Yes, technology is important. It gives us great capabilities and potential for learning and development. It gives us delivery options and the ability to track and quantify learning activities and results. But technology alone is just half of the equation. Too often, we forget about the impact that service and support will have on our success.
E-learning vendors can become valuable partners when they are capable of providing both the technology and the service you’ll need for a successful initiative. When developing your e-learning strategy and choosing which vendors to partner with, always keep in mind: It’s not just about the software; it’s also about the service.
Along with your technical evaluation, it’s important to ask prospective e-learning vendors a series of service-related questions. The answers you receive, and the evidence provided to support those answers, will help you identify those organizations that will make good long-term partners, versus those that just want to sell you software.
What Is Your Core Business?
Another way of asking this question is, “What are you good at, and what are you not so good at?” No vendor can be good at all things. If the vendor’s answer is, “We do everything well,” that’s your clue to dig a lot deeper. Strong partners will be able to differentiate themselves from their competitors and will have a clear understanding of what their core business is, what they do well and what they don’t do well.
For example, if a company is strong in providing behind-the-firewall learning management solutions, it usually will not be strong in the hosted service area, and vice versa. Be sure to challenge a vendor that says it does both equally well. Your job is to match your needs with each vendor’s core competencies, taking into consideration the vendor’s strengths, as well as potential limitations and shortcomings.
Do You Control All Aspects of Your Service?
Ask potential vendors about who is ultimately responsible for items such as hosting, maintenance, security, upgrades, technical service, integration, technical support and customer service. Despite all the promises in the world, as more functions are outsourced or subcontracted, even the best-intentioned vendor will have less control over service quality. Some vendors may use personnel who are not adequately trained to handle your exact situation. Most e-learning systems are complex and need support personnel who are competent and knowledgeable about your system and your organization. Also, ask if the company will have a “customer champion” or someone in customer support who understands your organization’s special needs and requirements. This champion can train and support the other customer reps and be a valuable communication conduit for your effort.
Will I Need to Contract With Multiple Vendors for My Solution? Who Is Ultimately Responsible for My Entire System?
Many e-learning vendors integrate technologies from different providers to offer a robust, end-to-end solution. You may even choose to work with an integrator or a consultant who will integrate different vendors’ products for your total solution. (Remember, no single vendor can do all things well, so it is quite possible that this will be necessary.) The main benefit of this approach is that you can deploy best-of-breed solutions for each component of your overall system.
If you contract with just one organization as a principal vendor, the issue of responsibility is fairly straightforward. However, if you sign contracts with multiple vendors, or your principal vendor or integrator wavers at being held responsible for each component of your overall solution, be wary. Consider this fairly simple but common scenario: There is a problem with courseware tracking properly in your LMS. Who is responsible for solving this problem? The LMS vendor? The courseware vendor? Or you?
It’s a good idea to develop multiple problem scenarios with which to challenge potential vendors. Ask them to be specific about how each potential problem would be handled. Have them identify who will take the responsibility to solve problems and who will actually be held accountable for the solution.
Do You Support Multiple Content Vendors?
If you’re selecting an LMS or an LCMS, you’ll want to choose a solution that provides proven interoperability with multiple content vendors. This will give you flexibility and options in the long run. While you may start with just one content vendor or authoring program, what happens when you change or add new ones?
More than 80 percent of our call center’s technical support calls relate to courseware and content questions. Ask your primary vendor whether it will be dealing with these issues within its own service framework or passing the issues on to the various content owners. This hand-off process can cause significant delays and frustration on the part of your end users, ultimately damaging the image of your entire e-learning effort.
Also, ask who will be responsible for the frequent updates to off-the-shelf content libraries and content players. Does your vendor do this on a regularly scheduled basis? Who pays for these updates and services? Make certain that your LMS/LCMS vendor is capable of supporting this level of service. When you ask these questions, a “deer in the headlights” reaction ought to serve as a warning.
Can I See Your Service Level Agreement (SLA)?
Your vendor should be willing to put its service promises in writing. Things to look for in a sound service-level agreement include defined escalation procedures, response times and problem resolution times, overall up-time guarantees and remedy options for breakdowns at the service level. You will want to see this first, and then formulate a series of questions that will help you drill down to the specific service answers you need.
Can You Provide End-User Customer Support?
Once an e-learning initiative is launched, many organizations are ill prepared for the flood of questions and help requests from end-users. These requests can range from forgotten passwords to much more complex problems that go far beyond the technical issues related to in-house networks and students’ computers.
Ask the vendors if they can supply first-, second- and third-level support for your users. Even if you plan to use your own help desk in the beginning for first-level support, it’s nice to know you have a vendor who could supply additional services if and when the need arises. If the vendor doesn’t have these capabilities as part of their in-house offerings, you may need to budget for additional internal costs and resources that successfully support your initiative.
What Will My Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) Be?
The total cost of ownership (TCO) reflects the total expense involved in purchasing, deploying and maintaining a solution over the expected life of the initiative. Many organizations are surprised by the fully loaded cost of deploying an e-learning solution. In many cases, the license fees for the system are just the tip of the iceberg. For those organizations that install a system internally, it is not uncommon to spend $3 to $4 on implementation and integration fees for every $1 spent on license fees. To fully understand TCO, you must also consider the hardware and underlying software that is required, service fees, implementation and integration costs (including customizations and consulting), training and the salaries of internal employees.
If you look at the financial statements of public e-learning providers, you’ll find that most of them make a majority of their revenue on “services.” These services are sometimes hidden costs to the client, not fully disclosed at the time of purchase. It’s like walking through a model home and not understanding that it includes many upgrades that are not included in the price sheet. Always ask the vendor to be very specific about the TCO, including any “services” that will be necessary to get the system up and running with the support you require.
In many cases, organizations can reduce their TCO by 50 percent to 200 percent by deploying a solution that is hosted by the e-learning vendor. The hosted delivery model reduces fixed costs and lowers overall expenditures for personnel, hardware, software and systems management, making it a cost-effective alternative to the demands of traditional software system ownership.
Because service and support are such important success factors, many organizations have turned to e-learning vendors that offer a full-service approach to delivering an enterprise e-learning solution. This might include ASP hosting, maintenance, security, upgrades, content and application integration, project management, deployment services and technical support. At the highest levels of service, the vendor may provide front-line customer service to the organization’s end users and even act as the broker for all e-learning products and services used by the organization. As you develop your e-learning strategy and evaluate potential vendors, spend some time investigating and evaluating these important service factors.
In the beginning of e-learning history, many vendors simply sold the sizzle of technology without the appropriate regard for service. In this traditional model, responsibility for delivering and servicing the software and its end users rested with customers and their internal IT resources. But in today’s fast-paced global economy, many organizations are changing that old model by making technology vendors provide both the technology and the service they need to be successful.
Frank Russell is president and CEO of GeoLearning Inc, a leading provider of ASP-hosted human capital management and development systems. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.