Sunday, November 08, 2009

Inter-department Communications

(Yet another chapter in my upcoming book on SaaS Service Operations - Your feedback has been great so far; thanx and keep it coming.)

"The Problem with Communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished" - George Bernard Shaw

While it is true of any institution, communications between the various silos of the organization is particularly vital for the successful operations of a SaaS company.

The reason are that things happen much faster in an on-demand company, customers are in constant contact with the company and expectations are high for a fast turn around.

At a product company, when bad things happen to the application, nine times out of ten, the software company doesn’t even know about it, and the customer’s IT deals with it. The end user is rarely in touch with the product provider. The product salespeople tend to ‘shoot and forget’ once the commission has been paid. If things go bad, the customer can mostly blame itself for not deploying or maintaining the software correctly or for not doing its due diligence.

Multiple channel interaction
At a service company, on the other hand, a typical customer will interact through multiple channels continuously. The CIO may have a direct line to the SaaS CEO. The IT department may be in touch with professional services, and managers of the service on the customer end could be speaking with the Program Management group. Members of the Operations group will inevitably be in touch with supervisors or IT managers on the customer side, and Sales will have developed personal relationships with managers on the customer’s side, as they nurture the relationship to expand the sales in-house. And, of course, the end users might be in daily contact with Customer Support.

Customers, naturally, will be irritated when things aren’t going smoothly regarding any one of multiple scenarios. It may concern a delayed service initialization, an undelivered bug fix, an incomplete customization, an unsatisfactory report, or (ouch) a service outage. Part of the allure of on-demand service is a much faster turn around time in every aspect. The customers believe it and expect it.
Imagine the customer’s frustration when they call in any one of their contacts within the company to inquire about unresolved issues, and that person has no idea what they are talking about.

Disconnect between the groups
Typically, a SaaS company will be using a CRM that serves Sales and Customer Service. In many organizations the Sales view is radically different from the Support view and information available to one is not available to the other.
It is rare that other members have access to the CRM. Operations, Engineering, Professional Services and Program Management keep their own records in different systems for various reasons and are not trained in using a CRM.
Not surprisingly, the different silos do not have much knowledge of what each department is doing, and I have seen continuous tension between various groups and quite a lot of finger pointing when bad things happen.
It is also typical to see a startup company, where everybody occupies a single open space office, yet where so little communication takes place between the groups and political affiliations begin to form.
Resources are always limited and the demands are constantly growing; how does one prioritize the tasks and attention to a particular customer?

Service Outage and Communication
To illustrate through an acute, but none too rare, example: Many a time I had experienced a service outage that, for obvious reasons, took everybody’s focus and energy. A couple of offices down the hall sat the Sales team and across the continent were various regional Sales reps. They were not informed of the outage since they play no role in detecting, classifying or resolving the issue, and all those that knew about it were busy trying to fix it, or taking customer calls. Often the customers, especially the senior members who have established a close relationship with the sales reps, would call Sales or Program Management immediately asking for updates. The uninitiated sales rep would answer that they are not aware of any outage and perhaps the problem is local to the customer (This would usually trigger a nasty remark about the incompetency of the provider). The experienced sales rep would mutter something in embarrassment and then storm over to the Ops group demanding an explanation why, once again, Sales was not notified of the outage. Not only does the company look bad, but it also raises unnecessary tension between the groups
(This issue will be addressed in the chapter on Incident Management)

Recurring Mandated Meetings
Inter-department communication is the answer. If the managers of the different departments talk to each other on a regular and formal basis, issues can be addressed before they get out of control, plans can be communicated and a deeper understanding of the challenges of each department can be better understood.
Since Operations is at the center of it all at the end of the day, and since Operations will take the blame for whatever incident that occurs, VP Ops group should initiate these meetings. This initiative and meetings will also serve as an important PR tool for the service operations group.
Following are the inter-department sessions that should be standard in a SaaS organization to improve communication and visibility and to help prioritize tasks and address issues before they boil over.

Name: Daily Operations Sync
Frequency: Daily (15-20 min)
Suggested Time: Late afternoon
Participants: Operations, Support, Program Mgmt
Agenda: Burning issues, Service outages, Planned maintenance, Delayed deliveries, Staffing

Name: Customer Success
Frequency: Weekly
Suggested Time: Monday
Participants: Sales, Program Mgmt, Support, Operations, Professional Services, R&D
Agenda: Customer Success Score sheet, Updates, Delays, Priorities. Address Red and Orange flags

Name: Operations-Engineering Sync
Frequency: Bi-Weekly
Suggested Time: Anytime
Participants: Operations, Engineering, QA
Agenda: Requirements, Releases, Known issues, Bugs, Dev/staging environment

Name: Company Fridays
Frequency: Bi-Weekly
Suggested Time: Friday Afternoon
Participants: All employees + food & beer
Agenda: Announcements, updates and department presentations

Name: SPOF Analysis
Frequency: Quarterly
Suggested Time: Anytime
Participants: Operations, Engineering, QA, Product, Support
Agenda: Single Point of  Failure Analysis(In the book, these meeting would be discussed in more detail)

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of these meetings. Not only do they facilitate the smooth operations of the company, but they also foster better relations between the company’s groups.


Sachin said...

Great Dani...this section is like a step by step guide to "run operations". Am sure the people who are actually managing the operations. I would want you to highlight one more point. The content of the "daily" report needs to be very precise and short to ensure that it is not overlooked

Elaine Blechman said...

Dani, this is good stuff and not elsewhere available. What about the SLA? Do you have a template for a SaaS SLA that is customizable? Do you have pointers, do's and dont's for SLA creation? Elaine

Dani Shomron said...

Thanx, Elaine.
I will have a chapter on SLA Management.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dani, Nice post :-).
How do you suggest to handle inter-department relations between customer support & R&D for handling support cases resolution ?
The problem we are facing is that customer cases are opened and managed successfully by customer support, but r&d fails to issue fixes in a timely manner.
I'll appreciate your thoughts on this subject.

Dani Shomron said...

Dear Anonymous (nice name...),

These issues should be handled in the weekly Customer Success meetings I suggested in the article.
R&D will have the pressure of Sales, Ops and Support (and other executives that are present)to deliver results and handle the red and orange flags.
(I erroneously did not include R&D in the original post, but will correct that)