Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: BMC Software.
Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you're listening to BriefingsDirect.
Today we present a sponsored podcast discussion on how two companies are extending their use of cloud computing by taking on IT service desk and incident management functions "as a service."
We will see how a common data architecture and fast delivery benefits combine to improve the efficiency, cost, and result of IT support of end users.
Our examples are intelligent energy-management solutions provider Comverge and how it’s extended its use of Salesforce.com into a self-service enabled service desk capability using BMC’s Remedyforce. [Disclosure: BMC Software is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
We'll also hear the story of how modern furniture and accessories purveyor, Design Within Reach, has made its IT support more responsive even at a global scale via cloud-based incident-management capabilities.
Learn more about improving the business of delivering IT services, and in moving IT support and change management from a cost center to a proactive IT knowledge asset.
Here to share their story on creating the services that empower end users to increasingly solve their own IT issues, is Danielle Bailey, IT Manager at Comverge in Norcross, Georgia. Welcome Danielle.
Danielle Bailey: Thank you so much for having me.
Gardner: We are also here with Alec Davis, the Senior System Analyst at Design Within Reach. He's in San Francisco, but the company is based in Stamford, Connecticut. Welcome to BriefingsDirect, Alec.
Alec Davis: Thank you, very much. Thanks for having me.
Gardner: Danielle, when your company started looking at improving your helpdesk solutions and your IT support, I have to assume that -- like a lot of companies -- you had some significant pain and cost when it comes to providing that support, particularly as you change systems and move through the maturation and evolution of IT.
Could you describe for me some of the problems were that you really wanted to solve, that you want to improve?
Bailey: We had three pretty big pain points that we wanted to address, as we moved forward. The first was cost. As our company was growing pretty quickly, we were having some growing pains with our financials as far as being able to justify some of the IT expense that we had.
The current solution that we had actually charged by person, because there was a micro-agent involved, and so as we grew as a company, that expense continued to grow, even though it wasn’t providing us the same return on investment (ROI) per person to justify that.
So we had a little over $55,000 a year expense with our prior software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, and so we wanted to be able to reduce that, bring it back more in line with the actual size of our IT group, so that it fit a little bit better into our budget.
One of the reasons we went with Remedyforce is that rather than charging us by the end user, the license fees were by the helpdesk agent, which would allow us to stay within the scope of what our size of our IT team was.
The second big issue that we had was that a lot of our end users were remote. We have field technicians who go out each day and install meters on homes, and they don’t carry laptops, and the micro-agent required laptops for them to be able to log tickets.
We wanted to be able to use something that would allow us to give our field techs the ability to log tickets on a mobile application, like their iPhones that we have for them to use. So it was important that whatever we went forward with had that aspect, and Remedyforce did have that.
The third issue was that we were Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliant and we needed to make sure that whatever solution we chose would allow us to track change management, to go through approval workflows, and to allow our management to have insight into what changes were being made as they went forward, and to be able to interact and collaborate on those changes.
So that was the third reason we chose Remedyforce. It has the change management in there, but it also has the Salesforce.com Chatter interface that we are able to use to make sure that managers can follow some of the incidents and see as we go through if we have any changes that we can quickly work with them to explain what we may need and that they can contribute to that conversation.
Those were the three biggest things that we were kind of looking at when we were deciding what to move forward with.
Gardner: Alec, does this sound familiar or were there some other concerns that you had in your particular company that you wanted to address?
Davis: We have kind of a different story. A couple of years ago we made a huge corporate move from San Francisco to Stamford, Connecticut. At that move we saw that it was an opportunity to look at our network infrastructure and examine what hardware we needed and whether we could move to the cloud.
So Remedyforce was part of a bigger project. We were moving toward Salesforce and we also moved toward Google Apps for corporate email. We wanted to reduce a lot of the hardware we had, so that we didn’t have to move it across the country.
We were also looking for something that could be up and running before that move, so we wouldn't have any downtime.
We quickly signed up with Google, and that went well. And then we moved into Salesforce.com. At Dreamforce 2010, Remedyforce was announced, and I was there and I was really excited about the product. I was familiar with BMC’s previous tools, as well as some of the other IT staff, so we quickly jumped on it.
But as part of that move, something else kind of changed about our IT group. We did grow a bit smaller, but we were also more spread out. We used to all be in one location. Now, we're in San Francisco, Stamford, and also Texas. So we needed something that was easily accessible to us all. We didn’t necessarily want to have to use a virtual private network (VPN) to get onto a system, to interact with our incidents.
And we also liked the idea of a portal for our customers. Our customers are really just internal customers, our employees. We liked the idea of them being able to log in and see the status of an incident that they have reported.
