The Cost of Technical Support and Training—Expense or Money Maker?

A 728Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Most companies that sell technical products must provide support and training. Rates for on-site support from technology companies hover between $1,000 and $1,500 per day plus expenses. A small percentage of companies willingly choose to pay these rates because they see a return on their investment through increases in productivity and efficiency. A much larger percentage of companies though refuse to consider an "extra" expense such as support or training. They believe that the purchase price of the system should include technical support at no extra charge. Support and training services are often an afterthought to the purchase or the sale. Many sales people will donate support or training to win a sale which further devalues its perceived worth. Does technical support cost money or make money? This article will look at several aspects of the technical support and training dilemma and suggest a few perspectives that should be considered.

First, it is important to understand the difference between support and training. Support is usually in the business of solving problems. The end user is unable to perform a certain task because something is getting in the way. It could be that the problem is hardware or software related. Many times though, it is a configuration problem. When the problem in question is related to configuration, this is often the time that the end user stops needing technical support and starts to need training. In complex systems such as a typical machine control installation, the configuration of the system is fine-tuned to a particular machine or application about which the support person on the phone may have no specific knowledge. A trained operator understands the nuances of the configuration and should be able to manage most of the configuration settings without support.

Training needs to be intentional. It should not be incumbent on the technical support person to train an operator how to use the equipment. Support solves problems; training teaches the operator how to avoid the problems. Training is proactive; support is reactive. Training is iterative. It is not a one-time event. Many companies offer certificate courses. Possessing a certification of competency, achievement or expertise is a win-win proposition for all parties involved. The course attendee is recognized for their abilities which improves morale and increases confidence while the employer has a tangible measurement of the employees' skills and initiative.

In the same moment, juxtapose the thought paying for technical support and training against the following adages: "Step over a dollar to pick up a dime. "A stitch in time saves nine. " " "Pennywise, pound foolish. "It takes " money to make money. "An ounce of " prevention is worth a pound of cure. " "Knowing just enough to be dangerous. " The point is that support and training do not cost money. They enable and facilitate the making of money. These are the lubricants of technology that keep the systems running smoothly. Problems and pitfalls of a system can be avoided if an operator knows what NOT to do as well as what TO do properly. Knowledge does not happen by osmosis. Knowledge is power when it comes to keeping a system running, up to date, productive and profitable.

How much does it cost when your system stops working? The sooner it gets fixed, the faster money making can resume. When you have a problem, do you want to pick up the phone, speak with someone knowledgeable and get the problem resolved quickly? Is this type of instant service worth paying for? As mentioned earlier, many customers believe they should receive lifetime, 24/7 support as part of their original purchase price. Some companies do exactly this, but more often, support resources are divvied up by the priority of a customer. A customer that has intentionally purchased a support contract may be entitled to this live telephone support while a non-contract customer may have to rely on emails and web resources such as documentation, forums and blogs.

In a perfect world, training and support would not be necessary. How many readers that own an iPhone have read the user's manual? Does a manual even exist for the iPhone? Apple has taken a very complex device and made it intuitive to the point that people just figure out how to use it on their own combined with a little coaching here and there from friends and associates. This highlights two points. The machine control industry is nowhere nearly as intuitive as Apple. End users still need training and support. But the ambition of the industry should always be to get to a point where the systems just work with intuitive ease. The second point relates to the coaching that comes from other end users. Many times, vendors surrounding the machine control industry host seminars and workshops. These provide invaluable times for end users to mingle with other end users. They often share shortcuts and more efficient ways to manage certain situations and learn how to avoid unpleasant surprises that are inherent to many systems.

Another very real aspect of support is the attitude of the end user at the time the support is needed. A large percentage of people do not ask for support, they demand it!! They believe it is their God given right to be rude to the person on the phone since their blankety-blank company makes a defective product that is constantly failing. There are many things that can be said about this. First, if the product truly is breaking all the time, get rid of it. The person on the phone is probably not responsible for the design of the product, so don't yell at them, change suppliers. Secondly, another saying goes "You can attract bees with honey, not vinegar. The support " person on the phone has days, weeks, months and years of people being angry with them. Try being nice and see if that doesn't provide better support services. Remember to thank them for the help.

