The Support Chain: From Concept to Solution


by Ray Zhu
May 23, 2012

 

Consider this example of a type of incident that most, if not all, service desks have encountered in the past, and probably will in the future: Mary, an employee at Bank of America (BofA), locked her Dell laptop with a BIOS password, which she then forgot. Without her password, she can’t reboot her computer. She calls the service desk and creates an IT ticket. However, the service desk can’t unlock the BIOS password without calling the vendor. So, a service desk agent – let’s call him Kevin – calls Dell’s technical support center. Dell creates a separate ticket in its CRM system and Kevin records the interaction on a sticky note, which he affixes to his monitor.

It’s a simple issue, but there are three systems tracking it: the BofA ticketing system, the Dell CRM system, and Kevin’s manual “sticky-note-on-the-monitor” system. Issue escalation between organizations (i.e., from the support organization to a vendor) is often a manual process of phone calls, e-mails, and sticky notes. The delays, inaccuracies, and lack of accountability associated with this process lead to decreased customer satisfaction. In addition, this type of escalation is also costly, averaging $466 per contact, some twenty times higher than cases resolved on the first contact with the support center. An estimated 10 percent all IT issues require escalation to a vendor, meaning that a significant portion of the IT budget is being spent on vendor escalation.

But there is a solution. I would argue that customer satisfaction and operational efficiency could be dramatically improved if more organizations adopted a support chain automation process.

What Is the Support Chain?

In the business world, products (e.g., hardware, software, etc.) are often provided by third-party partners (vendors). This is known as the supply chain. In the example above, Dell and BofA IT are links in the supply chain for Mary’s laptop. But if supply chains deliver products, what delivers support? The support chain! All products require support, especially in information technology. In fact, for every supply chain, there is a corresponding support chain involving the exact same partners. Therefore, the support chain can be defined as the chain of partners involved in delivering support to the customers.

Support chains are an existing business phenomenon that we deal with every day. But because each partner uses a different system, we’re forced to coordinate support manually (i.e., the BofA IT Help Desk’s system does not interact with Dell’s CRM). The lack of support chain automation obviously decreases customer satisfaction and operational efficiency. What can we do about it?

How Do We Automate the Support Chain?

Let’s take a look at a methodology for making isolated, disparate partner systems work together to automate the support chain. For example, there are many ways to send a card from your home in California to your uncle in Florida: you could spend five days driving to your uncle’s home, or you could go to the post office and send it via the mail system. The former is analogous to today’s manual third-party escalation processes.

Obviously, the best way to automate your support chain (i.e., to connect the disparate support systems) is to use a “post office” model for support cases. This is how it works: 

  • There is an inbox and an outbox for each organization in the post office. 
  • The inbox is the conduit for your customers and partners to send you inbound escalations. It’s connected to your existing support system, so a new case is automatically created when a case arrives in your inbox. 
  • The outbox is the conduit for escalating cases to your partners and vendors. It’s also connected to your existing support system, so that you can initiate an outbound escalation from inside your system, which automatically creates an outbox entry and delivers it to the partner’s inbox.

Just as you don’t necessarily need to have a mailbox at your house when you can have a PO Box at the post office, the inbox can serve as an independent, web-based service desk system, while the outbox can allow you to create and manage vendor tickets independently, even if you don’t have an existing system (either in house or hosted). This feature is ideal for smaller organizations that don’t have incident tracking systems, or are looking to replace their existing systems. It’s also perfect larger organizations that want to build an automated support chain around their systems by bringing in their smaller partners. In addition, the inbox can also serve as a standby or failover support system when you have a system outage or when your system is shut down for maintenance.

Now that you know how the post office model works, here are three steps to help you get your support chain automated: 

  1. Select a vendor and sign up for an account that comes with an inbox and an outbox. 
  2. Connect your inbox and outbox to your existing support system, if you have one. Use the mailman (adapter) provided by your vendor to connect your inbox/outbox to your system (there are adapter-free technologies out there, so keep that in mind when searching for a vendor). If you don’t have an existing support system, your inbox can function as your web-based support system, as we have already discussed. 
  3. Setup your support chain partners.


With respect to step three above, you may be asking yourself how you get your partners to join your automated support chain. The answer is simple: online bill pay. When you setup online bill pay, you first sign yourself up, and then you add payees, one at a time. If the payee is in the bank’s database, you simply select it and proceed; if it’s not, you create a new payee record. The bank will transfer the funds electronically to payees that are already in the database, and it will send a check to any new payees you just created.

The post office works the same way as online bill pay. Once you’ve created new vendors in the system, they can then use the inbox directly for support, or they can use it to connect with your system. If a vendor declines to either use the inbox or connect to your system, it will still gets an e-mail triggered off of an inbound escalation to the inbox that you created for them, and the vendor’s reply will update your outbox.

Therefore, you can automate your support chain with or without the active participation of your partners or vendors. And because the case is created in their system automatically, without requiring any staff action, it’s actually in the vendor’s best interest to have a fully automated support chain.

In summary, automating the support chain will allow you to escalate cases or tickets to your partners or vendors directly, without manual notes or stickers, and to receive escalations from your partners or customers without ever answering the phone. This can dramatically improve customer satisfaction and operational efficiency, and give your organization a critical competitive edge. 

 

Ray Zhu is the founder and CEO of Hubcase. He has extensive IT and supply chain experience, as well as a PhD in physics. For more information about support chain automation solutions, e-mail Ray at ray@hubcase.com or visit www.hubcase.com .

Tag(s): process, escalation, process management

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