We're also really big on change management. We manage our own homegrown enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. So we do lots of changes to that system and fix bugs as well. And when we add something new, we need approval of different heads of different departments, depending on what that feature is changing.
So we are big on change management, and prior to that we were just using really fancy Microsoft Word documents to get approvals that were either signed via email or printed out and specifically signed. We like the idea of change management in Remedyforce and having the improved approval process.
Gardner: Danielle, let’s learn a little bit more about your company, Comverge. Tell us what it does, what your business is, but then also a little bit about your IT support situation in terms of numbers of users and their distribution around the world?
Bailey: Comverge is a green energy company. We try to help reduce peak load for utility companies. For example, when folks are coming home and starting to wash clothes, turn on the air-conditioning and things like that, the energy use for those utilities spikes.
Hardware and software
We provide software and hardware that allows us to cycle air-conditioning compressors on and off, so that we reduce that peak. And by reducing that peak we are able to help utility companies to meet their own energy needs, rather than buying power from other utilities or building new power plants.
We have been in business for about 25 years. We originally started out as part of Scientific Atlanta, but they have taken on new companies across the country to integrate new technology into what we offer.
We are now nationwide. We provide services to utilities in the Northeast, from Pennsylvania, and then all the way down to Florida, and then all the way west to California, and then to Texas, New Mexico, and different areas in-between. And we’ve recently opened new offices in South Africa, providing the same energy services to them.
Comverge tries to make sure that the energy that we're able to help provide by reducing that load is green. It’s renewable. It’s something we can continue to do. It just helps to reduce cost as well as to save the environment from some of the pollution that may happen from new energy production.
In a nutshell, Comverge is a leading provider of intelligent energy management solutions for residential and commercial and industrial customers. We deliver the insight and controls that enables energy providers and consumers to optimize their power usage through the industry’s only proven comprehensive set of technology services and information management solution.
In January, Comverge delivered two new products, the Intel P910 PCU that includes capabilities to support dynamic pricing programs, and Intel Open Source Applications for the iPhone. The iPhone is very important to us. Our field technicians are using it at residential and commercial installations, and we just want to make sure that we continue with that innovation.
Gardner: And how many IT end users are you supporting at this point?
Bailey: About 600, and those are in South Africa, as well as all around the U.S.
Gardner: And so you are delivering your support through the same infrastructure, the same applications delivery across the globe?
Bailey: That’s right, because it is web-based, everybody can access it. It's great.
Gardner: And what's the new experience in terms of performance on that?
Bailey: As far as the end users, they've all been really happy with it. We transitioned in April to Remedyforce from our old SaaS system, but the users say that Remedyforce is a lot easier for them to use, as far as putting in ticket and for them to see updates whenever our technicians write notes or anything on the tickets. It's a lot easier for them to share with others whenever they have to change what we are working on.
Gardner: And it seems that your core business is involved with getting more data and information and making that useable in terms of management of energy resources. I suppose the same effect is being employed here at the IT level.
Is there something about the information that you are able to glean from your interactions, from these tickets, and from your IT workforce that you are then bring back into how you provide IT better, to make it either proactive or building a better knowledge base asset?
Bailey: We are. We just implemented Remedyforce in April. So we are still building our knowledge base. We didn’t have that capability previously. So we are able to use some of the tickets that we have come in as we process and update those and control and close those. We are able to build articles that our technicians can use going forward.
I have recently switched my ERP analyst, but because I was able to pull some of that information out of Remedyforce, where I had my prior ERP analyst, it actually helped me to train this new person on some of the things they can do to troubleshoot and resolve problems.
We are also able to use the automated reporting out of Remedyforce so that I can schedule reports on our tickets, see how many we have open, and for what categories and things like that, and take that to our executive management. They're able to see our resource needs, see where we may have bottlenecks, and help us make decisions that help our IT group move faster and more efficiently.
Gardner: Alec at Design Within Reach, help us better understand your company, what it does, and then also some of the requirements that are unique to your organization, when it comes to IT support.
Davis: Design Within Reach is a modern furniture retailer. We've been around for 12 years, starting in San Francisco. We have a website that has the majority of our sales. We also have “studios” that are better described as showrooms. We have usually about five reps in those studios, and we have about 50 studios around the U.S. and Canada.
So those [reps] are our users that we support. We've become a very mobile company in the last couple of years. A lot of our sales reps are using iPads. One of the requirements we've had is to be able to interact with corporate in a mobile fashion. Our sales reps walk around the showroom and work with our customers and they don’t necessarily want to be tied to a desk or tied to a desktop. So that is definitely a requirement for us.
