Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Putting The aaS Back In SaaS

A lot of the companies that I talk to who are considering some sort of SaaS (Software as a Service) strategy - seem to be missing one important aspect: the Service part of the equation.

They have the first part: software, and they're usually pretty good at it (or they would have been out of business a long time ago). Even if their current tool is lacking (and 99% of the time it is - and thus why I'm talking to them) they generally have a good idea of where they want to go - and most of them want to get into the SaaS business in some way.

So, they focus on the things that they have done the best in the past - plan what parts of the software will be ported to the browser, and what the "user experience" should be, and they have a good idea from their customers on what they would be willing to pay, etc.

But they generally miss one important aspect - the service aspect.

This is something that's easy to overlook - because, after all, one of the reasons customer like the SaaS idea is because of the low barriers to entry, the lack of having to install and maintain software, the predictive pricing, etc. But what happens when one of these users gets stuck? What happens when (not IF, but WHEN) the service goes down? What if someone wants some kind of customization? What if this all happens at 2:00am from a customer in Europe?

The important part of any SaaS offering is the service part - and I would argue it's just as important as the actual software part, and how a company deals with customer service and technical support becomes really focused when there's no one else to blame.

It's not running on their hardware - so they don't need to "get the latest service pack" - or "uninstall the latest service pack." There's no client-side software (usually) - so there goes the "it's conflicting with something on your computer" portion of the excuses. In general, all the "good excuses" for flawed software or a crappy customer service experience just go away.

To be fair - the expectation of service is also tied to whether or not the offering is free or not, as well as how front-line business critical the application is. The more expensive and business-critical to a customer who is trying to get their work done it is - the higher the expectation of good service becomes.

People also recognize that you get what you pay for. If you are using the free version of Google Apps - and the service goes down - you're not only S.O.L. - but you really can't (shouldn't) bitch about something you're getting for free.

On the other hand, if you're paying Salesforce.com $125 per user per month - and their service goes down - and your whole business comes to a halt as a result... that's the time when the service portion of the program comes into play.

Remember: it's really about how you handle the communication and support when things go wrong that stick in people's mind. Even if you have 15 straight years of up time, they will be screaming and yelling when the site goes down for an hour.

So, be prepared. Think about how to provide excellent customer service, excellent technical support and still make a good profit. Don't be afraid to have different tiers of support - and have a strategy to provide SLAs (Service Level Agreements) to customers (for an additional fee, of course).

Regardless of your SaaS strategy from a technical point of view - don't forget to cover your aaS!

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