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Reaching Out For Help

Reaching Out For Help

Tech support doesn't make a company any money. In fact, with some call centre costs ranging anywhere from $25 to $200 per incident, it can be one of the costlier drains on enterprise resources. So it is no surprise that new knowledge management and Web technologies are being harnessed to automate both internal help desk and customer product support with the goal of slashing those costs.

For Yamaha of America's Roger Castleman, getting buyers of electronic musical instruments to solve problems themselves is music to his ears. As the Buena Park, Calif.-based company's knowledge base project manager, Castleman's charter is to reduce costs by creating a self-help system that will eliminate the need for the customer to call in with questions or problems. Using tools from Oakmont, Pa.-based ServiceWare , Yamaha has put together a technical-solutions database that customers can access from the service and support area on the company's Web site. When it's up and running, clients will be able to enter queries as simple questions and search for solutions, with the option of escalating the inquiry via e-mail to a live technician if they can't find what they're looking for.

Castleman is part of a growing surge of IT folks looking to save money on technical support calls.

International Data (a sister company to CIO Communications ) reports that what it dubs "problem-resolution technology" is one of the fastest growing segments of the IT landscape, with a compound annual growth rate of 36 per cent from 1997 to 2002, when the market is projected to reach $657 million. Emerging technological approaches for automating technical support range from the Web-based query solutions that Yamaha and others are using to Web-based tools that let users connect to a live customer service representative.

What's driving this market? E-commerce initiatives frequently mean increased service demands. But live call centre agents are expensive, and these new Web customers have demonstrated their willingness to accomplish tasks online. As Ellen Carney, principal analyst with Dataquest in Lowell, Mass., notes, every time someone logs into a technical self-help area on a company Web site, potentially it's a costly call deferred.

CIOs, of course, may want to look at these tools for both internal and external use. Internally, you may want to use these products to provide tech support for customised (or even off-the-shelf) applications. Externally, you can deploy these solutions for almost any mechanical product-and not just for technical support. Among the companies offering automated technical support tools are Advantagekbs, The Haley Enterprise, inFact Technologies, Inference , Intelli Systems, Knowlix, Primus Knowledge Solutions, Right Now Technologies, Servicesoft Technologies and ServiceWare. As you might expect, many integrate, or plan to integrate, with existing call centre and help desk solutions.

Specialised Support

But cutting costs isn't the whole tech support story. In today's overheated business climate, no function that involves customer interaction is solely a service function or a cost centre. Support after the sale, done right, is also one of the ways a company can strengthen its brand identity and reinforce good customer relationships. That was what drove Specialised Bicycle Components to automate its Web based support.

The 25-year-old Morgan Hill, Calif., manufacturer used to sell its high-end bicycles only to resellers, which meant that a bicycle shop was the only way for a consumer to have a relationship with Specialised. That's no longer the case, notes Mike Regan, director of global e-marketing.

"We have a huge group of people out there who want to have a relationship with us. We've historically said, 'We can't do that; go see the dealer.' But we've now, in the age of the Internet, realised that the best thing we can do for the reseller is develop a strong relationship with the end user." For Regan, building that strong relationship meant being able to answer questions and solve problems more efficiently than had been possible when they arrived via telephone calls and e-mail messages. To develop that, Specialised installed Right Now Web server from Right Now Technologies of Bozeman, Mont.

At a Specialised-branded page hosted on the Right Now Web server, customers now can consult frequently asked questions generated from a SQL database. The FAQs are ranked based on how frequently they've been asked, and the answers are presented in an order that reflects how helpful they were to previous visitors (answers that solve the most queries bubble up to the top). Customers can also use key words to search the database of problems and solutions. A feedback form displayed below the FAQ text allows users to report whether the information delivered was what they needed; that feedback influences the ordering of the FAQs.

Regan likes the way Right Now Web dynamically categorises material, saying that it helps keep the material on the Web site fresh. An additional benefit is that the database is built by feeding back into it the resolutions of new problems, so it should cut the volume of incoming queries on an ongoing basis while allowing Specialised to learn about the difficulties people are having with its products, and thus how to design and package them better.

Putting the self-service Web system in place also changes the nature of customers' questions. "Now they can find out the basic information they need on the Web site. The people who call us now are often people who need some help articulating a question." That way, Specialised's support staffers can take the time needed to deal with callers' issues. This allows them to be, in Regan's words, "the pros on the phone" who help consumers go away feeling good about the bicycle company that solved their problem so efficiently.

Answers on the Spot

StrandWare, an Eau Claire, Wis., manufacturer of software for creating bar-coded labels used in the automated data collection industry, set out to convert the repeated calls to its support staff about a small number of problems into Web queries. It chose Rescue, a tool from Computer Support Technologies that uses an inference engine created by tech support personnel.

Customers' queries are matched against the inference engine to narrow the scope of problems and diagnose them.

"We went to Rescue so that people could get answers on the spot rather than have to call and be on hold or have to submit e-mail and wait 24 hours for an answer," says Leslie Lange, StrandWare's technical support manager. If the customer does have to escalate the problem, Rescue captures information about the problem and routes it, along with a request for help, to the company's support operation.

