Managing Support and Maintenance, A Crowdsourcing Post

Managing Support and Maintenance, A Crowdsourcing Post

Today I want to throw something out there to discuss, I’m hoping we can get some useful dialogue going around one of the most tricky subjects for business owners in tech businesses – that of maintenance and support. This is the first crowd-sourcing post I’ve tried so let’s see how it goes :)

In my industry (web design and online marketing) this is a particularly difficult topic to cover. Do you charge for bugs or problems that arise in websites a year after they were built? When Microsoft bring out a new browser and a site changes in appearance who covers that cost? If something isn’t picked up at testing stage, (because let’s face it you’re never going to be able to test something so extensively you can guarantee you’ve picked up everything) who pays then? Should web companies offer warranties? These are all questions businesses in the web game have to deal with. I’m sure that in any tech based industry where you provide a product you have to ponder similar issues.

Perhaps the easiest model to relate to is that of the car industry and how they deal with their new car sales. In talking with a number of business owners recently I’ve seen lots of other business models, all with slight nuances. It’s been fascinating and if I could share them all with you I would but many were offline conversations. So I thought the next best thing would be to build a useful post of advice and help from influential business owners around the globe who can add their two pennies worth on this topic.

If you’re not in a business that has to worry about this topic but have sat ‘the other side’ perhaps you’d like to give us your opinion on how you think business in these industries could deal with these issues – that would be just as valuable.

So let’s hear your ideas. Please share this post if you know others that might be able to add their advice and let’s discuss.

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Comments

  1. Great post and one sure to create some traffic!

    I suspect this issue has raised it’s head recently because the browsers are going through an evolution at the moment. Forget IE6, recent changes are creating a moving target for web designers and developers, something I first came across as a software developer when Microsoft launched Windows NT.

    We developed a desktop system in 2004 (some years later) and the client came back when the system didn’t behave as expected on Windows Vista, thankfully most people didn’t use Vista because it was so dreadful.

    In reality, you have to say what environment the software / website is designed for and tested on. If a new operating system / browser or device hits the market all you can do is ensure you have validated your source code (HTML/CSS in the case of web design) as this is as far as you can go. After all, you do not know what is around the corner.

    I think the most important thing to do is set an expectation and be as transparent as possible, but you’ll still get hit from time to time, but unless the client is paying for an on going service I don’t think they can expect bugs caused by third party software and / or devices to be done free of charge.

    Having said that, you have to take each case on a case by case basis as some bugs could have being avoided by better coding.

    If you bought a car and the government said a year later that all cars had to be a certain engine size I cannot see the big car manufacturers give you a new car, after all it wasn’t their fault that the government implemented new rules.

    • Thanks Charlie, some great points and advice. The Windows Vista issue is a great example of the same problem in a different guise.

      I wonder what you feel about a bug that was perhaps so unique it wasn’t caught or found in a testing enviroment but came up later – is that the responsability of your company or the clients? I’m sure as with all these examples there are always going to be two sides to this debate but I’ve heard wildly differing opinions on this and would welcome your experienced view on this for people reading this.

      • Let’s put some context to this conversation; you need to read our blog article about User Acceptance Testing (UAT) for starters (see http://bit.ly/cq0yIJ), importance of good analysis (see http://bit.ly/gNg41x) and others but will not bore you with them.

        User Acceptance Testing (UAT) within an SME environment is the responsibility of both the client and designers / developers as most businesses cannot afford to get systems tested properly. This is one of the downfalls of the software engineering industry (web design falls under this as well) of agile development, although now everyone will criticise me, for that statement :-)

        The important issue is to ensure your client knows they have to actively participate in UAT as part of the sign off. If they aren’t expecting it then you have failed to set the expectation.

        It is up to you how you pitch it, but surely most business owners would accept that they should check you have delivered what was promised before signing off the project. Yeah I know, we are all busy and the client doesn’t have time, but it still needs to be done.

        So, make sure you client understands that they need to either (a) pay a large sum of money to a 3rd party for UAT or (b) actively participate and take some responsibility for any mistakes.

        In reality, if a bug is found 6 months later you – yes, you Alistair – have to take a view on it as to charging or not. I also try and see the other persons perspective when deciding this and asking, is it fair?

        There are also occasions when client either don’t understand or chooses not to understand the more technical aspects, but this is the arena you chose to do business in.

        One last though, if it was a mistake and your team made, why are you fighting it? In most cases the answer is simple, it will cost time, money or other resources and you don’t like it, let go and put the other person first. The benefits for your client relations, brand and business will far out weight any lost time.

      • Thanks again Charlie – very insightful :)

  2. I remember the IE7 update, caused us huge problems as websites started to act weird. Microsoft’s fault but they didn’t seem keen to pick up the bill. IE9 is not quiet as bad but still a pain.

    Picking the balance between what you should bill or not is such a tricky one &, like you no doubt, it costs us plenty in Time, Money & Emotion.

    If you find the answer to this conundrum, please be sure to share!

