There has always been a requirement from end-users for software support, whether that support is merely assistance in the initial few months of use of a new software program or whether it is on-going assistance, not only in “bug” fixing but also in satisfying the end-user’s individual business requirements; for example, performing software configuration to suit either the end-user’s own system or its own business.
Fortunately, support and maintenance services (as opposed to sales) have been found by the software suppliers to be a significant generator of revenue in addition to being a continued source of contact with end-users. This direct contact with end-users is important for the purposes of receiving feedback on errors, “bugs” or deficiencies in the software, as well as for assessing customers’ additional requirements which can be incorporated into enhancements of the software.
Such direct contact also forms the most immediate customer-base for the purposes of “selling” new software, enhancements, training or consultancy services. Thus the support activity has become a distinct business from “sales” so that it can be separately charged for as well as sub-contracted to an independent support contractor to perform.
However, to provide proper support is expensive and must include a variety of support services, typically in the form of an ‘Online Helpdesk’ (where the customer can message software problems and receive a reply via a support portal), “Online Remote access” (where support staff can link to the customer’s computer) and perhaps additional options such as a “Telephone Hotline” and, as last resort, “on-site” support if the customer is willing to pay for a premium support service.
Customers with business critical software may also request further additional premium support options which it will pay extra charges for including having support services outside normal working hours including weekends or 24×7 and/or request on-site support as well as a ‘Guaranteed Response times’ (i.e. the contractor’s guarantee that support calls are responded to within X hours of a fault report/call being made). It must be noted that if response times to fault calls are agreed to form part of the support contract, failure to perform can be regarded as breach, so great care must be taken by the contractor when agreeing to include the same. For an example of these, see Contract 3B.
To offer any of these support services, the contractor’s support staff need to be sufficiently well qualified to analyse customer problems and to determine whether such problems are attributable to the customer’s own “operator error” because of lack of training (which is most frequent in the first few months of use of new software) or whether there is indeed a software error, “bug” or defect. If it is the latter, then such support staff should be able to determine whether or not the “bug” is serious (there are usually internal “priority” levels given to distinguish severity of problems) and whether a temporary “fix” or “workaround” can be provided or whether the defect is more significant, when support staff may establish Online Remote access via a link to the software on the customer’s system to diagnose the problem remotely.
The support contractor may also offer to support other software at the same location if indeed the contractor has the capability to support such other software. This can be beneficial to both the support contractor, who already has to pay staff and resources to provide customer support as well as the customer, who will require fewer support points of contact in the event of system failure, particularly if the customer has little in-house expertise in assessing which element of its system is the cause of the problem.
Such can be the cost of support that many software owner/suppliers prefer to sub-contract this service to an independent third-party support organisation. However, in so doing, the software owner/supplier must disclose sufficient proprietary information about the software to enable the support contractor properly to provide such services to the software end-user customers. Such disclosure must be subject to an agreement not to further disclose such confidential information and to use such information solely for the purposes of providing support (for non-disclosure agreement, see Contract 48). In addition, it is vital that the third-party support contractor diligently feedback all information gathered during its support activity to the software owner/supplier so that it is kept informed of “bugs”, defects and customer requirements. (For an example of the type of agreement under which a third-party contractor may be appointed, see Contract 33.)
Contract 3 is an example of the type of support contract which would be made between either the software owner/supplier or a third-party support contractor and a software end-user customer. (An example of the combined Software Licence and Support Agreement can be found in Contract 4.)