ERP support as a competitive advantage? Yeah, you heard that right. Oracle's Maz Songerwala makes his case

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed July 9, 2021 Audio mode
I don't hear ERP support referred to as "service excellence" often. Over the years, ERP vendors have not exactly won over customers with their support experience. But is that changing? Oracle's Maz Songerwala says yes. Here's his ambitious plan - and my take.

Maz Songerwala - Oracle
(Oracle's Maz Songerwala talking shop)

On rare occasions, I have a "When pigs fly" moment in this industry. It happened again this week, talking to Oracle's Maz Songerwala in advance of Oracle Live, Oracle's quarterly cloud software event (this time around, Oracle Live is on Tuesday, July 13).

To hear an executive who leads ERP support talk about DevSecOps, or how doing support right changes customer experience - yeah, that's pigs flapping their wings as far as I'm concerned.

My history is loaded with big ERP events where customer pain about support was best vented at a well-stocked bar, with cocktails offering welcome condolences. The only customers who ever had anything good to say about ERP support were paying for the privilege. Those fortunate few were part of premium support programs, the kind that got you access to comfy chairs on the convention floor.

ERP support and customer success - two phrases you don't hear together often

Can ERP support be transformed into a foundational plank for customer success - and a central reason for software renewals? I can understand a reader who might be skeptical. During our video chat, Songerwala made his case. As SVP, Applications Services Excellence at Oracle, Songerwala approaches support from a broader purview. So let's start with that. What do we mean by "customer experience"? Or "service excellence"? When Songerwala joined Oracle in 2019, those questions were on his plate. As he explained to me: 

I joined Oracle about 20 months ago. This was based on decisions we made as a company that predated me, where we said, 'Look, especially in the cloud, we need to be seen as a company or a partner which is really putting customer-centricity at the forefront of everything we do.'

Okay, but most vendors would say that. Songerwala thinks Oracle did this differently:

The first decision was made to say, 'Let's bring together all the teams which have some part of the actual engagement value chain with a customer within one organization.' So we brought together our support functions for cloud, our customer success functions, and various other teams, which at the time, were flung across Oracle, into one organization, under Steve Miranda (Author's note: watch for my quarterly interview with Miranda next week).

This has since been done with pretty much all of the different services organizations or support organizations at Oracle. There is no more global customer services organization. I really haven't seen that in any other large enterprise company at scale. The key functions of development and support are now under the same umbrella.

Getting the org structure right is important, but what really matters is a better result. To that end, Songerwala believes names matter also. "Service excellence" is not about a cool LinkedIn job title. It's a rallying cry for a different approach:

This isn't just 'We're doing cloud support.' It's the nature of what we mean when we say service excellence - and what that means to every constituency in our development organization. That is the key opportunity for us.

Even changing the names helps our support engineers understand, 'Okay, maybe what's expected of me now is fundamentally different.' It's not just 'take a case, close a case, move on to the next case.'

How do you achieve service excellence?

What else is different? Start with new metrics. It's no longer about tallying closed tickets, and calling that success. Songerwala is asking fundamental questions, such as: "Why is the customer contacting support in the first place?" "How could that have been addressed via self-service, or pro-active fixes?" "Should the product have been more intuitive?" A big part of uniting development and support: get product design right. Songerwala explains:

We needed to unite not just our support and customer success functions, but also our development and operations and DevOps teams' missions and goals. We started to think about a set of design principles. When we say we want to transform the customer experience, we really mean that we want to take an outside-in lens.

"Outside-in" sounds right, but how does that tie into the goal of "service excellence"?

Well, let's put ourselves in our customers' shoes. 'If I'm using your product, Oracle, don't make me leave the product to get an answer to a simple question.' The implication for us is: make your product easier to use and intuitive. If I do have to leave a particular screen or application, make it easy for me to find the answer myself quickly. The implication is self-service - useful content surfaced in the right place at the right time to help the client.

