support

Infor Takes ERP Support to the Xtreme

On January 31, 2012 Infor announced a new customer support program called Infor Xtreme. The program, which offers a choice of three different plans, consists of services that are specialized, personalized, social and proactive. It also includes new supporting technology and perhaps most importantly, it includes real people. Here we explore the why, what, when and how Infor intends to deliver extreme support.

Why?

This new program has in large part been prompted by Infor’s new leadership. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Charles Phillips was hired in October 2010. In a recent interview with IDG News, Chris Kanaracus asked what he initially saw as needing to be fixed when he arrived at Infor. Mr. Phillips responded, “The priority for me was reorienting resources into products and away from other areas. We basically reduced our expense in the back office and shifted all of that into product development. I think that the company had a stable customer base, but hadn’t delivered enough innovation and change. Some customers tend to view that as a good thing, but I think you’re better off shipping a lot of innovation even if it means a little disruption.”

Well, if you are delivering innovation and change, and expecting some disruption as a result, you better be prepared to handle it. As a result, Infor is redefining its support, with the goal of serving its customers better and exceeding what has become known as traditional product support.

The new support plans themselves are not disruptive. Customers are not required to sign new agreements. Existing standard support will automatically be converted to the Infor Xtreme plan and those with standard plans plus 24X7 Critical Incident Support (CIS) will convert to Xtreme Premium.

These plans offer more support, not less.  Xtreme Elite plans will be offered as a third, additional option, adding even more features. Pricing doesn’t change unless the customer decides to upgrade from its current plan.

What do ERP customers want?

While Infor’s motivation appears to have the customers’ best interest in mind, how do ERP customers and prospects feel about support these days? The most recent Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study collected data from over 900 survey respondents to rank the priority of different selection criteria in evaluating and selecting Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions, which represents the lion’s share of Infor’s product portfolio. Participants were asked to rate on a scale of zero to four, each of several criteria, including the quality and availability of support services. Zero was “not a consideration and four was “must have/most important.”

Figure 1 shows the mean (average) priority of each of these criteria, as well as the percentage of respondents that checked “must have / most important” for each. It is clear, few criteria are more important than support services.

Figure 1: Importance of Selection Criteria

 

Selection Priority

% “Must Have”

Fit and Functionality

3.46

58%

Ease of use

3.46

55%

Flexibility to address changing business needs

3.38

51%

Quality and availability of vendor support services

3.26

49%

Total cost of ownership

3.21

42%

Integration technologies and capabilities

3.17

41%

Ease and speed of implementation

3.16

41%

Software cost

3.03

30%

Ability to tailor functionality without programming

3.03

37%

Must be an integrated suite rather than multiple point solutions

2.99

37%

Deployment model

2.27

15%

Ability to access ERP through a mobile device

2.27

18%

The Times They Are A-Changing

This is a signal that times are indeed changing. There was a time when customers were more likely to ask for a la carte support plans that allowed them to subscribe to less, rather than more support. Of course the prime motivation was to pay less. But when customers ask for less, this is also a signal that the customers and/or products are stagnant. If you are stuck on very old releases, or legacy solutions based on outdated technology, you don’t want a support plan; you want an insurance policy. And when you buy an insurance policy, the best possible scenario is that you never need it or use it.

Vibrant, active and growing companies need support plans. Evidence that more companies fit into this category lies in the data showing which release survey respondents are operating on. The percentage of companies operating on the latest release of their ERP solution (44%) has never been higher (23% are one release behind and 20% are two or more releases behind.)

Also a significant portion (13%) is in the process of implementing. Combine this with the average age of current ERP implementations, which is an all-time low of 5.5 years, and we conclude that many companies today are far from stagnant.

But the very nature of support is also changing. If you are like most technology users today, you expect some level of self-service to be available. You want to search to see if a problem has already been reported and resolved. If it has, you want to be able to download the fix immediately. If you want instruction on how to do something, a video you can play (and re-play) on demand is extremely useful. But if you don’t know what’s wrong, if you don’t know where to look, or you need help in deciding how to proceed, there is nothing more frustrating than being caught in the seemingly endless loop of “press 1 for sales, press 2 for support, if you need to speak to a representative, please stay on the line [forever.]”

It is interesting that as business becomes more “social” we actually have less human contact, not more. “Social” is good for socializing a thought or even asking for some general advice. “Social” is not good if it prevents you from speaking to an experienced support engineer. Therefore, it is not surprising to find 30% of respondents do not feel their service needs are being met today. Almost half (48%) feel their needs are generally being met, but service could be improved. Only about one in five respondents (21%) indicated their service needs were being fully met.

As much as self-service options are a must, those can’t be the only options. This is why Infor’s message, “We’re there when you need us,” combined with skilled support resources co-located with the development organization is so very critical.

What And How?

So let’s dig a little deeper into what is actually behind the Infor Xtreme support plans. As noted earlier, these plans are a combination of services, technology and people.

Services

Infor uses five different adjectives to describe its support services: specialized, personalized, social, proactive and accountable.

