Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie, Minority Report starring Tom Cruise, presents a world in which homicides are prevented before they happen. Three precognitives’ visions of near future events allow the Department of Precrime to capture these intended killers. Neat idea. If only we in the business world could spot product quality “crimes” before they occur — rather than reacting to problems once customers use our products. Product designers and product managers are tasked with projecting the future, but is there an organizational equivalent for Agatha, the precog who sometimes saw the future differently from her mates, Arthur and Dashiell?

In reality, there is. The organization that fixes problems for products currently in use can do far more than simply respond to and rectify these problems. The customer support organization, also know by other names such as technical support or customer service, can be seen as a knowledge center on product performance and customers’ reactions to products. No other functional group has more contact with customers, yet many, if not most, companies never leverage the strategic potential.

Most companies think that the concerns customer support would bring to the product development process will be narrowly focused around resolving outstanding problems or bugs in the product. But customer support can and should bring far greater benefit through their focus on the product supportability during the whole cycle of ownership.  However, don’t confuse supportability with maintainability. Supportability encompasses all aspects of product ownership: installability, usability, maintainability, upgradeability, and decommissioning.

Too often, designers do not understand the working environment of the user. How often have you struggled with a product so overflowing with functionality and a complicated user interface that you could not get the simplest operation to work, let alone perform basic maintenance? From VCRs, to mobile phones, to washing machines, customer support’s extensive experience with the users’ environment may provide information that can radically improve product design, enhancing customers’ experiences with new products and making them less expensive to own — and support. Through the holistic approach to supportability outlined above, total cost of ownership can be reduced and, more importantly, total net benefit of ownership (SM) can be maximized.

For example, Varian Oncology recognized that the time to install their large machines in hospitals was costing them money — and the hospitals were losing out on potential revenue during the installation period. A cross-functional team including support personnel identified many aspects of the installation process done on site that could be performed more easily at the factory. They also found simple changes, like pilot drilling holes and packing distilled water in the installation kit, could save many hours of installer time. Customer benefits increased while both parties costs decreased. At software vendor Meditech, the support group has also heavily focused on the user experience. They applied a concerted effort at reducing customers issues when upgrading their software, which also reduced Meditech’s support costs.

Leveraging customer support’s potential knowledge means integrating it into the new product development and product management processes. R&D can access support’s knowledge in structured databases captured during service transactions. Alternatively, the knowledge can be transferred by having customer support personnel serve on the product development team. This approach means that relevant hard data will be discussed and also that support liaisons can apply their experiential wisdom to advise how new products will perform and problems customers may encounter using them. As a software test manager stated to us, “Engineering knows how the product is built. Testers know how the product works. Support knows how the product is used.”

Microsoft for all its faults has focused heavily on product usability. A critical input to that process is feedback garnered from the product support group. They have highly structured the collection of detailed information about product performance during a sample of support calls, and they have formalized the communication flow from support into the product engineering group. Most important, the information flows to the designers at the start of the design process when it can have the most impact. EMC has state-of-the-art advanced diagnostics capabilities built into its storage units, which anticipate failures and “phone home.” The support center that fields these calls is physically located next to the development group. The communication flow could not be tighter when resolving unexpected bugs. EMC also sends support engineers to data base software companies when new versions of their software are being developed. This ensures compatibility from the start. Many other examples could be cited.

These examples make the process of integrating precognitions of a company’s Agatha — the customer support group — into the product management process seem simple. Far from it. Such cross-functional collaboration, now called collaborative engineering, is not an organizational innovation that happens simply by management dictate. In most companies deep-rooted cultural barriers challenge open collaboration, especially with those pesky technicians in customer support who only seem to file complaining “minority reports.” Communication technologies and integrated data bases can improve the data flow across organizations, but without breaking the Gordian Knot of cultural resistance, the full benefits of collaboration will never be achieved. Larger companies face this problem more strongly. Functional distinctions, especially when support becomes a profit center, lead to thick barriers.  Smaller companies have more informal interactions, lowering the barriers.

The support organization at Eaton’s Cutler-Hammer division approached product management and marketing by saying, “We have information from hundreds of customer contacts you might find valuable.” They made a specific effort to show the potential for this information. Many companies have the development engineers take turns doing maintenance work, i.e., bug fixes, or create a “situation room” staffed with developers and testers to support the support engineers when the product first ships. Manufacturing companies frequently put the factory floor in view of the office workers to sensitize them to the place where the true value-added activities occur. Today, with so many products requiring customization by the support group for the customer to receive the full value from their product purchase, shouldn’t the support centers be in prominent view to increase the customer sensitivity of all workers? Cloud computing only enhances the central role of support in product development and value delivery.

Change management programs that span organizational boundaries are onerous, but the strategic benefits are great.  Company costs can be lowered and customers’ loyalty enhanced. In Minority Report, Agatha said to John Anderton when he faced the decision to murder the man who killed his son, “Can you see? … You can chose.” So can companies.  But first they have to see their Agathas for what they really are — an untapped strategic resource.

Written with Keith Goffin, Ph.D, Cranfield School of Management

Learn about our Design for Supportability training or DFS Report — or Request a complimentary copy of Chapter 1 of the report.

A similar version was printed in the April 28, 2003 edition of the Boston Business Journal.