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August 1999

The Top Ten Features To Seek To Knowledge-Enable Customer Support Software


Customer support software is undergoing a significant change that corresponds with changing needs in the customer support industry. Traditionally, call center employees have relied on call tracking and call logging software to do their jobs. However, the increasing complexity of products, high call center staff turnover, vastly expanded customer bases (and corresponding increases in the number of calls support centers handle) and rising costs on just about everything have conspired to keep call centers from becoming profit centers.

Consequently, customer support software is undergoing vast changes and now features an increased emphasis on problem-solving functionality, which, according to Anderson Consulting, comprises more than 60 percent of support center call length. Up until a few years ago, the technology focused primarily on call tracking and call logging functionality. With these changes, knowledge-based problem-solving software is becoming a vital component because it can:

  1. Help CSRs solve problems quicker and on the first call (increasing customer satisfaction and cutting costs),
  2. Divert simpler problems from the call center if a self-support mode is available (decreasing the call load on a call center and providing 24x7 self-support via the Web), and
  3. Help CSRs handle the increased number of calls from customers without having to increase call center staff (keeping a firm hand on staffing costs).

Following is a brief look at key functionality that should be sought for any company researching customer support software offerings.

Web-Architected Vs. Web-Enabled
There is a huge difference between “Web-architected” and “Web-enabled” software, although they sound the same. Web-architected is the best choice for any company that wants to take full advantage of the power of the Internet for its customer support operations. With a Web-architected solution, companies can easily and cost-effectively implement call centers anywhere and any size they choose, as well as implement virtual call centers or allow CSRs to work from home. By contrast, Web-enabled software is usually older, client/server-based technology originally designed to be installed on the desktop, with a “light html interface” placed on top of the older solution. This usually results in limited functionality (often less than 25 percent of the full functionality) for support entities accessing the knowledge base via the Web. Client/server-based software also limits the viability of distributing support operations because it requires a significant investment in hardware, software and technical support at each site where the software is being used. For maximum flexibility, ease of implementing distributed call centers and sheer cost-effectiveness, companies should choose Web-architected software that takes full advantage of the power of the Internet.

Application Integration And CTI Capabilities
For maximum efficiency, customer support software should easily integrate with other enterprise systems that have information related to customer support, such as call tracking, call logging and back-office operations like billing. Software with solid integration capabilities enables companies to leverage information that already exists and access pertinent information about a customer right at the point of interaction. Additionally, since support operations often involve more than one way of communicating with customers, a good customer support software program should support computer-telephony integration. Any program with CTI capabilities will foster easy escalation of unsolvable self-support calls to the call center, providing a queue of interactions to support agent (and screen pop) alerts.

Flexible Workflow Accommodation
Customer support software should allow companies to configure the software to meet the company’s specific business flow and work practices. For example, a company might have certain processes that must be followed to verify that a caller is entitled to support or confirm a caller’s environment and call history. The software should be flexible enough to allow for customization to account for the nuances of a specific company or industry.

Non-Search-Dependent System
In the past couple of years, problem-resolution capabilities have come a long way. Originally, much of the problem-resolution functions were purely query-based. Users had to know how to ask a question correctly or their search might return with either “no results found” or “400 results found.” A query-based system can spell trouble, both for users in self-support mode or inexperienced customer support reps. What is needed here is customer support software that leads users or CSRs to the correct solution and offers typical query functions. In addition, systems that get “smarter” over time and usage provide tremendous advantages.

Ability To Service Multiple Types And Skill Levels Of Users
Most support operations serve a variety of people with different roles, from customers and CSRs to VARs, field technicians, partners and others. The most efficient way to operate is to have one central knowledge base, accessible to all personnel, but at different levels. For example, a novice user in self-support mode should be given access only to information appropriate for an inexperienced user, while an advanced CSR would see much more of the customer support knowledge and in more detail. In addition, there might be proprietary information that companies would not want a VAR to see. The optimal way to serve all the different individuals who use the knowledge base is to have a system that can be configured with multiple user profiles and access levels; the alternative (albeit an expensive one) is to have a separate knowledge base for each level of personnel.

Ability To Support All Facets Of A Support Operation
Most companies’ support operations involve more than the call center. There is often a help desk for internal support of employees. There is remote field support where technical reps visit customers. There is also a trend toward customer self-support for those who want access to information beyond the hours of a call center. It makes sense that the customer support software companies choose should be able to accommodate all of these different facets of the support operation, otherwise companies will need to maintain separate knowledge bases for each facet. Not only is this practice expensive, it is virtually impossible to keep all the different knowledge bases in sync with the latest information. Again, this is another illustration of the validity of a strategy where one knowledge base serves all users.

“Web-Engagement” Customer E-Contact Functions
One of the newest functions is the ability to offer live personal contact during a user’s Web site interaction. This includes everything from call escalation from self-support mode to interaction with an agent by phone or e-mail if necessary. Another feature is “text chat,” in which a customer using the Web self-support mode can chat “live” with a call center agent (similar an Internet chat room). The benefit of this new functionality is that customers need not leave the Internet site to initiate a back-and-forth e-mail dialog. The live chat function can be initiated right from the support program.

Real-Time Knowledge Capture
One of the best ways to grow a knowledge base in breadth and depth is to be able to capture new or previously undiscovered problems and/or solutions in the process of actual interactions with customers. Of course, to keep the knowledge base clean, there should be an edit function in which knowledge captured in real-time does not hit the knowledge base immediately. Instead, it is sent to the knowledge base administrator, where information is reviewed, edited and cleaned before the new data are added to the knowledge base.

“Go Anywhere” Deployment
Today’s users and field service staffs are becoming increasingly mobile, so it is important that customer support software accommodate this trend. Software developed with an eye toward the future should be able to run in environments ranging from call centers and help desks to self-support mode, on laptops, handheld devices and cellular phones. To do this, particularly for the handheld environment, the software should offer the capability of encapsulating data from the main knowledge base into a smaller “footprint” for daily synchronization to smaller handheld and palmtop devices. In addition, the software should be able to run on laptops to support mobile field service professionals and offer support on disk for those manufacturers who would like to ship intelligent, problem-solving guidance with each product, via a floppy disk, CD-ROM or directly on a computer’s desktop.

Advanced User Interface For More Experienced Customers
Some customer support software programs offer a simple, user-friendly interface for users, while also offering a more professional desktop interface for customer support professionals. But there is an “in-between” function that is also helpful: an advanced interface for more experienced customers and partners. This function should be able to be set either by the call center, knowledge base administrator or the users.

In addition to the core feature/functionality sets described above, reporting functions are important to keep management well-informed and proactive in the customer service arena. It is important for managers to know the following:

  • Key call drivers and customer issues,
  • The most prevalent problems for a given product line or service,
  • Typical user type and operating environment,
  • Types of configurations and their corresponding relationships to certain problem types or calls,
  • Percentage of Web-based interactions being solved by customers in self-support mode,
  • CSRs’ contributions of new problems/solutions to the knowledge base, and
  • Frequency of solution use and problem activity.

Reporting functions, while not terribly exciting, can be crucial in helping companies do better strategic planning for their support organizations. For reporting criteria, knowledge usage and call activity reports should offer flexibility in sorting subsets of information and user types, and also be able to hone in on specific time periods for the above reporting criteria. All the listed criteria are important to implement when choosing the best customer support software for you. If chosen in this way, your customer support software will accommodate your needs not only now, but in the future as well.

Mark Anton is the founder of InFact Technologies, Inc., a firm that provides Web-architected problem-resolution software for call centers, help desks, remote field support and customer self-support via the Web.

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