There and Back Again

We live in an automated world. We get news at our fingertips with the click of a button. We buy products and services online without talking to a service representative. We book airline tickets the same way. We go to an “FAQ” section of a website to answer our questions before picking up the phone. So you’d expect we’d want the same level of self-service over our networks, right? Not necessarily.

A range of customer service options exists for enterprises managing control of their networks. Self-service network control is much like the level of service described above: an automated means of interacting via voice response, Web interface and other electronic service solutions.

Full-service network control is the old-fashioned, often antiquated phone call to a human being who fields your concern and talks you through the process while tackling the problem.

Both options offer the same capabilities with frequently the same results, but more often, IT executives are starting to value the full-service model to address their network needs. This is particularly true when enterprises are dealing with a new service provider.

At the beginning of a relationship with a service provider, an enterprise is beginning to build confidence in the vendor. So, when there’s a glitch in the network (and there will always be some kind of glitch), the enterprise’s IT staff finds comfort in knowing they can pick up the phone and describe the problem to a knowledgeable person on the other end.

As the relationship grows and the IT staff becomes more comfortable with the network provider, a self-service model may become more appropriate.

Here are some questions to ask your service provider to determine the level of customer service that’s right for you:

Set expectations. Do your company executives and your service provider have a mutual understanding of what services are offered? If your organization is more hands-on, can your service provider give you the tools to manage the network on your own? And if you choose to be less involved, will the network operator efficiently manage the network for you?

Research. What is the service provider’s support model? Some service providers will take full responsibility for any problems until they prove otherwise, while other vendors will try to prove it’s not their problem without claiming any responsibility.

Trial. Trial. Trial. Don’t just take the sales team’s word for it. Does the network operator allow for a trial run of the system — from both a network and customer supporter angle?

Look for ongoing, knowledgeable support. As the relationship advances, your customer service needs will change. But one thing will never change, and that is your need for an accessible service provider. How is the provider going to work with you to determine your needs? Does the vendor offer a customer help line staffed by network engineers, giving customers a direct line to the brains behind the network?

Get engaged. Does the service provider engage and involve the IT staff in working with their engineers to troubleshoot the problem? This allows the enterprise to see first hand how the service provider deals with adversity. The IT staff of the enterprise will feel empowered to take control of future situations, eventually leading to a self-service customer approach, and most importantly, the IT staff is treated as part of the networking team.

A 2003 Gartner Dataquest survey found that 82% of IT managers agreed customer service needs to be faster and should be given more focus within the business.

On the contrary, many service providers will push customers towards a self-service solution too early in the relationship, because operating a full-service customer service system requires an investment of time and money.

And this is why self-service became the standard so quickly. It was easier for a service provider to multi-task and field multiple issues from many customers at once through an electronic interface. Addressing each problem individually as it came through the system meant devoting extra staff time and money. Why not save money and have your customers email you their issues so that you can address them on your own time?

Eventually, enterprises grew weary of voicing their problems to an automated system that couldn’t provide a spontaneous reaction. So the industry has had to take a giant step back and revert to the glory days, much like the time when all gas stations were full-service: a gasoline refill, a windshield wash, a tire check and an oil change, all included.

Service providers must offer a range of self-service and full-service options to meet the varied needs of enterprises. Some enterprises and network solutions providers are happy to “pay at the pump.” But for many, that little human touch in solving your network problem goes a long way.

Mike Jaffe is senior vice president of Operations at Masergy Communications, a network services provider.