    • Thanks Nigel – I’m hoping that more people will put their two pennies worth into this blog and we might build up some really useful advice :)

  3. Great Post and good comments and feedback

    We have for a while now dispensed with Satan’s browser IE6. If a client wants a website to work in this browser there is an addition fee. Being honest we give them enough examples and reasons not to have their website tested in IE6 – and as have a page displaying “update your browser”. It won’t be long before we adopt this approach is adopted for IE7.

    Regarding ongoing maintenance, there has to be an agreed fee from the start and understanding (and a level of educating the client) that it is a necessity to keep an eye on the ever-changing digital environment (new browsers etc) and as such if a website behaves oddly due to outside factors then this is covered.

    Beyond this I’m not sure there is an answer and that tactics will play a part dependant on the client. We definitely over service some clients but there will be bigger picture reasons why

    • Thanks Stuart, I’m beginning to see that similar businesses all have the same challenges to deal with. Flexibility seems to be key here, servicing based on several factors including as you say the ‘bigger picture’

  4. PS just read my post it would help if I could spell – :) I blame my browser

  5. Martin Howitt says:

    Hi Al

    from the perspective of someone in a large public sector client I’m going to say what I would need in this area (my opinions only and not official ones by any means). What you provide and how much you charge are something else entirely :)

    1) warranty.
    With most reasonably complex apps the UAT, although vital, won’t necessarily pick up all the bugs. So we need a warranty period where the bugs we find will be squashed FOC. In addition to UAT I would also add that anything public-facing is likely need security penetration testing: security bugs will also need to be fixed FOC. As for the length of a warranty period, I’ve seen them reducing over the years from 3 years to about 12 months or less.

    NB Browser support: We are stuck with IE6 in many places but that can be worked around using app virtualisation and similar technologies. As long as the browser being bundled with the web app can get security updates we can generally handle it.

    3) post-warranty phase: support contracts
    It’s ok to charge for support once the warranty period expires for bug fixes. We would normally expect security fixes to be FOC during at least part of this phase. but whatever you can get into the contract! :)

    4) EOL.
    Always put an end date on the time you will support the app for and state it up front. Then we can plan to migrate. From this date you have two choices: security fixes only for a defined period or nothing at all. But even security fixes have to end sometime.

    5) other models.
    You could offer the apps on a subscription model, which might cost more overall but at a slower pace so that the client knows they have bugfixes, a defined number of new feature requests, and security fixes as and when they need them. This might also give your business a different cash flow profile as well as more reassurance for the client.

    I think the main thing to remember here is that it is about managing risk and about your reputation as a “safe pair of hands”.

    Hope this is useful
    Martin

    • Hi Martin, Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a useful and interesting comment. It’s great to get many different perspectives and to have yours from within the public sector is very valuable for this post – I’m sure those of us in the private sector can pick up some useful take-aways from this. :)

  6. Good question and I hope your twitter followers come to answer this question in droves.

    Here is my two-penny buit:

    First the personal experience: Plumbing and Cars

    I’m about to get some plumbing done. The choice of supplirs in Exeter is vast.

    Naturally I am choosing my plumber on recommendation and a sense of their capabilities following 3 meetings about the project (it’s a £5K job)

    But I also know that I will get 2 years warranty on parts and labour. If I did not have this assurance, I’d keep shopping.

    If they blow me out, everyone I can reach will know about my disappointment and I will plaster the walls of social networks and social media with my comments.

    I bought a second hand golf 2 years ago with a year’s warranty; when the catalytic converter wore out Fast Fit, the mechanic I bought it from in Marsh Barton, replaced it free of charge under warranty and he did not buy the cheapest part available (thank you Ian)

    We’ve entered the thank you economy. Your business is online. Your reputation could be “on the line” if you do not show grace and manners in the way you treat customers.

    What would Gary V of the Thank You Economy Say?

    You have a business and you need to build brand ambassadors who, via positive word of mouth influence other consumers.

    Companies need to be customer concierges, doing everything they can to make every one of the customers feel acknowledged, appreciated, heard and happy.

    Consumers aren’t always paying attention to your marketing message but they are paying attention to each other.

    If I’m considering a firm for a job, I do my research (read your blog and browse your website) but I’m more interested in uncovering all the things your customers say about you online. I’m looking for the negatives as well as the positives. If you offer maintenance and others don’t, that a big plus in my mind.

    If an Optix brand ambassador has brought that to my attention and is zealous about the benefits of your after sales, I’m going to do business with you. I could go on about the lifelong customer and the fact an existing customer costs 5 times less to keep than recruiting a new customer but I’ve said enough.

    Keen to read what others say – will I get a notification to my email about comments on this thread?
    Stephen

    • Hi Stephen, love the fact you’ve bought up the Thank You economy and the legend Gary V :) It’s a very good point and one that I feel we need balance very carefully with actually getting paid for work that’s done. It’s very easy to feel bad about doing a small 10 min change here and there and charging for it but if you have enough customers and do that for everyone, you can end up spending an enormous amount of time just doing these tiny updates/fixes and never getting paid for them :) I certainly found that when you have a smaller company and more flexibility it’s somewhat easier to go that extra mile.