Support and training are shared responsibilities. The intent of most training programs is not to teach the students everything about a system. The intent is to enable students to reason out situations, to understand the constraints and be aware of the resources that are available. Training classes often provide the high level ambitions of a system and then work down to the application level that is pertinent to the audience. This allows an operator back on the job site to cope with situations that may not have been taught directly. By inference from other examples presented in the training sessions, the end user is able to parlay their knowledge to the current situation and find a solution more quickly.

Providing support and training services require significant investment. Companies are generally in business to make money. Support and training cannot be given away. There must be a business model that enables these services to be provided in a way that makes sense. Some products require very little or no technical support. Therefore, these manufacturers or dealers can afford to occasionally provide support services since they are incidental. But to a global manufacturer of complex systems with very large arrays of electronic and mechanical pieces, the support and training programs are complex and expensive to maintain.

Tiered support has become the norm within many organizations. Customers with renewable support contracts are often allowed access to training events, documentary repositories and live telephone support. Customers with no service contracts can be restricted to basic online resources and an email portal that may or may not get a prompt reply. These options allow the end user to make decisions about the cost/benefit ratio of purchasing support contracts against their own business models. For some companies, if their system goes down for a day or two, while it may be inconvenient, does not stop the major work being done. But for other companies, the entire operation may rely on the system in question to remain running constantly with no disruption. This decision about purchasing training and support contracts is tied directly to the perceived value of training and support.

It is not a question of if your system will fail; it is a question of when your system will fail. What happens then? A factory trained operator or technician will have the best chance of diagnosing and fixing the failure quickly with little or no interruption to production. A customer that has a support contract will be able to contact someone within a specified amount of time that should be able to support the situation. If your operator is not trained and you do not have a support contract, what will your hourly cost be when the system stops working? How does this number compare against the cost of proactive training and fee based support?

Some companies make money solely from service and support. This is common in businesses such as fleet management or facilities management. But within the machine control domain, training and support services are primarily managed by the manufacturers, software developers and dealers working with the end users. In most of these cases, the support and training arms of their companies are trying to operate at a zero cost; they are merely trying to cover their expenses. But when a customer sees rates such as $1,500 per day plus expenses, they get the impression that the supplier is trying to make a bundle from them. The reality of the situation is that it does cost between $1,000 and $1,500 per day for a well-trained technician/diagnostician/ instructor to show up at your door. This seasoned professional likely has years of experience and will provide many useful insights during the site visit that will pay dividends repeatedly over the coming months and years. You will be paying for an expert. Technical support and training should be considered essential for a machine control operator. Whether it is paid for as a line item on a quotation, hidden in the cost of goods or a proposition of its own, being intentional about learning a system and having the resources in place to support the system makes sense. Being proactive about support and training is actually more efficient than reacting to situations. Proactive means that it can be scheduled. Reacting usually implies an emergency. Scheduled events are generally more efficient and productive than ill-timed, reactive emergencies.

Support and training are not exciting topics, but they are integral to the business of machine control. Too often, training and support are overlooked or ignored. Operators figure that one system is pretty much like another. But that is not the case. While there are basic similarities in the overall architecture of different systems, the actual keystrokes of configuration and operation vary widely. Take the time to invest in your operators. Encourage research. Read the reference manual and FAQs. Take ownership of the system, know how it works. These are indicators of professionals that care about their work. MachineControlOnline.com is committed to providing its readers with advice and information that can make a difference to your business. Hopefully, this article has caused you to reconsider or validate your ideas about support and training.

Joe Sass has more than 16 years of experience in the positioning domain. He currently works as a Field Applications Engineer for Spectra Precision with a mission to bridge the gaps between end-users, marketing and engineering.

A 728Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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