Fix My Computer Now Or I'll Lose This Sale!

The technology support crisis in manufacturing

Manufacturers of discrete products the world over know that information and the technology to capture, process and analyze it are key to running world-class supply chains. Yet research that Unisys has conducted over the last year on more than 150 manufacturing companies around the world shows they are paying insufficient attention to helping their employees gain access to and use this information. Providing high-quality technology management and support services to employees is critical to delivering business results and, above all, customer satisfaction. Because employees at every level and function now depend on their technology, this lack of adequate support is increasingly putting manufacturers' reputations, innovation, productivity and revenue at risk.

Ten years ago the technology support group was typically located down the hall or at least in the same building, and there were far fewer jobs depending on IT. Today, the jobs of employees at all levels depend enormously on accessing information through technology. This is especially true of workers who generate revenue and keep customers satisfied every day -- sales, customer service, and field service, for instance. When their personal digital assistants (PDAs), laptops, or desktop systems do not work, they cannot do their work: the salesperson who tries a product demonstration from his laptop but cannot get the machine to turn on; the field repairman who is unable to download troubleshooting guides; or the customer service rep who cannot answer a question because her computer is frozen.

These employees may represent 20% or less of the total employee base of a manufacturer. However, they drive the significant share of the revenue and the profit. They therefore deserve top-tier technology support. But they typically don't receive it because their companies perpetuate the VIP support practices of the past and view the support function as a cost and not a revenue enabler.

In 2006, top executives in 73% of the North American manufacturers that we surveyed received high levels of IT support. But only 42% of these companies gave their salespeople high support levels, and even fewer (39%) provided high levels of support to customer service reps. When we conducted the survey globally this year, support was still tilted toward the VIPs. A larger percentage of manufacturers (58%) gave high-levels of technology support to their top executives. Only 42% gave their salespeople the white-glove treatment, although 54% provided high support levels to their customer service function.

It is easy to blame technology support problems on end-user services functions. But that ignores the soaring complexities of their jobs today. Four forces have made their jobs very difficult: rising employee dependence on a fast-increasing number of computing devices; mounting technical complexities of each device; substantial differences in the support needs of employees from department to department; and employees who more and more mix corporate-issued technology to do personal business and personal technologies to do corporate business. This has raised security risks significantly.

Yet a number of manufacturers that we studied, including STMicroelectronics NV, a $9 billion global semiconductor manufacturer, are taking a much different approach to employee technology support, one that has made their employees far more productive. They have to because employees now depend on their technology to do their jobs.

Manufacturers that provided the best end-user technology support made employees much more productive. But to do so, they ran the end-user support function far differently than companies whose support was merely satisfactory, poor or unsatisfactory.

From our research base of more than 900 companies (across all industries), the leaders at technology support differ from the laggards in six fundamental ways:

  1. Basing support levels not on employees' rank but on their revenue impact. Support leaders gave much higher levels of support to revenue-generating functions of sales, customer service and customers themselves (for online support).
  2. Capturing and sharing the collective expertise of the support group to solve difficult and recurring technology problems. One of the biggest differences between the companies with the best and worst technology support was the presence of online knowledge bases for support professionals. The companies with the best support had such online portals, and the ones with the worst support did not. STMicroelectronics, for example, uses a knowledge management system that facilitates support, providing support people and end-users with information on everything from ordering a computer to setting up a signature within Microsoft Outlook. Across all our large-company survey respondents in North America polled last year, only 45% had such knowledge bases for support professionals.
  3. Standardizing support practices, not just technologies. Companies like STMicroelectronics have worked hard to standardize the hardware and software "image" that support groups install on the technology they give to employees. That significantly reduces the number of variations in technology that the support group must master. But that is not enough. The companies that are best at employee technology support were also much more likely to institute standard ways of providing support -- the way they give out passwords, repair computers, and so on.
  4. Exploit technologies that automate support processes, particularly those that allow IT support to take control of employees' devices with an online connection. One of the biggest differences between support leaders and laggards is in the use of remote diagnostic technology. From our 2006 North American survey sample, nearly all the leaders -- 91% -- were using it. In contrast, only half the laggards were using it.
  5. Balancing centralized and field support. These days, effective support doesn't mean the technicians must be down the hall. In fact, with today's technologies (including remote diagnostics), much support can be delivered better from central offices.
  6. Escaping the trap of measuring support through service level agreements. SLAs typically measure how well IT staffers (or their outsourcing firms) do their work. The ultimate measures are those that tell a company whether technology is making employees more productive -- selling more widgets, raising customer satisfaction, and so on. Leading companies were more likely than laggards to be tracking these metrics.

By operating employee technology support this way, these manufacturers' IT support personnel were far more effective and efficient. Even more, by reducing the amount of time and money they had to spend fixing broken technology, they could devote more resources to help employees get ahead of the curve: focusing on improving their individual productivity and creating innovations in the way they work, especially the employees who "touch" revenue every day. In fact, IT managers at STMicroelectronics have told us that their conversations with company employees are moving from fixing their technology problems to discussing "How can I be more efficient and effective."

Only by ensuring that technology support is operating well can manufacturers move to the next level: troubleshooting the fundamental ways that salespeople, customer service reps, field repair technicians and other employees do their jobs - the workers who "touch" revenue every day. When they do, they'll be able to dramatically improve the productivity of these key employees and raise revenue to new levels.

Joe Hogan is vice president, Strategic Outsourcing Programs and Vincent Wells is a client program executive at Unisys Corporation, which provides information technology services to manufacturers and other organizations around the world. To reach Hogan, email him at [email protected]. Wells can be reached at [email protected].

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