      You probably know through my social presence that I’m a big fan of going that extra mile so it interested me hugely when I started to debate this with fellow business owners…and that’s where this post came from :) I just hope it helps a few people out there.

      p.s. I need to change my comments to disqus at some point so you can subscribe to email alerts – you know what it’s like though – never enough time to do your own work :)

  7. Cheers Al

    Disqus would be good. Gravatar is good with WordPress but I’m sure you’ve got your own engine / CMS.

    John Lewis and many other retailers allow customers to take out extended warranties – might it be time to introduce a similar option? Useful if a client is going to stay a client and good for both sides.

    Charlie’s point about setting clear expectation and delivering on expectation is the key.

    Couple of questions:

    a) does your customer know this debate is taking place online – are they joining in?

    b) Is Optix transitioning from a small and nimble company to a midsize?

    c) Are you finding you are dragging some legacy brand culture along that is pulling you back?

    Where is your “k” number on the pareto principle? is this an empty pea pod or one of the 20 pods in 100 that contributes to your 80% revenues?

    Quite often, small businesses that move from SE to ME status drag along with them old fishing nets that trap small fish that cost more to service.

    When a business moves to fresh fishing territory, its nets might need changing.

    It’s all good fun!

  8. I agree with @Martinhowitt ‘s comments but would like to add that as a purchaser I do have the following expectations whether these are right or wrong is another question :)

    1) I expect something I purchase to work, the exception of this is if I decide to purchase something which is advertised as “beta” and therefore i am actually getting a reduced price because I’m help to inform the development.

    2) If i use software as an example – On my laptop i have windows 7 and also anti virus software. As part of this licence I expect the software to be up to date and it will expect me to keep up to date with the updates in order to maintain security of my system. In this example the issue of security is very obvious so the updates for a natural part of the software ecosystem.
    Another example of this might be Sage Pay, it is part of the reputation of the system and organisation that there solution is secure, up-to-date and is fit for purpose. It really comes down to how you sell your products and services and under what terms and conditions to be honest. It might cost more for you to service and maintain, but why would I care about that. Surely it is your responsibility to develop a solution which is cost effective not just to customers but to your own organisation in terms of support and maintenance.

    3) The issue Martin raises about stating an End of Life date is critical as it allows individuals of businesses to understand that at a specific point they will be expected to move to an updated version of migrate to another solution altogether.

    4) If I assume you want feedback specifically about websites and or web applications then all of the above would apply. I don’t think it is sensible to “sell anything” nowadays without specifying that it has an ecosystem of updates (whether bug fixes or security updates) and it has a finite lifespan in terms of development roadmap. Whether or not you choose to do this is your call and how you price this is your call.

    I’m sure this discussion will continue and I’m curious as to what outcome and conclusion you come to based on the discussion here and elsewhere.

    • Very good to have your Public Sector experience coupled with your personal experience Carl – This is certainly turning into a very interesting conversation

  9. Ruairi Fullam says:

    Interesting topic of conversation which I’m sure to encounter more as time goes by! My initial thoughts are; if fixes are simple to perform then they should be done free of charge at your discretion. If the work required is more significant, I don’t see why it would be terrible to account for this at the point of sale, a “compatibility warranty” – as long as it’s reasonably priced, you could roll this into the hosting fee or add it as an ancillary option depending on the client.

    The fact is, web sites (especially CMS driven ones) are now almost indistinguishable from software technically – and the platforms in which they are used evolve constantly and quickly. If valuable time has to be invested in maintaining the sites to maximise compatibility, it should be accounted for – but reasonably and explained to the client correctly.

    • Thanks Ruairi, the issue of client expectation has come up time and time again during this post – something tells me this is the key :) Thanks for the comment

  10. Hi Everyone, great to hear all your thoughts.

    I’m coming to this from the POV of a freelancer who has been going for less than a year. I’m keen to provide the best “going the extra mile” service I possibly can for my clients, but at the same time I’m becoming increasingly aware that small alterations and bug fixes are exceedingly time consuming and therefore expensive for me.

    The only solution I can think of, unless the customer is happy to pay for everything by the hour, is to take these changes into account in the initial quotation for the work, but I’m never really sure how much one should add on.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on ball park hours/percentages to add to ensure that it is possible to give the client ongoing high quality support whilst avoiding the cash flow difficulties that come from doing a lot of work for free?

    • Hi Mark, Thanks for the comment – your post highlights the challenge I highlighted in my original post and one that I’m sure many people suffer with. I hope you gain some valuable insights from people’s comments – it’s exactly what I wrote it for :)

  11. Great blog and one I felt compelled to comment:

    As a software consultant the customer-supplier relationship should continue long after the initial contract has been delivered. I have found that ongoing fixes and enhancements are easier to service as part of an ongoing annual contract rather than tiny invoiced amounts for quick fixes etc… This way issues just get dealt with without sensitive commerical discussions needing to take place.

    At the end of each year supplier-customer reviews work completed and factor in the next years maintenance price (fairly).

    Of course, expectations need to be set upfront. Web technology is constantly changing and web design customers need to realise that bugs do crop up.

    • Thanks Simon, great input – one of the first I’ve seen that does an annual contract so that is something to certainly consider for web companies.

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