As I continue my work on my little nook of Microsoft's S+S business strategy, the team I work with has noticed something peculiar about what exactly a Service Offering really is. Because we know the packaged software business so well, we sometimes overlook what at first seems like a subtle difference in the SaaS business but eventuates into something quite substantial. One such situations is the understanding of what a Service Offering is compared to a packaged software product.
Service Offerings via SaaS redefine what a product is
In the traditional packaged software business, product features define what a product is but Customer 2.0 expects to have direct access to operational features within the Service Offering itself.
Take for example Microsoft Word. Product Features such as Import/Export, Mail Merge, Rich Editing, HTML support, Charts and Graphs and Templates are the types of features that Customer 1.0 values most in a product. SaaS Products are much different because Customer 2.0 demands it. Not only must a product include traditional product features, it must also include operational features such as Configure Service, Manage Service SLA, Manage Add-On Features, Monitor Service Usage Statistics, Self-Service Incident Resolution as well. In traditional packaged software products, these features were either supported manually, didn't exist or were change requests to a supporting IT department.
Service Offering = (Product Features) + (Operational Features)
Operational features directly impact the most valuable aspect of the Software Service Provider business...service quality for customer retention. Dr. Nilesh Bhide, one of my esteemed colleagues wrote a great blog post on the value of the qualitative customer experience for a Service Provider business (see here). This is a fascinating reality online Service Provider businesses have.
So, what downstream impacts are there for SaaS products? There are two that I'd like to look at; operational business processes and their supporting business systems.
The operational business processes must now include Self-Service Incident Management and Self-Service Service Management to streamline and enable the direct interaction between Customer 2.0 and the Operational systems to make real-time incident resolution and service configuration changes on the fly. Inability to have these automated business systems result in a degradation of service quality and inevitably customer attrition.
Product Managers of SaaS Service Offerings must include into the Service Offering operational features to optimize customer retention. They cannot be an afterthought nor can they be lower in priority. They are a key 'feature' of the Service Offering itself.
This assumption implies that the systems providing the operational features must also have the highest system quality that product features have. System quality attributes such as system reliability, system security, system performance and system usability. Any downtime, lack of usability or any other poor experience with these features naturally reflect the rest of the Service Offering itself. This is the point I want to make with this article. Guess who builds and supports these Operational Features? Your friendly neighborhood IT department in conjunction with the Operations and Service Offering product group. This raises the quality bar for your traditional IT shop.
Oh, and by the way, these must be provided at a very low maintenance cost so as not to cut into the profit of the low profit-margin SaaS business. As noted in the Wall Street Journal the other day "Microsoft’s troubles in online services grew in the quarter as losses widened – to $245 million – due in part to increased costs of data centers..." ("Microsoft Net Surges With Help From Vista", Robert A. Guth, Wall Street Journal, Friday January 25, 2008). Of course, data center cost isn't the only factor to the $245 million dollar loss but it was a significant contributor. This is a sharp reminder that online Service Provider business must have efficient data center operations to be profitable.
The need to focus quality on the operational features to run a successful business isn't all that surprising. Geoffrey Moore once wrote "For core activities, the goal is to differentiate as much as possible on any variable that impacts customers' purchase decisions and to assign one's best resources to that challenge. By contrast, every other activity in the corporation is not core, it is context. And the winning approach to context tasks is not to differentiate but rather to execute them effectively and efficiently in as standardized a manner as possible." Business processes such as the customer-facing sales, fulfillment, assurance/support and billing are all core because they have direct interaction with the qualitative customer experience. Therefore, these processes become a top priority in order to be competitive in the online software service market. This understanding is a critical component for software service providers today.