Specialized: Infor has never had a “one size fits all mentality.” And indeed its launch of Infor10 last year accentuates this focus. Infor10 Workspace delivered a new user interface, which unifies information from multiple applications and sources on one screen.  Yet Infor didn’t stop there. It used Infor10 as the basis for designing, developing, testing, and delivering full industry suites. Infor assembled suites of software tailored to the specific requirements of a range of important industries, including:

Because its software is not designed, developed or delivered as general or generic solutions, even through multiple acquisitions, the company never moved to a single support center. Instead it stayed where the people were, the people involved in the development and support of individual products. Support is all about solving issues quickly, so intimate knowledge of the industry, the product and the customer helps the team get on point about an issue quickly.

Personalized: Not only does the choice of support plans allow customers a choice, but this choice is made per product installed. While it is not unusual for an Infor customer to have multiple Infor products, the industry norm would be to require all products to be covered under the same support plan. However, Infor customers might choose a higher level of support for one product as they are embarking on a new implementation, major company reorganization or expansion, or other kinds of special events.

A brand new customer portal, which includes newly delivered support apps, also brings personalization to a new level.  These support apps can be completely personalized.  Customers determine what they want to see and how they want to see it.  They can customize the support apps through the use of drag and drop features, change their user interface (UI) theme and use quick filters to easily get what they need.  Logging of issues is quick, easy and wizard-based. Preferences can be saved. Infor was striving to make it “beautiful” and consumer grade. So far customer feedback has been positive and at least one early adopter has called it “pretty.”  

Social: Infor has been tweeting important product news to customers. But perhaps the most important aspect of social is that of community building. Customers are able to join online communities with their peers with the same product, environment, configuration or industry challenges. While early in the development stage, Infor would like to get to the point where customers add an increasing volume of content that is shared. Customers can join any number of communities, or start their own.

“Social” should be about people helping people. The risk here is that unstructured conversations can turn negative and unproductive. But the value to be gained is certainly well worth the risk.

Proactive:  The goal here is to eliminate problems wherever possible even before customers experience them. As problems that could impact all companies or individual customers are identified, Infor will issue Xtreme Alerts.

Accountable: Support staff being “accountable” to the customer should be a given. However, it is often all too easy to shelter the members of the development organization from this accountability, purportedly so as to avoid distracting them from innovation. But Infor has chosen to co-locate the support and development organizations, making it much harder for the developers to hide from the reality of the real world.

Technology

The adjectives above describing service, along with the goals they imply, would be far more difficult to achieve without some supporting technology. At the heart of this new technology is ION Support Assistant (ISA). This is an automated tool that gathers information about the customer’s unique environment and provides it back to the Xtreme Support engineers.

This is not “spy software” meant to police the installation; it collects data that the support engineer would otherwise have to gather verbally on each support call. Have you ever been on the phone with a support technician, and thought, “Shouldn’t they know all this already?”  Infor may already know what products the customer has licensed, and may know which versions, releases and patches have been shipped. But without confirmation, that engineer would not know what had actually been installed and implemented.  And this data is far from static. Automating the collection of this data saves time and provides more information than might ordinarily be collected, which could indeed help resolve the issue more quickly. And just think, if the first support engineer needs to pass you off to another, you won’t have to go through it again!

The portal mentioned in the Personalization section previously is another piece of technology that adds value to the process. Having a portal is not something entirely new to Infor customers. Having this portal is new. However, the old version is still available to existing customers to help as they transition to the new terminology and the new features of Xtreme Support.

A nice feature that has been added to the portal is a set of analytics that will summarize previous incidents and the results, including response times and resolutions.

People

It is refreshing to find that in spite of automation, online portals and social media, Infor views its team of experts as an equally important element of Xtreme Support. These are long-tenured employees, with deep product knowledge, often enhanced by deep industry knowledge. They are co-located with the development team, so that they, with the help of their customers, keep the developers focused on both innovation and quality.

While all Xtreme Support customers have access to recorded briefings and how-to assistance in the form of training videos, the Premium and Elite Support customers also have additional access to other key Infor  staff through interactive briefings and Elite customers have further access to senior level support and development resources. Elite Support also includes an invitation to participate in Infor’s customer executive advisory boards, which provide a direct channel to provide input and feedback to Infor product experts and executives.

In addition to the regular Xtreme Support team, Infor has also created a new team of Xtreme Elite Account Managers. This was a position that Lawson (acquired by Infor last year) had created and Infor saw the value it added to the support equation. These Elite Account Managers are not commission-based and in fact are not allowed to sell the customer anything. Each manages an average of 10 accounts. They not only help resolve issues, but are also instrumental in helping Xtreme Elite customers in their planning processes.

When?

The answer is, “Now.”  Plans have been available since October 2011.

Key Takeaways

Support is hardly the sexy side of any software business. While new development is all about the latest technology and the most exciting new innovation, support is all about getting the job at hand done and doing it well. It’s about making the most of what you have. It can produce that awful sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when something goes wrong. It is hard work and sometimes it can be a thankless task.

Being prepared for disruption and having the right tools, technology and people may not be glamorous, but in the end, it is what delivers real value to the customer. It is refreshing to see Infor striving for more innovation and change and comforting to see they understand that innovation comes with a price they seem willing and able to pay.

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