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Tech support is not a low-end job!

As techies contend with shrinking opportunities, AssureConsulting.com begins a new series on Careers that have gained prominence on account of the downturn. This article is the first of the series and focuses on high-end product support, often confused with helpdesk operations that define call centre activity. We dispell the myth and look at what's driving steady demand for these professionals with niche skills.

he Internet economy is alternately known as the Customer Economy. Global majors were scarred and dotcoms were scooped out during the bust but the customer was unshakable. Rather the downturn helped strengthen the customer's position as companies doubled over to beguile, allure, entice, tempt and woo customers to survive in an unyielding and merciless economy. In the new rules of the new economy one principle remained essentially unchanged: ETDBW; i.e., from a customer perspective companies must be easy to do business with. Patricia Seybold author of the recent book The Customer Revolution argues that the historical measures of business success built around investment capital such as profit and loss return on assets, return on investments, return on capital employed and even price earning ratios are no longer important performance indicators. In a customer economy, loyal customers are the fundamental source of value, as the worth of the customer franchise ultimately determines the value of the company.

The rise of the customer has birthed a new pedigree of C executives, the CCO or the Chief Customer Officer; who owns the total customer experience across the enterprise. Intense competition and shrinking product margins are adding to the power of the customer and compelling technology companies to focus on strengthening tech support departments to ensure that customers remain loyal and do not defect. In technology companies, the product development cycle no longer stops at the sale of a product or service but extends to post-sales period where the tech support functionary maintains the interface between the organisation and the customer. Says Thomas, a tech support engineer at Cybercash: "Companies have realised that they could have a great product but without round the clock tech support the product will not sell." The challenge lies in meeting customer expectations by extending 24/7 multi-channel support in a complex technical environment and designing innovative and customised customer support packages. PeopleSoft IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, HP and Novell and a host of other majors that offer extensively designed and variably priced support packages to nurture customer loyalty. The significance of the customer support function is underscored by special web sites with extensive in depth articles maintained for customers. (See http://support.novell.com or http://support.microsoft.com)

Not surprising, the graph of high-end tech support as a career is on the rise in smart customer centric IT organisations. Customer support is also no longer restricted to a 24 hour helpdesk job exemplified by the classic, simple tiered support organisational model, first introduced by IBM and Digital Electric Corporation in the Eighties, where first- level support handles basic queries and escalates others. The classic model assumed that products were long-lived and stable but increasingly complex and sophisticated technology environments soon overturned the classic tech support model. Today, the tech support function is a specialised independent function, analogous to development and testing, requiring cross functional domain expertise, sophisticated technical and functional know-how of the company's products, understanding multi-vendor environments and an ability to communicate this understanding simply and effectively to the customer. "Development tech support professionals are in direct contact with the source code," says Thomas a software engineer working with Cybercash. Seconds an HR Manager of a product chain management solutions company that recently shifted operations to India: "Tech support engineers in our company could be required to write an online patch if the customer reports a bug or the engineer could be online with the customer for more than 24 hours trying to resolve a difficult complex problem." Apart from development tech support, integration tech support is another emerging career. The integration tech support engineer primarily irons out and smoothens the integration problems with the client's software.

In India despite the increasing significance of the function post- sales tech support lacks popular appeal, as most engineers view it as a low-level call center function. Few engineers understand the role or the complexity of the tech support function. "Also in India the call center boom has maligned the high end tech support function," says Thomas. "Most engineers think that I answer calls such as: "What do I do, my system is hanging, agonises another tech support engineer. In public (here I mean techies) perception it's an undervalued, no brainer function," agonises another testing engineer. Tech support function needs to play a more direct role in the development process rather than be placed at the bottom end of the development chain, as knowledge gained from customer experience can influence the shape of products and services," says Thomas.

The need for experienced tech support engineers is, however, on the rise. Many companies are, also moving on to the collaborative tech support environment, evident from the recent bullish of CRM companies, infrastructure that can automate and centrally store the problem tracking process, indicating centrality of tech support function. Global majors such as Oracle and Microsoft, for example, are shifting product development to India and are in offering some high-end tech support services from their Indian ODCs. Recently, two product companies Agile Software and Appshop have advertised for high-end tech support professionals, signaling future developments. As Indian companies move up the value chain, the demand will grow further but will remain stable rather than explosive. That's the mandate of the new customer centric economy, and companies are loath to say NO.

 

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