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How Do We Expand the Discussion on Enterprise Support?

When SAP raised its maintenance fees from 17 to 22 percent on July 16, 2008, it was not surprising that there would be ramifications. Some have speculated (though I can’t confirm it) that these ripple effects even include the decision from the ASUG Board (the North American SAP User Group) to end the term of CEO Steve Strout. Some have also hypothesized, based on the “Oracle versus SAP” report recently issued by Forrester, that those SAP customers who hold off on upgrading to ERP 6.0, partially due to their frustrations over increased support fees, could even be won over by Oracle if Fusion can indeed be produced in a ready-for-prime-time format in 2010 as planned. This would imply to me, and hopefully to SAP as well, that customer satisfaction over SAP support is something to be taken very seriously.

  If my opinion is not enough, a recent “sell rating” applied to SAP by Societe Generale analyst Richard Nguyen on the basis of SAP customer discontent should carry more weight.



To be fair, since I initially posted a blog sharing my hope for better dialogue between SAP and its customers over the support increase, such discussion between SAP and its customer base seems to have begun. Good signs include: SAP conceding that the announcement of the fee hike could have been better handled; SAP softening the blow of the support increase by extending the years covered by the agreement, and most recently, as noted by Dennis Howlett, SAP working on a new set of KPIs by which “Enterprise Support” can be judged, in order to deliver the value that SAP believes will more than justify the increase to 22 percent.

Few seem to have heard of this new development on the KPI front. In his entry on the departure of ASUG CEO Steve Strout and the general discontent of SAP customers over the support fee issue, Howlett notes: “Earlier in the year, SAP and ASUG issued a joint statement regarding the forthcoming price hike in maintenance where it appeared that ASUG was in enthusiastic support of SAP’s action. In the meantime, I have struggled to find a single customer that is happy with SAP’s proposals, although it is now understood that roll out of the price hike is contingent upon SAP meeting as yet to be agreed KPIs.”

News Update: Of course, just this week, there have been more developments on the SAP support front, revolving around SAP’s decision to allow SAP customers in Austria and Germany to remain on their current support contracts though 2009. No one knows what the ultimate effects of this decision will be yet. The implications are complex enough to have required a whole different blog post, which I have now posted, so you can read more details there. However, I’m not sure that these changes effect the spirit of this post, which takes a closer look at the day-to-day support experience. Onward.

The purpose of this blog post is to look at the support issue from a different angle and share a couple of proactive suggestions that were relayed to me. I recently had the opportunity to talk with a couple of SAP users. They provided me with a perspective from the hands-on angle of a technical manager and an outside consultant. What came out of these conversations was a more nuanced view of the SAP support issue and an increased focus on the quality of support rather than the pricing. Throughout the rest of this blog entry, in italics, I will feature additional comments from the first technical manager I spoke with upon his review of this piece, his comments are in italics. The other individual, an SAP consultant, offered a couple other comments I will post underlined just to keep everything distinct.

Here’s the first comment from our technical manager:

"Let’s start with the terminology. Note that “Enterprise Support” should be called “Enterprise Software Maintenance and Support” since support includes patches, bug fixes, enhancements, support packs, as well as access to help desk contacts. Given that SAP required many long-term customers to repurchase their main product (let’s just call it “R/3”) instead of being given this code under existing contract terms, those customers might already be leery of machinations to increase SAP’s revenue with little or no effort on SAP’s part."

Following are some additional lessons (and suggestions) I took from these SAP support conversations:

For the hands-on SAP manager, the price of support is a concern to be left to others in the business. What concerns the hands-on manager is not so much the price of SAP’s support but the quality. On this topic, I was presented with a series of support anecdotes that indicated to me that - at least in the view of these managers - getting good support from SAP requires the same kind of advocacy, determination, and follow-through that most of us are used to drawing upon when we attempt to obtain support from large companies. Anecdotes included the usual things, such as misunderstood or improperly routed problems, or prematurely closed tickets. The conclusion I took from this: SAP needs to remember that compromising on the cost of Enterprise Support is not going to be effective unless the support itself also receives high marks.

"SAP software notes passed the 1 million mark in November 2006. While many have been withdrawn or obsoleted, that is a huge number of fixes, corrections and error reports. Oracle, on the other hand, allows customers (limited) access to their bug database itself, which has over 7,000,000 entries. SAP customers are not allowed to view internal messages between support personnel on customer tickets, much less view actual bug reports. They can only view these SAP Notes, formerly called OSS Notes."

