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Supporting Teamwork by Abridging Departmental Silos (and All That in a Cloud)

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: July 31 2009

According to the adage “When one door closes, another one opens,” there are opportunities and unfulfilled customer needs even in this dour economic environment. Rather than hiding in a cave and waiting for the calamity to pass, some creative business software companies and individuals have been coming up with new value propositions to solve real problems for their customers.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, writing software applications is the easy part, relatively speaking. Making sure that one has a distinct solution to a problem that people are willing to pay for (especially nowadays when cash is scarce) is the hard part.

Generally speaking, the primary difference between good companies and great ones lies in their customer service. Inexpensive and easily deployable software applications that can help companies be more responsive to their customers and provide better service via showing “one face to the customer” (in turn due to much better internal communications) can go a long way even these days. The end result should typically be delighted existing customers, and, especially in this social networking era where news travels fast, happy customers (and their public product reviews and verdicts) should beget more customers.

In fact, some startup companies believe that this is an exciting time to be in the IT business. As established in my recent “SaaSy Discussions” series, software as a service (SaaS) and cloud computing are appealing business models for both vendors and customers, and will continue to be disruptive (game-changing) technologies for the foreseeable future. 

But again, the delivery model is only part of the equation, whereas astute software applications that solve a specific problem are the key success factor (KSF).

Supporting Diverse Teams in the Cloud

Enter Muroc Systems, Inc., a Dallas, Texas, (US)-based software startup focusing on business applications delivered via the SaaS model. The company’s flagship product is TeamSupport.com, which is an on-demand customer service application that targets software companies.

Robert Johnson, chief executive officer (CEO) of Muroc Systems, previously ran a successful software company that served TV stations and broadcasting industries. He sold that company in 2006, and several people that shared his philosophies about how to run a software company and treat customers followed him to Muroc.

The startup company is self-funded at the moment, and has a focused team of fewer than 10 people. The majority of the team are software developers, with sales and marketing rounding out the rest of the Muroc team.

The idea behind TeamSupport.com came from a problem Johnson faced at his previous software company.  Having recognized early on that customer service was crucial to the success and growth of his company, Johnson wanted to have his customer service group and the product development team working on the same software application (and thus constantly be “on the same page”) to track customer issues, software bugs, tasks, and new feature requests.

In his search for available solutions, Johnson found that there were some decent help desk applications for customer service advisors (agents) and bug-tracking applications for product developers, but there were no systems designed for both groups to use. For example, the well-known Bugzilla bug-tracking software is not aware of who the customer is.

After doing a thorough market search, the company was not able to find anything commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), so it ended up developing its own customer service software. After selling that company, Johnson had an epiphany that there was a market for better customer service software targeted towards independent software vendors (ISVs), and founded Muroc Systems to pursue that vision.

Muroc’s mission statement for TeamSupport.com is to create world-class customer service software for ISVs. As mentioned earlier, the entire TeamSupport.com team consists of veterans of other successful software companies, and they all believe that superior customer service is one of the factors that differentiates software companies. They also believe that customer service does not just come from the customer-facing service department, but rather from the entire company.

In any technology company it is critical that the support group has a very tight relationship with the software development team as well as with the sales and marketing folks, both for resolving any issues and for getting customer feedback in the form of feature requests into the software. Yet the vast majority of software companies have one product (a "help desk" or "issue tracking" system) for the customer service group, and another product (a "bug tracker" or “version control”) for the software development team.

In fact, I wonder how many great features or critical bugs are trapped in any ISV's help desk systems and never make it to the bug/feature tracking system? Many, I guess, since virtually every software (and manufacturing) company that I have ever worked for had developed (if not even nurtured) silos within its organization. In the “the right hand does not knows what the left hand is doing” manner, the customer service group does not communicate to the product development group (the people who actually create the product), while the product development group never gets to talk to the actual customer.

I concur with Muroc’s opinion and related blog entry that the closer the developers are to the customer, the better the product will be. Yet, too many companies have developed internal “islands of information” which prevent internal communication and end up making the company more distant from their customers. This situation happens all too often despite the conventional wisdom of involving the customer in product development from the word go, and as discussed in Kurt Chen’s recent blog post.

How Does TeamSupport.com Work

While technology will not necessarily solve all of the company’s communication problems, TeamSupport can go a long way in making the various teams in a software company work more closely together to solve their customer’s needs. Considering that a large percentage of the bugs and feature requests are generated by end-users and come in through the customer service group, it makes no sense that these two departments should be running on separate software packages.

At its most basic level, TeamSupport integrates an enterprise-level help desk solution with a bug tracking solution so that the customer service and development teams (and others such as quality assurance [QA], executives/management, etc.) use a common tool to create better products and happier customers. Used correctly, TeamSupport can break down the all-to-common chasms in software companies and allow them to support their customers more effectively. For more details, one can peruse the product’s frequently asked questions (FAQ) page here and some representative screen shots here.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

The company offers three versions of TeamSupport.com, and these tiered offerings focus on three different market segments. The Enterprise version is designed for software companies who want to integrate their help desk and bug-tracking systems into one unified piece of software, and thus holistically get to know their customers better.

In almost every company offering products and customer service, the various teams such as customer service, product development, QA, and sales and marketing operate as separate teams. The TeamSupport Enterprise solution is designed to promote communication among these teams and provide a better and more consistent customer experience.

To that end, this top-of-the-range version is designed to manage issues, bugs, features, and tasks and their direct relation to the ISV’s customers and products. The customer database is integrated into TeamSupport so that the ISV’s sales staff can quickly see if any of their accounts have problems and can be proactive about dealing with them.

