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Why “Best-Effort” Service Falls Short

Take a look at the day-to-day operations of any integration company: salesmen keep the pipeline full, engineers crank out schematics, project managers move between phone calls, emails, and briefings with the techs, who themselves are busily loading up for the day. But what about the service department? Usually it’s not so much a department, but more like one or two experienced techs—and it's not even their primary focus.

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Joseph Kolchinsky wrote a piece discussing the problems with a “halfway” approach to service. The article outlines the inherent shortcomings in client experience when an integrator doesn’t lend sufficient operational weight to service. What the article didn’t touch on is that taking this “best-effort service” approach also creates its own share of internal problems for your business.

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The “Best-Effort Service Department”
Take a quick look at the day-to-day operations of almost any integration company, and you can’t miss the sharp focus on projects. There are salesmen working feverishly to keep the pipeline full. Engineers sitting behind dual displays cranking out proposals or schematics. Project managers moving deliberately between phone calls, emails, and morning briefings with the techs, who are busily loading up for the day’s work. When it comes to project work, everything seems driven by a clear and deliberate sense of purpose.

But what about the service department (if one even exists)? Usually it’s not so much a department, but more like one or maybe two technicians. They’re often the most experienced employees in the building, with skillsets like programming and advanced troubleshooting that are in high demand across your entire operation. But they’re spread thin. Service isn’t their only focus. It’s not even their main focus. Rather, it’s something that pulls them away from pressing project work every time a service fire drill pops up. This is the “best-effort service department.” It’s something short of ideal, but for many integrators, it’s all they’ve got.

As you read this, I’m sure you can easily call to mind one of these best-effort service departments. Maybe you work in one. Surely you’ve been around a couple. There’s a clear pattern here: they’re staffed with company all-stars driven by a desire to solve problems and please clients. They’re highly experienced and possess deep institutional knowledge about your project base. They are heavily depended on, and they never seem to disappoint, picking up the phone for clients or responding to their emails at all hours, even though it’s not necessarily required of them. You may not fully know how or why, but they always seem to get the job done no matter what it takes.

Does this paint a familiar picture? It’s service without a clear definition, and it only works on the backs of individuals willing to be flexible and shoulder a heavy load. This best-effort approach is fraught with key-person dependency, and puts your most critical team members on the fast track to burnout.

The Worst of Both Worlds
Making matters even worse is the fact that in spite of the hard work and dedication that your team is pouring into service, your company can’t truly reap the benefits because you can’t guarantee anything to your clients. “Best-effort” response on nights and weekends is not the same thing as a written service contract ensuring access to after-hours support, and it’s certainly not something you’d put on a marketing brochure.

In fact, this approach gives you the worst of both worlds. You and your key team members absorb all of the downside, bending over backwards to address service issues whenever they arise, including nights and weekends. But in the absence of a true service contract formalizing this arrangement, you are not providing a marketable product. Rather, you are in the business of damage control; it is service as a necessary evil.

From Best Effort to Best in Class
The answer to this challenge lies in taking your client service beyond “best effort,” and instead aiming for “best in class.” Devote the time and resources necessary to put a standardized and proven service system in place. Decide what you are comfortable offering for night and weekend support, then put it into a formal service contract. Determine if you want to offer premium levels of service to select clients. Establish dedicated support channels and a rotating on-call schedule. And begin giving service the prominent place that it deserves in your sales and marketing efforts.

Stopping short of this best-in-class approach leaves your service operations in a proverbial no-man’s land, absorbing all of the work but gaining few tangible benefits. Only by giving service the same sort of operational weight that you devote to projects, will you be able to realize the true upside, providing better work/life balance for your time, a more consistent experience for your clients, and a healthier bottom line.