Support Needs, Options Differ for ASPs

Hosted model avoids some support issues, but customers say choices are limited.

Outsourcing through ASPs may not offer the service and support options available with enterprise software alternatives, but smart buying decisions will provide customers with considerable value. In general, application service providers avoid the support issues associated with compatibility and version control because the ASP controls the deployment environment and limits application interoperability. ASPs also handle frontline support issues that typically fall to a customer companys help desk staff.

Jack Miller, software development manager for Keller Williams Realty Inc., in Austin, Texas, wanted to improve information distribution to the companys 330 remote offices and 26,000 affiliated agents without reinventing the companys intranet. Miller turned to Inc.s Intranet Suite, which allowed Keller Williams to focus on distributing information and training its agents while providing core productivity functions such as calendaring and e-mail—all without investing heavily in building and supporting application software internally.

Miller said it would have cost $1 million to buy the software to build an equivalent system; he estimated that the service costs 10 percent of that annually.

In addition, from an internal support standpoint, Keller Williams didnt need to add staff to its help desk because Intranets. com provides frontline support to end users, said Miller. "We would have needed to add more people in-house and increased support hours and days, and there would be more costs," he said. "[Its a mission-critical] application because agents use it for their calendars and e-mail."

Like, ASP ViewCentral Inc. is using phone and e-mail support to help streamline front-line product support for its customers. In addition, the company uses a support database to provide the kind of services-reporting capabilities that are becoming prevalent with traditional software vendors.

For Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Inc., in Daly City, Calif., detailed reporting makes it easier to track issues and gauge usage requirements.

Genesys uses ViewCentrals Collaboration Management Solutions to manage enrollment for customer and partner training through Genesys University—Americas.

According to Carol Shaffer, director of Genesys University—Americas, ViewCentral provides support through phone, e-mail and a support database. As with premium software support services, issue tracking through the database gives Genesys better visibility into the quality of support it receives. "We find the support database useful," said Shaffer. "It gives us a way to track issue resolution regardless of whether the ticket was created over the phone or through e-mail. It helps us identify the issues we are struggling with."

What to look for in ASP support features
  • Support hours extended beyond U.S. business hours
  • Systems redundancy to improve uptime
  • Chat-based support for real-time support when traveling overseas
  • Training options that fit user base
  • Training agreements that include credits for new staff and new features
  • Dedicated help desk system to shoulder basic support burden
  • Reporting on support usage and incident resolution
  • Feedback mechanism for suggesting new features
  • Customization options to integrate with existing applications and data

ViewCentral charges for the service based on registrations, so the registration-tracking feature in the support database is particularly helpful, said Shaffer. "[ViewCentral is] very good about monitoring our registration usage and flexible in allowing us to carry over blocks of registrations as needed," she said.

Both Shaffer and Keller Williams Miller said they didnt have a lot of options from which to choose when it came to their ASP support contracts but added that their service providers basic levels of support and good customer service cover what they need.

When it comes to dealing with an ASP, uptime is an important consideration.

In practice, the difference between projected and guaranteed uptime comes down to an ASPs track record. Companies researching uptime claims should spend time talking to as many of an ASPs customers as possible to fully understand if the provider measures up to claims and is responsive to service outages.

Shaffer said Genesys hasnt experienced any downtime with ViewCentral, adding that specific guaranteed uptime was not contracted. "There was projected uptime, and the terms were acceptable given the price," she said.

Keller Williams has also been satisfied with Intranets.coms uptime. Miller said his company has experienced only a single outage in the two-and-a-half years it has been using the service, and Intranets. coms support staff proactively contacted Keller Williams about the connection loss and subsequently added redundancy to Intranets.coms data center Internet connection.

Miller and Shaffer noted that it is important to maintain a close relationship with service providers, especially when it comes to needed customizations.

Keller Williams, for example, worked with to automate pushing information out to agents. Miller said he plans to do more customizations to help with online training, a key business driver for the realty company. Miller is also working with to customize training based on the companys applications.

Shaffer said ViewCentral is attentive to requests for new support features. "From the very start, ViewCentral has been eager to ask us how to improve the product," she said. "When a release is coming up, they ask what our priorities are. That is hard to quantify based on a spec; its more of a gut call."