When we think of IT Support, we probably imagine a technical service for the computer users of an organisation. The de facto industry framework for managing that relationship is ‘IT Service Management’ (ITSM). However, when the IT support is being provided to external customers, or to users working for a different organisation, ITSM is not a precise fit. The core of ITSM, namely ITIL™, is even further away from the drivers and issues of external support. This article looks at an alternative, better suited approach.
The Channel and ECSM
External support is that provided by what we term collectively as ‘The Channel’. It includes manufacturers, vendors, software houses, distributors, resellers, outsourcing services, value-added resellers (VAR), and managed-service providers (MSP). The Channel is a huge sector of IT in its own right. Its workings require an approach to the provision of IT user and systems support quite different to that of ITSM. So different in fact, that it warrants a separate operating model. That model, described here, is External Client Support Management, ECSM.
Fundamentally, the difference is this: ITSM is a service; whereas ECSM is a business. In ITSM, the issue of money is largely limited to budgetary matters. In ECSM however, the provision of service is influenced by the service provider’s inherent profit motive. Internal support exists because it is needed, whereas external support exists to make money. This difference in emphasis on financial considerations affects how support is delivered in these two worlds in a number of ways. For example; in ITSM, there is no industry-adopted calculable cost-benefit analysis for support delivery.
An IT department running under the standard ITSM preachings may be able to report what IT costs to provide itself – but typically not the financial value of providing it, nor the cost of not providing it. ITSM typically pays only limited attention to the business realities surrounding its purpose. Trite clichés to do with “serving the business” may be commonplace, but in truth, ITSM has only scant financial roots. ITSM almost universally makes no direct link from its own success or failure to the business bottom line.
ITSM’s inherent lack of fiscal considerations beyond routine budgeting is a prominent mismatch to service provision in the channel companies. The players in the channel exist ostensibly to turn a profit, to show a return on investment for owners and stakeholders. This has a direct effect on how they provide support.
For example: when an ITSM Service Desk receives a report that a user’s computer is not functioning, this means that an internal user has ceased to produce on behalf of their employer. That reduced corporate productivity has a measurable and detrimental financial impact. It is in that Desk’s interests to restore that user to operation as quickly as possible*. However, if that Service Desk is outsourced – i.e. the user is external to the desk – the simple truth is that the Desk is serving a different financial imperative than the user is. The outsourced desk serves the channel company that owns it, not the bottom line of the user’s home organisation. In the internal desk, the user’s productivity is, or should be paramount. To the outsourced desk, however, the cost of fixing the fault is more of a priority than the loss of corporate productivity.
Importance of the SLA
In the relationship between a company and its outsourced service provider, the most common way to converge these distinct aims is the Service Level Agreement (SLA). That contract’s provisions ought to make a speedy service one of the provider’s assumed, as opposed to inherent priorities. This is why the speed of service typically may be subject to penalty clauses. This is to make providing a poor service less profitable than a good one. The level of service is converted into money in acknowledgement of the fact that ECSM is a business. Conversely, it would be very rare for an ITSM SLA to impose penalty clauses on inadequate internal IT support; because that might be to further damage a service that has already shown itself to be struggling.
Being a corporate internal service, ITSM typically serves a captive clientele. Short of the possibility of being outsourced, there is usually little to no official competition (although there may be unofficial ones, of course). A major risk to any monopoly such as this is of course complacency. When the customer has no alternative, incentives to improve the support service, or even to perform at a high level may be weak, or even absent.
Contrast that with the ECSM service. Wikipedia quotes research demonstrating the huge value of customer retention, and how important is customer satisfaction to this. For the external support provider, the financial driver to a good support service is clear. The ECSM clientele is not captive but free to choose an alternative supplier. But research show that there is nearly twice as much money to be made from existing customers than from new ones; so the strategic. importance of IT Support is likely to be much higher in ECSM than ITSM. We should expect this driver to be reflected in the methods, behaviour, and perceived value – both cultural and financial – of the external support service.
Managed Services Providers in the channel typically exist to provide a support for Production IT, as opposed to Development IT. Coding tends to stay in-house, while reactive support services may be considered for outsourcing. Other examples of services that tend to be retained are network infrastructure and desktop support. This is because a technical presence onsite is almost always still needed. In these cases, the relationship between an outsourced first line of support, and an in-house second line of resolver groups must be tightly controlled.
A concern for the first line then is to influence these resolvers to treat any enquiries escalated to them with the same alacrity as they were dealt with on receipt, so the outsourced service does not come to be blamed for any delays in enquiry resolution. But he who pays the piper, calls the tune. The host company can exert more influence over the external, paid provider, than can the MSP sending work the other way.
Detail in the contract, and a means of policing adherence on both sides, become paramount. In ECSM, the contract is king. The ITSM equivalent, namely the SLA, is often merely a hypothetical document.
Unlike the ITSM-based service, the world of ECSM is one of variety. MSPs typically have more than one client. This means considerable variety in the nature of enquiries, the culture of the users who call upon the service, the means of resolution and the workload-handling tools used. Channel companies and their support have to be flexible in the way they deliver their services. Staff selection looks for flexibility.
As they are essentially members of the private sector, channel companies are often unencumbered by the HR device of staff grading and cultural emphasis on rank that can limit IT management options in the public sector. This can affect everything from staff recruitment, through skillsets, to career options.
All Being Equal
There are numerous variants of course. There are examples of good and bad service, engaged and disinterested managers, flexibility and rigidity on both sides. The lifetime of ITSM thus far is short, only beginning to emerge after the 2007 ITIL refresh. Over that period, this author has noted a considerable fall in IT second line productivity. Service levels generally have flatlined at levels below what was being achieved before the growth of ITIL and ITSM. It is safe to say that where ITSM may have contributed process and certifiable knowledge where there may have been none, it has not really improved IT support service on an industry scale. Yet it remains a key framework for IT Services delivery.
Given the inescapable link between the quality of external support and the business success of the channel company that relies on it, something more appropriate than ITSM is needed in that sector. The above differences give rise to a need for different practices and priorities. Taken together, these alternative motives and methods fall under the umbrella of ECSM. I shall be offering more detailed studies of the ECSM way of working in future articles on these pages.
*It is ironic that this fiscal truth is not acknowledged in ITSM’s received wisdom, but that absence is outside of the scope of this article.