(Ping! Zine Issue 51) – Servers, operating systems, control panels, and programming languages are just some of the many things that web hosts (and their clients) have to work with on a day-to-day basis. When a product or service has such depth and breadth, so do the support roles around it. The problem that so many web hosts encounter, though, is how to define the different roles in support.Companies that have complex products and services (web hosts included) constantly have internal debates and discussions as to what level of support should be provided standard and, as an extension of that, what level of support should be offered as a premium upgrade (if any). Once they decide what level(s) of support to offer, the companies then have to decide what the particular levels of support should and should not include.
A majority of companies tend to use the terms “support”, “account management”, and “consulting”. There are variations of the terms within every industry and within many companies, but those seem to be the most universal terms.
The first step in deciding what level to offer as your standard service level is to ask yourself a few questions.
Start by considering your product or service. Do you offer standard, low-price shared hosting accounts? Or does your average client have three or four fully loaded dedicated servers with you? If you offer the former, chances are most of your clients don’t need high-end consulting or account management. If you offer the latter, account management is probably expected and consulting should probably be an option. It is just a matter of thinking of what you currently offer (and what will you offer in the near future) and to whom you cater.
Be weary of basing your decision solely on the average amount of money your average client pays. Some products or services are simply more complex than others. If you consider some of the SaaS (software as a service) offerings on the market today, you’ll quickly realize that some of them get very complex, despite a low initial price tag. With that example, it’s logical to offer consulting as a possible add-on to the complex software, even though the price of the software is relatively low.
Before starting to define roles, the final step is to consider what your existing clients have asked you to do. Are they consistently asking for things that are beyond your normal scope of support? Or are they barely utilizing the professional tools and resources already available to them? If clients are asking for more than what’s provided by default (the usual case), it may be time to re-look that situation and see what alternatives should be presented to clients.
Once you have a thorough understanding of your clients’ support needs, your current offerings, and the depth and breadth of the product and services you offer, it is time to define particular support roles for your company.
There is no one size fits all role definition. All companies and all industries are different. What one company in a particular industry considers to be account management is likely very different than what your company in the web hosting industry considers to be account management.
I typically look at the role of support as a reactive service. In a traditional support setup, the client calls a general phone number or emails a general email address with their question, a case or ticket number is assigned, and then someone from a pool of representatives responds. There usually isn’t a personal relationship with individual clients and the company.
In the support setup, there are of course cases where individual representatives get to know individual clients, but that is simply because the client and the representative have been there for however many months or years happens to be the case. By pure frequency of contact, they get to know each other to some degree. This isn’t built into the process or what a majority of clients experience, though.
The next step, account management, probably varies more from company to company or industry to industry than any other role. Account management is usually a support situation in which a client has a personal, individual contact at a company. This person is available to answer the client’s questions and serves as a liaison between the client and the rest of the company (technical support, sales, billing, etc.). The account manager is quite simply, responsible for managing all aspects of the account.
The best account managers develop a relationship with their clients where they’re able to be proactive. If an account manager can predict the needs of a particular client and make relevant suggestions before it becomes too late (i. e. suggesting load balancing before, instead of after, it becomes absolutely necessary).
Clients like the account management setup because they have an individual, as opposed to a group or team, to contact within the company. They have a relationship with an individual instead of a relatively faceless department. The best examples of account management are a mix of support and sales, with some consulting thrown in.
The final option is the consulting option. Consulting is the most involved and most personalized of the three roles. Consultants usually have a particular specialty (client service, sales management, wikis, etc.) and are hired by clients to help address particular challenges.
Consulting is usually hands on and is less sales focused than account management. While consultants likely won’t miss an opportunity to recommend a product or service offered by their employer (or in this case, you, the web hosting company), their primary goal is to help the client resolve his or her challenges or complete whatever the objective was of the particular project. It isn’t uncommon for a consultant to recommend products or services that aren’t offered by their employer (again, the goal is a solution, not necessarily a sale).
Many companies offer consulting services that focus on getting the most out of their product or service. If you are a hosted CRM provider, your clients might go to you for consulting help on how to get the most out of their new CRM. The consultant would help them develop the appropriate processes, help to train the staff accordingly, etc. It is far more involved than account management, but can also have a very narrow focus.
Once you’re familiar with the basic roles and what those particular roles entail, it probably won’t be difficult to decide which ones are best for your company.
It is okay to start out small by offering the different roles in small dosages to various clients (i. e. offer account management to your best clients). By starting out small, you’ll not only learn about the different roles, but you will also have a chance test them with your company’s products and services.
Actual, hands on experience and practice are by far the best way to learn what support roles do and don’t work for your company and equally, importantly, for your clients.