Our IT staff is small. We have an IT group, information technologies, and we also have our information systems, which is our development side. In IT we have about six people and in our IS department we also have about six people. We have kind of a tiered system. Tickets come in from our employees, and our helpdesk will triage those incidences and then raise them up to a tiered system to our development side, if needed, or to our network team.
We do have also some contractors and developers. As I mentioned before, we have our own ERP system. We do a lot of the development in house, so we don’t have to outsource it. It's important for those contractors to be able to get into Remedyforce and work the change management we have into the requirement, and also in some cases look at incidences to look how bugs are happening in our ERP environment.
Gardner: Given that you have a fairly concentrated group that is accomplishing significant amount of work, is there anything about the Remedyforce approach that's given you self-help improvement? How have you been able to empower those end users to find the resources they need, to keep you fairly lean and mean when it comes to IT?
Davis: Well, we have put most of the onus on our IT department to know how to resolve an issue, and we did have a lot of transition with new employees during our move. So building a knowledge base with on-boarding new IT people is also very important. Again, we're a small team and we support a larger internal customer base, so we need them to start and have the answers pretty quickly.
Time is money, and we have our sales reps out there that are selling to our large customer base. If there's an issue with the reporting, we need to be able to respond to it quickly.
Gardner: And the conventional wisdom is that helpdesks are still costly, and the view has been that it’s a cost center. Is there anything about how you have done things that you think is changing that perception? Is it becoming more of a proactive approach, and is there a way of defining IT support more as a collaborative interaction rather than just a necessary evil?
Davis: Well, essentially the reporting has helped us to isolate larger issues, and to also identify employees that put a lot of incidents in. With the reporting, which is very flexible, and with reporting for management, requirements can change. With the Remedyforce reporting, I can change those existing reports, create new ones, or add new value to those reports.
Mainly you see how many tickets are coming in. We can show management how many incidents we are handling on a daily basis, weekly, monthly, and so forth. But I use it mainly to identify where are the larger issues. Managing an ERP system is a large task, and I like to see what issues are happening and where can we work to fix those bugs. I work directly with the developers, so I like to be as proactive as I can to fix those bugs.
And we are very spread out and very mobile, so we like the flexibility to be able to get into Remedyforce without VPN or traditional methods.
Gardner: It sounds as if you are gaining almost a business intelligence (BI) insight as to what's going on with your IT operations through the perceptions and needs of your end users. I assume that is allowing you to be more proactive, rather than simply trying to firefight all the time?
Davis: Absolutely. And I didn't answer your second question about collaborating. Collaboration is becoming very important to us. We did roll out Salesforce.com Chatter to most of our company, and we are seeing the benefits in our sales team especially. We are trying to use Chatter and Remedyforce together to collaborate on issues. As I said, we are spread out, and our IT group has different skill sets.
Depending on what the issue is, we talk back and forth about how to resolve it, and that's so important, because you do build up knowledge, but the core of our knowledge is in every one of our employees. It's very important that we can connect quickly and collaborate in a more efficient way than we used to have.
Gardner: That's interesting. So it sounds as if it's almost a “support scrum,” as opposed to a development scrum effect, is that fair?
Davis: That's fair, yeah.
Gardner: Danielle, similar question. How has the perception of IT support been shifting for you? Is there a shift afoot there at Comverge around the perception that IT support is a cost center?
Bailey: Yes, we have been able to show where IT is actually starting to save money for the rest of the company by increasing efficiency and productivity for some of our groups. There are some of the development works that we are able to do by being able to track and change processes for folks, making them more efficient.
For example, one of the issues that we had was that we were tasked with trying to reduce our telecom expense. We were able to go through and log all of the different telecom lines and accounts. We had to trace them down and see where they were being used and where they may not be used anymore. We worked with some folks within the team to reduce a lot of the lines that we didn’t need anymore. We have been moving over to digital, but we still had a lot of analog lines.
Before, we didn’t have a way to really track those particular assets to figure out who they belonged to and what their use was. Just being able to have that asset tracking and to work through each of those as a group, we were able to produce a lot.
The first quarter of the year we reduced our telecom expense over $50,000 a year and we are continuing with that effort.
Gardner: It sounds as if you're able to codify best practices, instantiate them into other areas, and then gain quite a bit of efficiency in the process.
Bailey: Exactly, as well as being able to track and recognize what some of the assets are, and be able to end the lifespan of those that we no longer need.
Gardner: Is there something about having a common repository, or configuration management database (CMDB) in this case that you think is extensible? Is there a way of not only gathering more information in terms of knowledge, but then applying it in other ways?
Bailey: With the knowledge base that we're building, we're able to let a lot of users begin to self-help. We have a pretty small IT team. We have only two people on what we call helpdesk support. Then we have 2 network team members, and we have about 10 people on our information services team, where we do development for the software and data services.