With the system in place for several months, Lange reports that less than 10 per cent of the people consulting the Web site haven't been able to find a solution to the problem that sent them there. Call volumes haven't decreased yet, but she expects both calls and incoming e-mails requesting support to drop off as customers get used to computerised tech support. When that happens, Lange anticipates a big payoff. "Sometimes a situation that might have taken a person on the phone a half-hour to diagnose takes Rescue only 30 to 40 seconds," she says.

Deployment of self-help tools can be a multistep process. QAD , a Carpinteria, Calif., vendor of ERP tools, handles high volumes of inquires as it supports application installations at 3,600 sites in 82 countries. Two years ago, the company set out to improve the efficiency of its globally dispersed help desk operations by capturing its repair solutions into a common database, SolutionBuilder from Primus Knowledge Solutions. At first QAD used the product internally to provide the help desk with solutions that had already been recorded and to add new ones as cases were resolved.

Five months later, QAD started using Primus's SolutionPublisher database so that customers and partners could access information on the Web. The result? Some 60 per cent of the users of the Web technical support site say they found the answer they needed, according to Jon Longshaw, solutions centre support coordinator at QAD. Another 30 per cent didn't find the precise answer they needed but reported they'd nonetheless found consulting the site helpful in some way.

Although calls to the support centre have increased as QAD supports more products, the number of calls is increasing at a slower rate. Longshaw estimates that the company is deflecting about 20 per cent of the approximately 4,000 calls the QAD help desk gets each month to the Web. Since each call costs the company around $200, that represents a significant savings. He also notes that while customer satisfaction ratings are up by some 8 per cent, so is employee satisfaction because they're tackling more challenging situations.

A Touch of Knowledge Management

There's one last advantage to self-help systems, one that helps the company as much as the customer. These systems are also a way to extract valuable knowledge from experienced tech-support employees. Avid Technology , a Tewksbury, Mass.-based provider of digital video and audio tools, got into self-help customer support out of frustration, according to Dan McGraw, Avid's senior customer support manager. "We had some very smart people working in customer support who knew a lot about our individual products and how they worked together. But when someone would move on or transfer within the company, that expertise wouldn't be available anymore," he sighs.

To avoid this, Avid needed a solution that was extensible to partners and customers with diverse operating environments, that didn't rely on HTML formatting of data, and could be managed and maintained in-house. When it first shopped around in early 1998, no packaged solution fit the bill, so the company invested in a custom development project, based on Lotus Development 's Notes and Domino, which was rolled out last April.

From a cost standpoint, the results were dramatic. In May, McGraw reports about 600 customers indicated that they used the Web site to solve problems rather than call the support desk. In June, that number climbed to nearly 1,000-almost 10 per cent of the typical monthly volume of 11,000 calls. At a cost of $70 to $80 per call, the company saved at least $70,000 in June. The Knowledge Centre is still a work in progress, though. McGraw hopes to integrate the self-help system into Avid's call centre so that technical support reps can have details of the customer's Web self-help efforts available.

But even in its current form, the Avid Knowledge Centre demonstrates the win-win potential of automated tech support. It can empower customers, cut costs and build a positive sense of the company's brand, and at the same time it's capturing accrued tech support experience as reusable knowledge.

Looking for Live Bodies

Reaping the benefits of self-service automation without damaging the customer relationshipSomeone browsing in a store doesn't want to be bothered by salespeople until they're ready to buy-and then, naturally, they want someone now. In cyberspace, there are several ways to accommodate the browser who wants to be a buyer. They are icons, variations of which can be found on many e-commerce Web pages, that when clicked send a real-time message that this customer wants to talk to a live agent. It can be configured to initiate an instant call-back from your customer care operation or to schedule a call at a time when his or her phone line isn't tied up by the Internet connection. Or, in the case of the truly wired, it can establish a simultaneous voice-over-IP Internet phone conversation.

The earliest implementations of this "call me" technology have been to support online sales. When someone clicks on the "call me" icon provided by AT&T IP Services' InteractiveAnswers, it asks the customer to enter a phone number.

Submitting the number triggers a call back to the customer. The service also "whispers" customisable customer details to the agent, and can allow him or her to "push" Web informational pages as needed, even from a phone keypad.

MCI WorldCom 's Click'N Connect service, a similar system, has been initially installed by retailers, call centre service bureaus and financial companies.

Click'N Connect also allows a customer to request a call back, either immediately or at a scheduled time, and supports sharing Web-based materials.

In addition, it allows those with multimedia PCs to download Web phone software that will make possible voice conversations using the computers' microphones and speakers and the Internet connection. This approach delivers better integrated support, since it allows agent and customer to look at and discuss Web pages directly, without need of a second phone line. But as with any voice-over-IP solution, the effectiveness of Click'N Connect's Call Through option depends on the speed of the connection and the state of Internet congestion.

Net2Phone, an Internet telephony service provider, offers button-initiated Click2Talk IP telephony and Click2CallMe to schedule a callback. Among software vendors, Webline Communications 's Collaboration Server also uses a "Call Me" button to allow representatives to share information (including follow-me browsing and shared application demonstrations) with customers over the Web while conducting a voice conversation or text chat. Text chat is also offered as an outsourced service by LivePerson , a New York City-based company specializing in sales and service solutions for Web sites.

-Alan S. Kay

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More about AT&TAvid TechnologyDataquestInferenceLivePersonMCIMCI WorldComNet2PhonePrimus AustraliaPrimus Knowledge SolutionsQAD AustraliaServiceSoftWorldComYamaha

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