In addition, the product’s history database (knowledge base) is also tied into the system so the developers and product managers can search to discern what bugs and feature requests are active on the products they are working on. When these issues and cases are resolved, that information is logged, giving customer service all of the information needed to handle the issues. The Enterprise version also can operate as a standalone bug-tracking system, and integrates with various source (revision) control systems.

For its part, the TeamSupport Professional version is targeted towards companies who need an externally facing help desk and technical support groups who need to track the company or department the issue is originating from. The product tracks issues and tasks on a per customer basis and offers a variety of customer portal options to let customers log and track their issues. In addition to company/department information, the Professional version also includes task management capabilities.

The TeamSupport Basic (or TeamSupport Express) version is an inexpensive internal help desk and basic software support solution. While Muroc generally focuses on technology companies, the Basic version of its software is essentially applicable to any industry. The Basic version is designed as a straight trouble ticket management tool. The low-end offering has many of the features of the Enterprise version, but not the ability to track products and customers.

Pricing Transparency and Some Freebees Are (Always) Good

Logically, the above product versions are priced in a tiered manner, starting with US$25 per user per month for the Enterprise version, US$15 per user per month for TeamSupport Professional, and US$10 per user per month for TeamSupport Basic. In addition, all of the product releases offer the first three user licenses free of charge, and for good. In other words, three user seats remain free even when the customer’s user number goes well beyond this number. More details on the pricing and associated product capabilities can be seen here.

If I might sound too enchanted with the product, how about some stats to substantiate its success? Well, TeamSupport has experienced excellent growth, with nearly 300 customers signed up from around the world since its launch only several months ago.

When I heard about this (unexpected) figure, I frankly wondered what was the secret behind the success. Did the company know these customers from its previous life, or have good viral marketing, and/or was is the freebee offer that did it?

The answer is a combination of all of the above. Muroc’s staffers knew many target customers from previous lives, which made for an easy pitch since they knew exactly how the product would benefit these prospects. Moreover, many customers actually found the company’s offering through Internet search engines, and the freebie option helps because it is a genuine offer with no strings attached.

To be more precise, while 80 percent of the TeamSupport customers are using the Enterprise version, 75 percent of customers have only three users or fewer (thus, not much revenue for Muroc at this stage). However, several of those companies are paying for other tools, such as customer portal access that costs US$3 per customer per month. In any case, having come from a traditional “heavy duty” on-premise software company where they installed large systems at customer locations, TeamSupport’s staffers have found refreshing to see how easy it can be to scale and deploy Web-based applications globally.

The Microsoft Connection

Muroc Systems is a “Microsoft shop” and is developing everything in the ASP.NET Web application framework, primarily with the C Sharp (C#) programming language. In addition, a little of Visual Basic .NET (VB.NET) code is tossed in where applicable. The Web server is based on Internet Information Services (IIS) and the database backend is Microsoft SQL Server 2005.

Muroc Systems signed up for Microsoft’s BizSpark program almost as soon as it was launched and has been very happy with that program, which provides software, support, and visibility for software startups. The vendor made a decision early on to stay with Microsoft technologies for a variety of reasons, and BizSpark has reportedly made access to the software the company needs very economical. In mid-June, Muroc was featured in this article as the Microsoft BizSpark startup of the day.

Staying Away From Full-fledged BPM

In our recent e-mail and telephone exchange, Johnson acknowledged that business process management (BPM) is an interesting space, but not one he really sees TeamSupport playing in. He agreed with the assessments in my previous blog series on Webcom ResponsAbility [evaluate this product].

Namely, Webcom Inc. has an interesting “lite BPM” system, but Johnson does not see BPM as the starting point for an issue-tracking system. A BPM suite would just be overkill for this situation. Perhaps the other way around where BPM could be gradually added to an issue/bug-tracking system (as Muroc has done in TeamSupport) could be plausible, but not as the core system.

This brings me to another SaaS product in Muroc’s portfolio. The company launched ApprovalTrack.com several months ago to meet a very basic need that almost every company has: managing their approval process. Namely, every company has to deal with approving (or rejecting, but the product’s name “RejectionTrack” would not sound too appealing) vacation requests, sales discounts, capital purchases, various accompanying documents, and so on and so forth.

While virtually any BPM application could handle this need with ease, it is overkill and very expensive to implement a heavy-duty BPM system to just manage approvals. Conversely, ApprovalTrack.com deals solely with approvals and has workflows tailored specifically for that niche.

The product routes approvals to the correct people in the organization based on the approval type, the request amount, or a completely custom user-defined workflow. ApprovalTrack is being offered at a low per-user monthly fee, but prospective customers can try it for a 30-day trial period. For more details, one see the product’s FAQ page here.

But while TeamSupport is focused on solving customer service issues for technology companies, ApprovalTrack is a much broader solution that is applicable to almost any organization. This trait is both a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, the opportunities for ApprovalTrack are virtually unlimited. On the other hand, Muroc will need a much more expansive marketing approach for this product. Competition is also much broader and coming from many directions, not least from Microsoft SharePoint.

Thus, like in case of the abovementioned ResponsAbility product, the customer uptake for ApprovalTrack has been much more moderate. To be fair, the product was just launched publicly, and several early adopter companies are using the product already and have found it to be an invaluable workflow tool.

Dear readers, your comments, thoughts, suggestions or individual experiences with help desk, issue tracking, workflow/BPM tools and like? How do you handle your processes, manually, in an automated way or somewhere between (only some processes are automated)?
 
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