So our IT support team is really small, but by being able to track assets that we have, manage problems that we have, and maintain the trends for those, we're able to better utilize an external company that we have. There are only about three people on that team as well, to make our processes a little bit more efficient.
We're able to reach out to them when we need to by assigning tickets to them. They're able to log in without being inside of our corporate network. They're able to track and complete issues for us, and we're able to keep all of that knowledge going forward. If we have a similar issue again, we're able to go back, review that, and fix the problem.
It's been a lot of help for us to just start building that knowledge repository. Whereas before, if someone left the company, you would lose years and years of knowledge because there was no place that it was documented.
Gardner: I think we can even look to IT as being a bit of a pioneer here. Is there a way of taking this model, and maybe even the very tools that you are using, and bringing that to other forms of support within your organization? Perhaps it's HR support. It might even be extending beyond the boundaries of the organization to your actual customers, rather than your internal employees.
Any thoughts about how what you've been doing and learning might apply to other types of support functions within your overall organization?
Bailey: We're actually still in our infancy with this, because we just implemented it in April. But we have multiple call centers that actually provide support to our utility and for residential customers who go through a separate ticketing system that's part of software that we have had, that's actually going away.
We're talking about now replacing that call center ticketing system with Remedyforce, so that we all use the same ticketing system and we are able to maintain that information in one place.
Because Remedyforce also ties into Salesforce.com, we'd be able to track some of our residential and utility customers in the Salesforce side as well, so that if the salesperson is aware that there is an issue going on with their utility, they can follow the information as it applies to that contact. Then, they're able to also reach out directly to the utility and make sure that things get handled the way they need to be handled according to contracts or relationships. So it's certainly something we are hoping to expand on.
We are also planning to use, and have already started using, Remedyforce for our HR group. When we have new hires or terminations, they're able to able to put in IT support tickets for that. We're able to build templates for each individual, so that as we receive notification that someone has been terminated, we can immediately remove them from the system too. HR has that access to put in those tickets and build those requests, and that helps maintain our SOX compliance.
Synergy and benefits
Gardner: I should think too that when you combine your data around what's going on for your employees with what's going on with your customers, there's going to be some synergies there, and some other analysis benefits that will extend to how you might start defining new products and services in the market, and how you would implement them.
Bailey: Yes, we're hoping so. We're still having those conversations and trying to find out where we can just bring truth into our data. If we can bring everything together so that we have insight and reporting, and all of the master data is in one place -- or at least tied together in one place -- there's definitely going to be synergy and efficiency and more “truth” in our information.
Gardner: Alec, how might you be able to extend what you have been doing with Remedyforce into other service support, call center, or ticketing activities?
Davis: Information is very important to us, very important to myself. I like to see what is happening in organizations from a support standpoint. We haven’t really pushed out Remedyforce to a lot of other departments outside of HR, who of course is helping us with on-boarding the new employees and off-boarding as well.
But all of our internal support teams, our operations team that support our sales teams, some people in finance, and of course HR, are all using Salesforce cases.
So we have all of our customer information. We have all of our vendor information. That would be the IT vendors, but we're also a retail company, so our product retailers are in there too.
We've also moved it out to our distribution center. They have the support team there. We've also started bringing in all of our shipping carriers and all the vendors that they work with. So we have all of our data in one place.
We can see where a lot of issues are arising, and we can be more proactive with those vendors with those issues that we are seeing.
It's great to have all of our data, all of our customer information, all of our vendor information, in one location. I don’t like to have all these disparate systems where you have your data spread out. I love having them in one location. It's very helpful. We can run lots of reports to help us identify what’s happening in our company.
Gardner: I'm afraid we'll have to leave it there. We've been talking about how two companies are extending their use of cloud computing by taking on IT service desk and incident management functions as a service. And we have seen how they have used BMC Software’s Remedyforce to improve the business of delivering IT services and business services -- and to move IT support and change management from a cost center to more of a proactive knowledge asset.
I'd like to thank our guests, Danielle Bailey, IT Manager at Comverge. Thank you so much, Danielle.
Bailey: Thank you for having me.
Gardner: And Alec Davis, Senior Systems Analyst at Design Within Reach. Thank you so much, Alec.
Davis: You’re welcome. It's been my pleasure.
Gardner: And this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. I would like to thank our listeners too for joining, and don’t forget to come back next time.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: BMC Software.
Transcript of a BriefingsDirect podcast on how SaaS delivery and BMC Software’s “truth in data” architecture deliver big payoffs for IT support at Comverge and Design Within Reach. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2012. All rights reserved.
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