On the positive side, SAP’s online communities seem to provide an excellent supplement to traditional support channels. Indeed, SAP has integrated some routing of support inquiries to SDN from its interface. For the most part, this seems to be a good thing, with one manager reporting that he usually takes his support issues directly to SDN without even opening a support ticket. There may be questions worthy of debate in terms of how much SAP can ethically leverage its online communities for support without providing compensation for its participants, but I think SAP deserves some credit here as I have heard more than a couple representatives from SAP openly raise this for discussion as well.
As our outside consultant said: “I actually have relatively little contact with official SAP support. I usually focus on exploiting the resources of the community (via forums, SDN in general, etc.) and colleagues. These channels are usually easier to use and often more effective. Official support is usually the last resort and often used to cover people’s butts in case business starts to really complain - "We’ve posted an OSS message. Now it is SAP’s turn.”
SAP users have a responsibility to join in the dialogue and do not always seize the opportunity. Most of the press coverage on the Enterprise Support increase has been critical of SAP, but the technical managers I interviewed pointed out that if users don’t speak up when given the opportunity, then they are not in a good position to complain about SAP support later. If users don’t document their support issues and present them to SAP, then SAP cannot be held accountable to specific issues that need addressing. I was told about under-attended sessions with SAP where user support issues could have been aired. Sometimes SAP is an easy target; it’s important to define accountability in terms of a relationship between SAP and its customers that both sides must take responsibility.
"Part of this problem is the use of the term “message processing” instead of support calls or other terminology when these feedback opportunities occur. The other part is the human nature of putting bad experiences behind us and moving on to the next challenge. It takes willpower and dedication to give meaningful feedback."
SAP needs to be careful not to overemphasize the technical virtues of Solution Manager. The centerpiece of SAP’s new Enterprise Support offering is Solution Manager. SAP maintains that Solution Manager, properly used within the context of the new RunSAP post-go-live methodology, will deliver on value far beyond the support increase. The managers I spoke to were more skeptical about Solution Manager. It’s not that they think Solution Manager is a bad tool. They just take a skeptical view of technology-as-savior, especially when it comes to such a human-centric process as providing quality support. To better align themselves with their customers on support, SAP needs to make sure that they don’t overuse the “Solution Manager will make everything better” message.
"So far, we’ve put a lot of work into Solution Manager without much return value, though I have heard from other customers who succeeded."
SAP has an opportunity to use its own dashboard technology to improve support. One of the glaring problems of SAP support is that there is no company-wide means of quickly seeing all the open tickets that an SAP user has open. This raises an obvious question: why doesn’t SAP use some of its own dashboard capabilities, bolstered by all its Business Objects and Business Intelligence technologies, to provide SAP users with a comprehensive view of all support tickets they currently have open? This kind of practical improvement in support would go a long way towards demonstrating to SAP users that SAP can provide the value they need by listening to them regarding the tools and service that will make their support experience better. An enhanced support experience would go a long way towards putting the “Enterprise” in Enterprise Support.
"This is something SAP could showcase, open up to an SDN contest, etc. What better way to gain customer trust than to ask for early design input?"
"I do like the idea of having dashboards to ease company-wide access to support. There is so much knowledge in the OSS messages that customers have created over the years. SAP should somehow mine these nuggets of information more effectively and provide the resulting extract to the community. OSS Notes are a poor substitute."

I hope that these topics help to round out the SAP support discussion. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but as someone with a stake in the SAP community, I have a vested interest in seeing this dialogue move in a constructive direction.

This level of customer frustration will lead to one of two directions: less market success for SAP, or, an opportunity to improve the customer relationship. If SAP takes the latter direction, it will either have to: revoke the price increase (something Howlett continues to persuasively advocate), or justify the price increase by providing additional value. SAP seems to be opting for the latter approach, both in terms of spreading out the cost of support and working to better relay the value of Enterprise Support to its customer base. The lesson of this blog post is that if SAP relies on Solution Manager to carry the day here, it likely won’t be enough. A well-rounded conversation, one that includes the human element of support, as well as the creative use of collaborative tools such as SCN and dashboards to improve support quality, has real potential.

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