Thoran Rodrigues looks at two different approaches to customer service among IaaS providers -- one is support-focused and the other technology-focused. Is there a clear winner?
One of the most important aspects of any service is the customer experience. Every service provider, from a doctor to a car mechanic, must always be concerned with this, or risk losing customers. The difficulty lies in the fact that "experience" is a very subjective thing, especially when it comes to services. The same doctor, with a detached manner, may seem very professional and competent to one person, and may be seen as impersonal and uncaring to another.
The same concept applies to the cloud. All cloud service providers must worry about providing a great experience to customers. The difference lies in how this experience is created. Of the three layers of cloud computing, infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) is the one that is further along the road to commoditization. All players offer essentially the same service (virtual servers with preinstalled and preconfigured software and operating systems), and the experience of the customer with the servers themselves is essentially the same. That leaves only a few areas that can be changed to affect the perceived quality of the user experience.
In this space, we are seeing today a conflict between two different views of what composes a great experience for customers: one that is focused on people and another that is focused on technology.
The customer is king
The first view, focused on people, has at its center the concept of customer service. Companies adopting this view try to always have someone available to answer the questions of current or potential customers, through several different channels - phone, web-based chat, email, etc. The idea is that the cloud, being a new technology space, will bring about many questions and confusion in the mind of users, and that by answering these questions and helping people out, it will be possible to build lasting relationships.
Rackspace, one of the leaders in the IaaS space, has gone so far as to trademark the term "Fanatical SupportTM" to show its commitment to providing the best customer service possible. Along those lines, many others have followed, recognizing the importance of offering support, especially to new customers. As an extension of this philosophy, companies are also offering dedicated consultants to help plan cloud migrations or design cloud architectures that best suit the needs of each individual company.
Variety and features
The second view is focused on technology. Instead of seeking to offer better support, companies taking this view try to develop a more complete and more open infrastructure offering. The idea is to empower the user to solve his own problems, instead of having someone always available. In this sense, these companies offer extensive APIs that let the user perform all sorts of tasks, from the simple creation and destruction of server instances all the way to performing complex monitoring tasks.
Amazon is perhaps the leader on this viewpoint. While its customer service is notoriously poor (there is no phone support unless you're willing to pay extra for it), it has the most comprehensive APIs available in the cloud space today. The company won't hold your hand, but it does offer interfaces that allow you to create systems to automate almost any task that a person would be required to perform.
There is no simple answer to which one of these two viewpoints is the best. One way to look at it is this: the focus on customer service and support caters to more business-oriented people, who don't want to worry so much about the technical aspects of the cloud. The technological view, on the other hand, is focused more on developers and technical people, who are more worried about what they will be able to build with the platform, and less with support issues.
It is true that APIs and features are much easier to copy. Customer service is much harder to get right, and any mistakes can cost a company dearly, with great impact on reputation. At the same time, trying to add features and to open up a technological platform that wasn't designed with this in mind can be extremely hard. No company has a clear advantage over the others today.
I believe that there is an ideal balance between these two views. The best customer experience lies in a combination of customer service, support, and functionalities. And, as the companies mature, we will see them arrive at more balanced offerings. Until then, this competition will be interesting and exciting to watch.