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April 2000


Gotta Serve Somebody


With all due apologies to Bob Dylan, who was addressing the world on a spiritual level, the title of his song could become the mantra of the Internet economy. With easy access now available to so many suppliers that only a few years ago would have been totally unfeasible, often the only way companies can differentiate themselves from their competitors is through the levels of service and support they can offer their customers. Following is a look at two companies that offer different approaches to the same end: providing the best possible support services to their customers to keep them happy and keep them coming back for more.

Presently aimed at small business and home PC users looking for advice on how better to use their PC software (but with plans for expansion into other markets), expertcity.com is a global network of experts available to anyone logging on to the site. When the customer types in his or her query in a question box, expertcity.com's HelpAlert matches customer questions with the experts' knowledge profiles, alerting the appropriate experts in real-time that a customer is online and needs help. Multiple experts then respond within a few seconds with a price bid and an estimate of how long it will take to solve the problem; customers then look over the bids, which are shown along with the expert's quality rating. These quality ratings are given by past users and are reflective of those customers' experience with those experts. Users can also examine summaries of experts' skills, experiences, accreditations and number of sessions. expertcity.com also peforms background checks on experts, and provides them training on customer service skills and how to use expertcity.com's DesktopStreaming collaborative browsing system.

When the customer decides on which expert best suits his or her technical, quality and price requirements, the customer is given a quick download of the DesktopStreaming program, which allows the customer and expert to share the customer's mouse, keyboard and screen in real-time. The DesktopStreaming technology allows the experts to guide the customers to the solutions they need right on their own screens. Besides simply fixing problems, experts can also provide advice and tips on how best to utilize software programs while guiding them through the process. expertcity.com also provides a satisfaction guarantee whereby customers pay experts at the end of the session only if they are satisfied.

Already taking advantage of this new service from expertcity.com is Sun Microsystems, which has co-branded the expertcity.com/sun.com Web site to provide support for Sun's StarOffice suite's 4.3 million users, and Excite@Home, which will offer expertcity.com's experts to its more than one million subscribers to its @Home broadband service through its narrowband and broadband support portal.

Another company worth noting is SafeHarbor.com. Located in the unlikely spot of a former nuclear plant in Washington state, the ASP (application service provider), or if you prefer, SSP (support service provider), offers Web-based support services. Its present client base now is dominated by "dot com" companies looking to get to market more quickly than would be possible by building their own support infrastructure. When a client signs on for its services, SafeHarbor.com Knowledge Engineers go onsite with the client to create a KNOWLEDGeBASE for that client (the Knowledge Engineers can also create solutions for future use). Through its SAFeTECH solution, the client's customers are given a range of personalized, interactive, graphical, self-help solutions, including ServiceSam, a virtual support advisor that can help guide the customer to the answers they need from the KNOWLEDGeBASE. If the client's customers cannot find the answers they need through the self-help solution or ServiceSam, they can click on a button on the Web page to interact with a dedicated support analyst through chat, e-mail or phone.

For e-commerce applications, SafeHarbor.com offers its SAFeBUSINESS solution that provides the same services as SAFeTECH, but in addition offers transaction services, user profiling, tools for pushing information to users, support for cross-selling and upselling, and customized reporting on site usage. Another advantage offered by SafeHarbor.com, due to its facility being located in a former nuclear plant (though the plant was never fueled), is that the site is extremely earthquake proof and offers extensive system redundancy and network communications connectivity that is capable of handling phone traffic for the entire U.S.

The author may be contacted at elounsbury@tmcnet.com

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