Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Developers doing support...Waste of time or not...

I work for a VERY small company developing software for the building industry. My main role is to lead a small team of developers (3) to continually roll out product enhancements (we aim for quarterly) and fixes. As luck would have it.we are also undertaking a major .Net rewrite at the moment...

Couple all this with, as anyone who works in a company of six people would know, you end up wearing a lot of other hats.

One hat, that is of particular annoyance to most developers, is the customer support hat. Now our developers are shielded from answering customer calls directly, by two others - a general manager who plays a major role in customer support, and a salesman, who handles support calls in his spare time.

To say we are undermanned in the support area is probably fair, and as soon as we can afford to do something about that we will. The basic goal here is to have the 3 developers and long term employee (business analyst) handle second tier support while two others handle the front lines.

Anyway, as I mentioned this doesn't always work. It only takes one of the front liners to be out of the office, say, actually selling the $10,000 a pop software and that front line work quickly falls to developers.

Now a ringing telephone and a customer who "Can't print their favourite report" or "doesn't understand the difference between a left and right click" is probably the single biggest (and damaging) distraction to a developer trying to get his head around C#'s implementation of Generics, or designing an Object model for Custom Business Entities that correctly reflects our problem domain - but what do you do?

As their "team leader" (with an Agile slant on things) I'm all for shielding them from all this, and removing all the barriers if possible. But I'm also for getting paid! Annual support fees make up a decent wack of our income and therefore customers must be made to feel loved when they ring with any problem, whether or not we can in fact help them.

Today, I received a call from a customer who'd just purchased a new printer. (There annual support is due in a couple of months.) Now, within the first mintue or so of this call I could tell there was some problem with the printer driver - this problem was nothing to do with our software. The problem was they'd already been on to HP about it. The rudimentary test they'd tried with Word, worked, so they'd (HP) washed their hands of it - "it's software".

Now we are not in a position to throw that one back in our customer's face - "sorry, it's HP's problem" is not going to cut it. We need that $1000 support in a few months more than HP need a happy "Ma and Pa" company, using one of their all in one printer/fax/scanners, in country NSW. So what do I do. I run through enough diagnositc type exercises on the phone, to convince myself of my earlier expectations, then run with, "email me a sample of what it's doing and also some details of the printer's settings".

Meanwhile I consult the great "Google". About the 15th hit on my obscure search for the product model and "printable area" found a review that mentioned how the new "double sided option", dramatically reduces the printable area. I quickly replied to the email they'd sent along the lines of, "there are known problems with double sided printing...try turning it off" - Presto. Reports print. A few more trees die - we have a happy customer, who will now pay that $1000 in a few months.

So, have I made the problem worse or better? Now we have a happy customer, who is far more likely to pay that support invoice, but far more reliant on us to fix anything "computer" at their office. But, there are posts everywhere that will point out just how much time I've wasted (more than the 1/2 hour it took for this to transpire). So I've earnt the company $1000 it may not have otherwise got (and maybe more over coming years when taking into account future years and good word of mouth). But, I've wasted time, and started down a slippery slope - it this continues to happen, just how many 1/2 hours (or more) will I blow? And also , what choice do I have? Don't support them and slowly go out of business. Support them, and keep making that grab for the $1000 rather than undertaking work with much greater long term profitability by building a far greater product that can bring in tens of thousands - not much use if the company has gone right?

So, this is just a conundrum facing such a micro-business. But I feel one thing is certain - we have to treat the customers well. Without them we don't even have a micro-comapny. If we can keep taking these small steps, eventually we'll become a "not-so-micro" company, and we'll have happy customers, and that will means we'll become a "even-more-not-so-micro" (maybe even just small), then not-so-small, then maybe medium! But we won't do it, by letting people down...

BTW - in that email reponse to our customer, I gave them a bit of ammunition to go back to HP with - at least for an update to the driver.

Many thanks to http://www.zdnet.com.au/reviews/hardware/printersscanners/soa/HP-OfficeJet-7410/0,139023422,139176157,00.htm