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After each of our Technology & Services World conferences, I write a blog about “what I heard.” Every minute I am not presenting, I’m sitting in a 1:1 room having meetings with TSIA members and partners. In addition to those meetings, at our recent San Diego event I hosted two breakfast networking sessions and had dozens of conversations after presentations and in the TSW | EXPO. Now that I’ve had some time to process all that I heard, the conversations seemed to coalesce into four themes:

  • Progress is being made on digital support channels, but they are poorly integrated
  • TSIA’s coverage of artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t specific enough
  • The biggest pain points with professional services automation (PSA) may be tactical, not strategic
  • Increasing collaboration and networking opportunities

Embracing Digital Support Channels

In last year’s channel preference survey, we asked about SMS text chat as a support channel preference for the first time. 39% of respondents said it was a “preferred” channel for product support. With this in mind, as well as increasing member inquiries on the subject, we added a new category for “Digital Chat/SMS Text” to the TSIA 2019 Support Services Technology Survey. Here is some information from the survey, just released to respondents this week.

digital support channels  

Source: TSIA 2019 Support Services Technology Survey.

We will be launching our annual Channel Preference Survey later this summer, and we will be adding more granular options, including WhatsApp, Line, WeChat, etc., to gauge customer interest. But based on what I heard at TSW, companies doing business in China are already supporting customers using WeChat, companies doing business in Brazil are already leveraging WhatsApp, and companies doing business in Korea are interacting via KakaoTalk. As several TSW attendees and TSIA members have said, “You have to meet customers where they live," and in these countries, that’s where they live.

The unfortunate part, though not exactly unexpected, was how the channels are managed. Although in the US we are seeing omnichannel platform providers releasing products that provide a single employee interface to interact with customers in any digital messaging app (Edify Labs, eGain, Twilio), all the companies I talked to said their local support offices in China, Brazil, Korea, and other countries had “rigged” a way to do it. It wasn’t integrated to their CRM system, so the interactions weren’t being added to customer history, and the approach wasn’t solid enough to roll out enterprise-wide.

Just like when email and web chat first came about as support channels, we are seeing digital channels supported in a silo. While I realize this is somewhat inevitable, and I do applaud regional offices for taking the initiative to fill this gap in lieu of a corporate approved solution, I do highly recommend that companies create an infrastructure road map that embraces these digital channels. Maybe your customers aren’t demanding them today, but they soon will. You don’t want your competitors touting their digital access channels when you don’t even have a plan for how to get there.

In my call for speakers for our upcoming Technology & Services World conference in Las Vegas, I have included “Best Practices for Interacting with Customers via Digital Channels,” and hope to have some speakers do breakout sessions on what they are doing, even if just in the early stages. How are they staffed? What tools are they using? What has adoption been like? We have a lot to learn from early adopters.

The Confusing World of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

TSIA has done a lot of webinars and conference presentations on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. What is the potential? What are early adopters doing? Should we build or buy? TSIA members are still asking these questions, but what I heard at TSW is that we (and the industry in general) have a bad habit of lumping all types of AI into a single bucket. “You need to invest in AI!” But the issue is, AI for what? AI is embedded into almost every kind of product out there, from the front office to the back office, and giving general advice to invest in AI is really like saying, “Invest in software.” It isn’t actionable advice.

On August 16th, I am hosting a three-hour virtual summit, “Digital Transformation and Its Impact On Technology Firms.” I am still finalizing the speakers, but will have a good selection of companies speaking on various aspects of digitalization, including AI. In this virtual summit, I plan to unveil my first take on the digital infrastructure for support. I previewed my first pass at a diagram of this for my Partner Advisory Board and for the Support Executive Advisory Board at TSW, and while there remains work to do, I did receive validation that the most helpful piece is identifying the various digital and AI components and how they inter-relate. I can’t possibly include every conceivable component, but for companies just embarking on the journey to create a digital road map, I’m hoping this will inform those decisions and help prioritize where to invest.

My takeaway is to be more specific when discussing AI to focus on particular use cases, i.e., processes and applications that lend themselves to automation. For example, instead of saying “artificial intelligence for professional services,” mention proactively prompting managers about projects missing a milestone or a margin target, real-time coaching assistance to consultants on how to execute steps of a project plan, or expertise management to identify an appropriate expert to contact when a consultant runs into a problem with a module or line of code.

