Wednesday, 28 August 2013

All Support is not created equal

When I first started consulting in learning technologies my role seemed focussed entirely on implementing Learning Management Systems (LMSs) for organisations.  The aim was always for a smooth change management piece that brought in a new piece of vital learning technology into the organisation and the target was always to get the project 'across the line'.  Over the last couple of years, I've noticed a shift that means that whilst the line is still there, the focus needs to shift well beyond that line.  In short, ongoing support now accounts for the vast majority of what we do in the learning technologies space.

The issue is that if I call it 'support' what does that actually mean?  Support obviously comes in a variety of shapes and sizes (not to mention costs!), from a very low-level forum type support to tier 1 support where any user in your organisation can speak directly to the supporting organisation and even strategic consulting and high-level support. From a customer perspective what can you expect from your supporting organisation and what are these type of support?

At Kineo Pacific we offer 3 standard levels of support Gold, Silver and Bronze - but actually that alone tells you nothing except there are 'levels' and Gold will be the top one!  Instead let me describe quickly what the real things that distinguish levels of support (you can work out which of our levels they fall under for yourself if you want to - just ask me for our documentation!).

Below are some types of support.  These are neither exhaustive or exclusive and most good support packages will have elements of more than one of these.

Community Support.  It would be easy to write off community support as an ineffective and long-winded way of getting help (and sometimes it's exactly that too), but a product that has an established user base can sometimes offer some really great help.  A couple of examples spring to mind here; Moodle is one as it has a very well established user base (Moodle actually accounts for about a quarter of ALL LMS implementations globally) and there are lots of willing people sharing about it.  The problem comes in that it's a bit like searching on Google… it's really easy to search for something if you know what you're looking for.  The other issue is that a large number of enthusiastic amateurs can really send you off down some uncomfortable rabbit holes.  Another good example of community support is the Articulate community; this is a different type of support group with more support from Articulate than just users, but they have clearly invested in it and it does provide useful sources of information for users.  The problem with community support of course is that it relies on the community and often as not leaves you feeling pretty frustrated for anything beyond obvious issues.

Tier 1 Support.  This is the 'help desk' support where your own users don't turn to you as the expert but use third party support from your supplier instead.  We do this with some organisations that want to offer their LMS for external users and simply don't have the administrators or expertise to look after all the potential issues external users may have.  This type of support is great if you don't have any in-house expertise or time and although it's usually quite expensive it's often cost-effective when compared with the costs of employing a full or even part-time administrator to do the job.  We tend to call this administration rather than support, but the reality is it is still a form of support - just more direct.  Typically this type of support is accessed in a ticketed manner either by call, email or web interface.

Tier 2 Support.  The bulk of support plans fall into this category; it's about the supplier being there to help your organisation by supporting your key people rather than the whole organisation.  For an LMS this usually means getting support for your Systems Administrator, L&D personnel or trainers and system owner.  Ideally this will be ticketed or system controlled so you can find out what is going on!  A tip for the top is to limit the number of people able to access the support as most of these type packages are usually measured by 'hours' of contact and you don't want to find that some 'enthusiasts' have used up all your support whilst your key staff are left needing more for the actual vital areas of the business.

Real-time, Rapid, Standard, Slow… Okay, these may not be the actual labels given by the supplier, but there are varying levels of support response you can expect.  Real-time essentially means you can pick up the phone at any time and get help.  Not a recording or a logging but instantly.  Whilst this sounds great the actual reality is that you will pay a lot of additional money for something that usually isn't that necessary.  Don't get me wrong if we're talking technical support and keeping your LMS up and running then that's pretty much what you'd expect (99% plus uptime), but for the support of using an LMS then that's a different matter again.  "Quick it's a learning emergency, is there a teacher in the room!" is not something you'll likely hear to often.  All jokes to one side there shouldn't be too many emergencies in the administration of your LMS or much training on it (again, except those of a technical nature) so the need for real-time support is generally quite low.  You could reasonably expect some level of same-day support though as this can prevent having to continually wait days to get anything done.  Our 'normal' support sits around half-day and rapid around two hours - but generally it's much quicker.  The other good thing to note is that support is always instantaneous then the supporting organisation is not working with other clients or you have a dedicated support just for your organisation; that means that they may not be spending much time working with clients on their problems and therefore upskilling themselves and staying up-to-date on the system.

Local Support.  Is it essential to have support in the same city, country or hemisphere?  Certainly language barriers can prove an issue to support, but whether or not you need your supporting organisation in the same country depends on several factors.  I've worked and trained with clients from Australia, UK, US and here in New Zealand.  The only difference between any for me has been the ability to go 'on-site' and face-to-face.  For a couple of the organisations that really wasn't necessary with the modern tools at our fingertips but if you as an organisation need local support then you should clearly opt with an organisation as close to you as possible - at least with a presence in your market and general area.  You'll find the time zones can make a big difference too of course!

High-level Support/Consultancy.  So getting support for your administrator is one thing, but who is there to support you if you're the higher level manager?  Support doesn't necessary mean 'how do I do this?' and in fact the higher level support goes much further to look strategically at how we handle updates, changes and even internal issues that may affect the learning across the organisation.  If this seems like a consultancy piece it absolutely is, and I believe that consultancy is an important part of consultancy that can make an enormous difference to an organisation and yet is often completely overlooked.

Escalating Support.  I think it's vital in any relationship that there's some clearly defined roles.  Whilst the relationship between the support individual or team and the organisation's team or administrator, there's also higher levels of relationship that need to exist - even if they're not really involved beyond existing.  I think it's vitally important that if you're engaging support that there's someone you can turn to above the individual that you normally engage for support.  Our structure has three basic levels that usually cover our needs; from day-to-day support staff to consultants and a level above - whether you refer to that as the relationship manager or simply the manager of the consultants is probably semantics, but it's great that managers in the organisations we support can find someone to talk to when they're not getting the support or even the answers they need.

Feedback.  Okay, this isn't strictly part of the support, but it is part of the support agreement.  As a customer you could reasonably expect a level of feedback from the supporting organisation; how much support have you used and got remaining as a minimum, who is asking the questions and even a full breakdown of how time is spent.  It's also reasonable that a supporting agency would ask the question 'how are we doing?' - after all you'd expect that from anyone involved in learning right?

All in all a great support relationship is dependent on many things; ultimately a successful support arrangement is one you and your teams feel confident that you can do the tasks you need to and when you can't; well, there's someone there for you to help that you can rely on.  If not, best give me a buzz...