Ethical technology support partnerships – professional services organisations must demand it

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Does quality of service only come at a premium? And if so, does a premium price assure a premier service from a technology provider?    

Today, in the professional services sector – i.e. law firms, accountancy practices, management consultancies – there’s a distinct move towards value-based pricing. Consequently, professional services organisations are having to justify their fee rates, especially if they are charging more than their competition. Typically, they validate fee rates based on their depth of experience and skills on the subject matter areas and the quality of service. These attributes instil confidence in their customers on the basis that they will be well represented and served by the professional services firm in question vis-à-vis any other similar organisation.   

So, the same criteria should be applied to the pricing and quality of service provided by technology providers offering software support services to professional services organisations, right? 

Many professional services organisations find the quality and service levels of the support provided by their technology providers lacking, and those that do so should revisit what they are paying for it and determine whether that payment/agreement may in fact be the problem.  Typically, poor quality technology support providers are readier to discount their services to account for a lack of investment in the right number, quality and level of experience of staff.    

In reality, pricing mustn’t be the only driver of a purchase. Professional services firms must balance the cost of support against the quality of service delivery – alongside the technology provider’s intent for a long term and ‘ethical’ partnership.   

While ‘ethics’ is an imprecise concept, professional services firms can determine if their technology provider espouses an ethical approach to customer service and partnership or not. Here are some indicators and warning signs: 

Does your professional services firm employ IT teams to support users with specific applications such as document management, finance management, practice management, etc.? 

Today, many larger professional services firms are employing additional IT staff to provide second and third level support of their IT applications. Regrettably, in some cases this is because they cannot rely on the quality of support from the technology service provider who should be providing that service to them. However, a firm’s internal IT team should be focused on the more strategic aspects of the function, not on maintaining IT applications that should, and could, be handled by an external support partner. By selecting the right partners to support their applications, which can be numerous in professional services organisations, they can either reduce or redeploy their own precious full-time employees and contractors for the more mainstream and business critical projects. 

Is technical support pricing based on the size of your firm and/or number of users?   

The quality of support received by a five-man consultancy should be no different to that received by a 1000 user or more firm. For any professional services organisation, IT applications are core to their business, regardless of size. Small and medium professional services firms, who typically don’t have the necessary IT resource in-house, especially struggle to receive the required quality of support from their technology providers because they can’t afford the high premiums.  The pricing of the support package should be tailored to an individual firm’s requirements and not just to firms’ total head count. 

Is the support pricing based on the number of calls or incidents/issues handled? 

It’s the resolution of issues that count, not the number of calls made to the technology providers support organisation. The latter is no guarantee that the incident has been resolved to satisfaction and in a timely manner.  If a firm is placing a large number of help desk calls, it could well be a sign that training is required. A few hours training by the support partner could dramatically reduce the call volume thereby creating happier users and less stressed support staff. However, often this is not suggested by the support partner as pricing tends to be based on the number of calls, and not on their resolution. 

How long does the technology provider take to respond once a support call is made? 

We all know that frequently, the Support Contract, which contains details such as contractual response times; sits somewhere at the bottom of a drawer in the IT department. If the technology provider is taking hours to respond and days to resolve the issues, it’s a clear sign that the support organisation isn’t appropriately resourced and so, doesn’t have the capacity or knowledge to resolve incidents in a timely manner. A trend in lengthening delays in response to support queries should serve as a red flag to the professional services firm in question.   

How many support calls does your organisation make to the technology support provider? 

If your firm isn’t placing many calls to the technology provider, could it be that it’s because the internal team doesn’t have confidence in the vendor’s support set up – be it for technical capability or timely resolution? Something to investigate! No or minimal support calls is often a sign that all is well, but equally it can be signal that there is a lack of trust on the part of the firm in the technology provider’s support organisation.   

Is account management by your technology support provider visible? 

Often IT teams don’t call the technology support vendor for small issues or niggles due to lack of time and pressures of other demands from the firm. Good technology vendors should take a proactive approach to reaching out to customers to identify areas where the organisation can be of help – in addition to ensuring that the system provided, and the support function is serving their requirements efficiently. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the account management team may be invisible to the professional services firm because they don’t see potential for additional budget from the latter.   

Does your technology support vendor fully understand your IT environment? 

If a technology support provider isn’t entirely familiar with a firm’s IT environment, given how many systems and integrations there can be in a firm, resolving issues in a timely manner is difficult and indeed time consuming. Technology support providers that do regular review meetings and system health checks will likely have a much better understanding of the IT infrastructure, of course, but will also know whether they have the capability and knowledge to work in that environment. In fact, this is critical, prior to them taking on support for the firm. At that point, they can exercise the ‘ethical’ option of taking on the responsibility or indeed declining if they feel they don’t have the necessary skills or understanding.   

Way too frequently, professional services firms don’t closely monitor the contractual obligations of their technology support providers due to time constraints, lack of confidence in the latter’s ability to deliver or they may be merely ‘killing’ time until the contract expires. It’s time that firms demanded reasonable standards from their technology support providers. Equally, technology support providers need to undertake their own introspection to deliver services that are underpinned by professional ethics. It can’t always be only about the ‘money’. The real gratification comes from delivering first-rate customer service. It’s also a great business strategy.

Roy Russell, CEO and Founder of Ascertus Limited  

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