May 4, 2009Doug Hadden
I was surprised. “I’ve heard that FreeBalance has poor customer support, ” said an expert in public financial management. “You don’t leave anyone in country after the implementation.” It was particularly surprising given our improvements in customer support. And, that we have been leaving people in countries after implementation for the past two years. And, we received ISO-9001/2000 certification for these processes in November of 2007!
It has been challenging to transform a company to provide global support. One of our first blog entries described some of the changes made in the road to a customer-centric company. FreeBalance has made important strives in improving the sustainability of Integrated Financial Management Information Systems. In particular, we have been able to improve support by recognizing the unique challenges in our global market. It is clearly time to share results, actions and lessons learned.
FreeBalance uses a dashboard to monitor open cases. We began to use this dashboard in March of 2008. Every executive has real-time access to the dashboard. And, the dashboard is e-mailed every Monday morning. I’ve taken the data related to open cases to demonstrate improvements.
We have reduced the number of open cases since March of 2008 by over 56%. The number of emergency open cases, this morning, was zero. FreeBalance tracks software defects, data problems, service, sales and enhancement requests as open cases. Less than half of the cases reported are software defects. Many of these cases are often not software defects. The number of open cases has begun to stabilize over the past few months. Recreating problems often requires significant time and effort.
FreeBalance has retained the ISO-9001 certification in November of 2008. The processes continue to improve.
The Move to Customer-Centric
Manuel Schiappa Pietra, our President and CEO, joined FreeBalance in March of 2006. In the Spring of that year, Mr. Pietra mandated changes to support a customer-centric model. These organization changes included:
- Simplification of the management structure to ensure that support issues reach executives
- Re-organization of the company as a matrix organization to enable better use of people to solve customer problems
- Development of improved enhancement processes
- Creation of special SWAT teams to respond to emergency issues
- Improvement in global support including the establishment of a full support centre in Pristina Kosovo so that we could handle 24/7 customer support
I can say that we’ve had six SWAT teams since that time. We’ve resolved all of these issues. I am personally involved in every SWAT team.
In Country Support
FreeBalance did usually keep staff in countries after implementation in the past. The thinking at the time was that the software was focused and simple. Governments could easily sustain these implementations. However, we encountered some difficulties. As a result, we leave small teams in countries or regions to support our customers. The current in-country support includes:
Canada (full support centre), the United States, Guatemala (covering Central America), Antigua (also covering Guyana), Kosovo (full support centre), Sierra Leone, Mongolia and Timor-Leste.
Other support initiatives
There have been numerous customer-centric initiatives since 2006 including:
- FreeBalance International Steering Committee including annual meetings
- Customer-satisfaction surveys
- Customer engagement program that collects customer issues
- On-line customer portal that enables tracking of issues and provides the basis for the support dashboards
- Assignment of support staff to customers and employee appraisal based on support performance
- On-line customer support knowledge base
- On-line Customer Exchange – a real-time user group for customer collaboration
- Increased training for FreeBalance staff
- Customer engagement program to ensure that FreeBalance staff meets every government customer on an annual basis
The challenge for FreeBalance was significant – support government customers around the globe. With varying degrees of financial management and information technology capacity.
Companies can only improve that which is measured. Measuring cases and satisfaction rates has made a big impact to FreeBalance. Many of our customers have commented on how open and responsive we have become.
Some important lessons learned include:
- The number of open cases and similar metrics are important but are only inputs. Connecting these inputs with customer outcomes is difficult, but is required.
- SWAT teams benefit from outsiders with different points of view. This can question conventional thinking and provide creative solutions.
- Customer support can always be improved. Our metric for the number of open cases needs to be reduced by around 15% to meet our goals.
- Improving customer support begins with eliminating information barriers. Bottlenecks are exposed. New processes can be engineered.
- Staff can be defensive because implementing customer-based metrics can place blame on people. Management must communicate that customer initiatives are about improvement, not blaming.
- Surveys are not as effective as face-to-face meetings. The use of brainstorming techniques such as the “six thinking hats” provides important insight. The customer engagement program has been particularly effective. This standard approach with discussions with FreeBalance users and managers has resulted in important insight.
A Note on the Customer Engagement program and Customer Exchange portal
FreeBalance created a Customer Exchange portal to foster collaboration among FreeBalance customers and staff. The portal is located at http://www.freebalancecustomerexchange.com and is limited to FreeBalance staff, customers, users, partners and PFM experts. This is still early days with about 100 members, of which 2/3 come from outside FreeBalance. We’ve seen some interesting discussions generated. (The shared photo album is global.) I hope that this portal will build on the Customer Exchange program.
We created the Customer Engagement program because so much of our in-depth management-level discussions with customers were specific to sales or support. Or, the discussions were in groups with other customers like the FreeBalance International Steering Committee and the FreeBalance Government of Canada Cluster.
We created a set of standard materials and questions for our customers. Sales, support and services staff visit customers to determine issues, product ideas and better ways for support. We are still in progress. Most of our Canadian customers have been visited. American customer meetings are scheduled this week. We also have meetings this week and next with important international customers. This program has proved to provide important insight:
- Meeting with customer teams provides a larger picture of organizational goals and issues.
- Customers are very happy to see us and have reacted very positively to the engagement.
- Many meetings generate follow-up special-purpose meetings on product and technology opportunities.
- Customers have remarked that FreeBalance has become very open. Customer satisfaction is higher than expected, but there remains room for improvement.
- We are able to see patterns for product and service improvements thanks to this standardized approach.
But, this remains a journey of continuous improvement. Companies can become too satisfied with improvement and not maintain the discipline. We discovered that the most important discipline is to question conventional thinking. Just because software companies do something in a particular way does not make it right!