The formal support ticket becomes a last resort. Perhaps, someday, an endangered species. And when that ticket is filed, it shouldn't become a bureaucratic nightmare:

If those two things don't work, and you actually do need to get help, make it so that you can get me to the right person who can help me with my problem as fast as possible. The implications for us being: do not expose the friction points and the handoffs and how the sausage is made to the client.

Then there is the "customer success" tie-in, a gaping hole in traditional ERP support:

And then finally, once the customer's question is addressed, don't just move on to the next issue. There needs to be a continuity of experience. Help the customer understand what else they should be thinking about - what are the other best practices that they should be considering?

Songerwala acknowledges that these approaches, which sound like common sense in today's market, are no small thing to achieve.

So it sounds somewhat obvious, right? Nobody would dispute that, but it has implications for everybody. It has implications on product management, as they think about what does an intuitive feature really mean? It has implications in our operations team, about how do we have our processes and our tooling, to quickly drive pro-active mitigation

It has implications on our success teams for advising customers on what else they should be doing, based on what their peer group of other companies are doing. So that set of design principles led us to really think about at the broader level: we want to enable a digital-first, coupled with a high value, people-based interaction strategy.

Assessing Oracle's service excellence progress

But we do have a burning question to address: how far is Oracle along this service excellence transformation? How does Songerwala assess their progress?

It's a great question. It's not one where I can say, 'Hey, I'm 63% there.'  I'll tell you how I think about this, first and foremost, I ask, 'Did the cultural shift happen?' The traditional model - and I started my career in support - is: 'If it's not a bug, don't bother me.'

The cultural shift was: are you as interested about what you've already put out there, and whether customers are using it, as you are about the next new thing? Has that shift happened? We believe it absolutely has, because those conversations happen now across every product team at every level.

But, Songerwala acknowledges, there is plenty of work ahead:

What are we seeing now, that doesn't mean every single thing is actioned. But you've got that mindset shift. Otherwise, if it's just me touting this from the rooftops, and nobody else plays, we failed before we began.

Songerwala says that from a digital perspective, they've seen "a lot of impact," including pro-active bug resolution and feature improvement. Tracking customer tickets around such issues is revealing. In most cases, says Songerwala, those tickets should go to zero: "I think we're well underway from a digital standpoint." Another goal: become more predictive.

We've now put out way more monitoring, and more ability to see when a customer is about to run into an issue. This is not just my team; we work with our operations counterparts as well.

Songerwala expects more here:

This is probably an area over the next 12 months where we'll see the most progress... But by virtue of what customers are asking us help about, and what they want to know about. I've seen a big shift there.

My take - Oracle must get automation versus escalation right

I dismiss the cynical view that ERP support will never improve. I've talked to enough customers of (some) smaller ERP vendors to know that support can be a consistently good experience. But what Oracle is talking about here is different. It's not just making support quality better - but changing how support fits into customer success, and doing it at massive scale. That's a tougher goal, but a better one.

Another cynical view would be that ERP support is only improving because modern ERP is becoming a renewals business. There is some credibility to that one. Renewals do put pressure on underperforming areas, and support is clearly a bugaboo for most ERP vendors.

But what Songerwala is talking about here, by integrating support with customer success and development, is more ambitious in scope. It won't be easy, but I won't quarrel with an energizing vision. As far as validating whether it's working, I would need to talk with a number of Oracle cloud ERP customers about their current support experiences - especially the smaller customers that often struggle to get that exceptional support. At the next Oracle show I attend, I'll make a point of doing just that.

Another area I'm concerned about is automation versus escalation. While I'm a fan of customer self-service, and I see a role for bots, interactive help and resource libraries, escalation is often the biggest pain point in ERP support. I told Songerwala I worry about this issue because the big consumer brands can't get this right. Getting to a human via an automated Comcast voice mail system is just one example. Tech that was supposed to help with resolution ends up being an absurd, dystopian experience. That type of support feels more like a headcount reduction exercise than an elegant way of combining automation and human intervention.

I'll look to enterprise vendors like Oracle to develop a better mix of automated support and human escalation/resolution. I believe that will define how customers perceive support, and by extension, Oracle's brand. Songerwala's emphasis on design is welcome here - let's see what emerges.