this person worked for always had conference calls with their customers on a Monday. No doubt she was prepping for a difficult one.

The email went on, “but could you help us with the query below?”

The email chain that followed contained a discussion between my client and one of their customers about an obscure feature on one of their enterprise software products. The customer didn’t like the way it worked and was clearly trying to paint this as a bug rather than a feature. I had recently done some unrelated work on that product at the request of that same customer, and I could tell they were gearing up to say, in effect, “We’re not going to pay for those changes because the product still has this ‘bug’ and we want you to ‘fix’ that too.”

This is a classic manoeuvre in enterprise software support. The customer identifies a broad or complex problem. They propose a small change to solve that problem. Then, once there are people working on it, they conveniently forget about the specific change they requested and insist more work be done because their broad problem is not solved yet.

This sort of thing happens frequently enough to convince me that it’s a deliberate ploy by many corporate managers. The only way to prevent doing work for free as a software vendor is to employ people to keep a very close eye on the scope of every change and argue back with the customer if they try this kind of thing.

A customer service expert might suggest spending more time talking to the customer about their broader problem, and seeking to solve it all from the beginning. Sometimes that works, sometimes that just looks like up-selling and the customer rejects it.

The real issue is that enterprise software exists mostly to join all sorts of disparate parts of an organisation together. It’s plumbing, and plumbing is messy. Plumbing needs continual patching up and tweaking. It’s an ever moving target. It’s also very political. It’s hard enough getting several departments to agree on how they’re going to work together, by the time they’ve agreed a process, getting that implemented in software is the easy bit!

So the companies that make enterprise software spend their days locked in conflict with their own customers trying to keep a lid on all the complexity arguing about who’s going to pay for all the changes they keep having to make. Enterprise software is where customer service goes to die.

And any potential way to improve the level of service you can give effectively amounts to, not selling enterprise software any more. This includes approaches like:

  • Simplifying what you offer
  • Focusing on doing one thing really really well
  • Trying not to get drawn into customers’ complex inter departmental problems
  • Trying to have more customers so you’re not so beholden to the few that you do have
  • Saying no when customers ask for complex things
  • Charging for your time rather than for the software

If your business is enterprise software then I feel bad for you. Fortunately there is hope. The oncoming tidal wave of SaaS applications is making enterprise IT more a matter of composing disparate services rather than building or buying large behemoth systems. Over time, most business functions are becoming productised and then owned by 3 or 4 dominant SaaS apps.

Need content management? Try WordPress, Joomla, Durpal or Umbraco. Need CRM? Try Salesforce, Sage or Highrise. Need to send lots of email? Try Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Sendgrid or Campaign Monitor. All of these products offer some customisation, but they differ from old style enterprise products in that they can be setup and configured by users in a browser. Somehow the vendor has hit that sweet spot of product positioning, sensible defaults and customisation capability and as a result they’ve carved out a market for themselves without armies of implementation experts and customisations.

If you’re selling enterprise software, my advice is to stop. Your industry will eventually be eaten by a few major SaaS vendors. So either carve out a niche and become one of those vendors, or switch to making a living gluing things together for a daily rate. Your customers will be happier. You’ll be happier, and you can stop wasting your Mondays arguing over edge cases and who’s funding the ongoing cost of tweaking things.