When it comes to technical support, no one likes to receive an urgent service call at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday that takes hours to untangle and resolve. Similarly, we don't rejoice over being scheduled for the on-call pager. Things break down at odd hours and we end up dropping personal plans to deal with the crisis of the moment, which is almost always both important and time-sensitive.
Changing gears to fix a problem with a past site interrupts current projects. Support pulls attention away from design or new installation. It feels like time is lost as someone has to re-acquaint himself with a past project's set up. Current projects are stuck at a stand-still while we troubleshoot another client's issue. Integrators are already stretched thin with regards to personnel. They need their people for on-going projects and development, and it's hard to give up manpower or use project developers to support past projects and systems.
The answer to some of these dilemmas is to treat your support offering as a client based service, devoting personnel solely to taking care of challenges that crop up with past project sites. Personnel can be rotated out periodically for project work, but the point is to develop a deep pool of individuals with a wide range of knowledge. When they hunt down solutions for clients, employees get cross-training in all areas of integration, such as programming, networking, wiring and instrumentation. Having people with broad programming knowledge and strong problem-solving skills can only help your company.
Offering support provides open lines of communication with clients, both past and present, keeping relationships current. Regular interactions about small issues help provide context for communication about larger issues, and continued support conversations are often a source of new project leads and future work. When a new project comes up, clients naturally choose to work with a company they know and trust.
Clients appreciate good support, and they benefit greatly from having access to a dedicated support team. When issues come up, clients can count on a team focused on correcting their issue quickly and helping their plant get back online.
Through support, client personnel learn new information or approaches to troubleshooting their own systems. They can acquire solutions given them and gradually take on more problem solving on their own. There is a natural transition from hand holding to consulting to occasional check-ins or periodic on-site visits for fine tuning. In this way, clients learn more about their own systems and gain confidence about their facility.
As industry and commercial production has continued to advance and strive for higher efficiency, the complexity of the technology, as well as the need to support it, has also increased. Systems are no longer just controlling equipment but are also responsible for other tasks such as data capture, visualization and quality control. When there is a dedicated pool of personnel to support clients, integrator companies gain knowledge and experience while fostering familiarity with client projects. This process results in cross-trained employees, on-going relationships with clients, leads for future work and, perhaps most importantly, focus on the clients' satisfaction by addressing their changing business needs.
No matter what product or system we offer, we are all in the business of keeping our clients happy. Doing this well must include ongoing technical support.
Adam Van Schepen, is manager of support services and quality assurance at Interstates Control Systems, Inc., a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Interstates’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange by CSIA.