Longer term, I hope to create digital infrastructure diagrams for other areas of the business outside of support. There is already some good work by George Humphrey on digital impacts to managed services, and from Vele Galovski and Harald Kopp on industrial equipment companies. Hopefully this is just the beginning on a continued stream of research on this topic.

The Fundamentals of Professional Services Automation (PSA)

For the last couple of years, as professional services automation (PSA) platforms have matured, the focus of the technology has moved away from the original three functional areas of resource management, project management, and project accounting. I’ve had a lot of inquiries and done a lot of webinars on how PSA helps manage professional services as a business, and companies are looking for more sophisticated capabilities for resource and revenue forecasting—something early PSA tools didn’t really address. Proactive analytic dashboards are featured in every demo.

But over the last few months, I’ve had a topic bubbling up in inquiries, and confirmed in some TSW 1:1s: While PSA adopters have focused on these strategic capabilities, many companies are neglecting automation around some of the more tactical areas, chiefly project management. I’ve heard from many companies that they are using a best-of-breed PSA platform, but are still using MS Project (or spreadsheets) to manage the actual projects.

The problem with this is all the sophisticated dashboards are useless when the projects aren’t being managed within the platform. This leads to unfortunate surprises when projects miss milestones or margin targets, as managers don’t have granular visibility into real project status.

The other common complaint is that implementations are focused solely on executives, not consultants, and adoption by the “feet on the street” is severely lacking. One example is not rolling out the mobile client, creating a barrier for easy filing of expenses and project updates.

The good news is PSA vendors have some great capabilities for project management, including templates, guidance, and knowledge suggestions to streamline delivery of repeatable projects. And there are additional features coming out later this year from some vendors to further extend project management functionality.

When shopping for or implementing PSA, be sure you are leveraging both the tactical and strategic modules of the platform. Bottom line, if you overlook the tactical components, it is unlikely you will receive the anticipated value from the strategic components.

Networking and a Collaborative Conference Experience

I can’t write a blog about what I heard at TSW without mentioning comments received in a number of feedback sessions I held with my colleagues Judi Platz, TSIA’s VP of Support Services Research, and Vanessa Lucero, who manages our webinar program. When dozens of people give you the same feedback, you have to listen.

The most common feedback was that TSW attendees want more interactive conference sessions. For the first time, instead of doing a traditional speech for my pre-conference keynote, I did a panel discussion, “Millennials on Millennials.” The general feedback was along the lines of, “While we love hearing your thoughts in presentations, we especially enjoyed hearing multiple voices and multiple views on a topic—not just yours.” Similarly, the response to the breakout session Judi and I did, “Meet the Researchers,” with zero slides and all interactive discussion, was the favorite session of many attendees. My takeaway? I’m already planning another panel for my Las Vegas keynote, this time on digital transformation, and I’m planning to make every breakout session I do either largely, or entirely, open discussion.

Similarly, the feedback on our webinars was members prefer the online events which are interviews, conversations, or panel discussions. The traditional “talking heads” lecture format with PowerPoint is losing favor. There were also many requests for live video feeds of speakers on webinars, and Vanessa is investigating that now. A special shout out to Adrian Speyer, Head of Community for Vanilla Forums, who does as many webinars a year as I do, and was very generous in sharing his best practices for incorporating video and interactive formats.

Finally, I had a lot of suggestions about ways to increase networking at TSW, with one easy suggestion to add signs with specific topics, i.e., “Knowledge Management,” “Digital Learning,” “Utilization Rates,” etc., on tables throughout the TSW | EXPO, so people wanting to collaborate on a specific topic can easily find other peers willing to share.

Thanks to everyone who attended TSW, and especially a big thanks to those who took time away from sessions to schedule a 1:1 with me, or stopped to talk in the TSW | EXPO. Your feedback only makes us better. I hope to see you at our upcoming Technology & Services World conference taking place this October in Las Vegas. Register early and you’ll receive a discount on your pass. And as always, thanks for reading!


John Ragsdale

About Author John Ragsdale

John Ragsdale is a distinguished researcher and the vice president of technology ecosystems for TSIA. His area of expertise is in creating strategies for improving the service operations and overall customer experience by leveraging innovative technology. John works closely with TSIA’s partner ecosystem, identifying leading and emerging technology vendors whose products help solve the key business challenges faced by TSIA members. He is also author of the book, Lessons Unlearned, which chronicles his 25-year career inside the customer service industry.

John's favorite topics to discuss