Monday, October 09, 2006

Reducing SaaS Operational Costs (II)

In the last post Reducing SaaS Operational Costs I discussed how utilizing two strategies, Automate and Delegate can enable economies of scale, so that the cost of adding new customers is marginal.

Following is a review of some of the areas in which these strategies will prove to be cost effective over the long run, and reduce the probability of the operation collapsing under pressure.

Professional Services
Remember - “customization – OUT; configuration - IN”. The software should be designed to allow maximum configuration without altering the code. This includes branding the software and, more importantly, allowing the customer to define names and custom fields to various entities of the product.
Build the architecture to support Web Service for painless integration with in-house systems, then Let your customers do the integration.
Train the trainer. Find the champion of your solution at the customer, and grow her. Help her promote the product and build a well trained team that will take the burden off your shoulders, including some of the sales and marketing efforts.

Provisioning should be a seamless process with no (or minimal) human involvement. A customer should be able to sign up to the service and the resources should be provided automatically. A customer-centric application is essential and administration should be delegated to the customer with multiple-hierarchy supported.
Client side components should be downloadable with self-installation. If the application supports an on-premise agent, it is essential that the backend application is version-backward compatible, to avoid the upgrade nightmare.
In order to ensure that the application is up, available and performing to the SLA requirements automation should be used to the maximum. This begins with monitoring the network, resources and the application. A dashboard should depict the status of all resources with the ability to drilldown to sub systems and components. Alerts should be used and crossed referenced in order not to create false alarms. Use automation scripts for self recovery whenever possible and keep extensive logging for postmortem of downtimes, because they are going to happen no matter how good you are.
And while we’re at it, make sure that R&D provides well-tested, easy-to-use data migration tools for version upgrades. Utilize change management and patch management tools and processes to lower costly human errors.
Maximize self help systems – FAQs & online knowledge base - to reduce customer calls.
Add new services seamlessly – build the capability into the application management systems.

Naturally, a SaaS offering reduces greatly the need for direct marketing and sales. Cyber sales will take most of the burden and referrals will become an important sales tool. Design a good interactive demo site and allow customers to test the application for a limited time as a proof of concept. This process should not involve human intervention on the ISV side.
If your service is becoming a commodity, allow for self registration and on-line payments. This will greatly reduce the sales cycle and the number of people involved.
Automate the metering and thus, the billing process.

Customer Support
Remember that a SaaS customer service rep replaces some of the functions of the customer organization's HelpDesk. That means that your reps will be getting a LOT more traffic than your average packaged software company. And when bad things happen, everybody will be screaming bloody murder and bog down your communication lines. Therefore have an updated status page where customers can view the responsiveness and availability of your production system(s).
A self service portal will go a long way to reduce the call volume. A rich and well maintained knowledge base will do that as well (check out all the Freemium sites - they will not invest in a non-paying customer, yet they want happy customers as bad as you do). User forums are also a great way to harness the goodwill and knowledge of the community to save on training and problem resolution resources.

In conclusion
The OSS (operations support system) should at least support provisioning, access, self admin, metering, and report tools. There are a number of available platforms for purchase that provide the OSS. They may be a good solution for your operation.

I have touched upon many areas and providing for full automation and the technology enabling delegation may not be available from day one. It is therefore imperative for the Ops team to work closely with product marketing, R&D and QA and to participate in product discussions and development planning.

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