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November 1998

Electronic Support Services: Combining Old-Fashioned Customer Satisfaction With Technical Innovation


The software industry's technical support infrastructure is going to snap if it clings to the current service model of live voices on the phone. This "everyone gets a Cadillac" approach to technical support is too expensive for the industry to maintain. Even if it wasn't, it can't scale up well enough to handle the huge numbers of new users attracted by less expensive PCs and the increasingly complicated calls from users of more intricate products.

The answer is in electronic services, primarily Internet-based, that offer efficient, cost-reducing supplements to phone-based services. They will help sustain the software industry's stellar growth by expanding the range of support services available to customers while maintaining quality and accuracy standards. In addition, electronic support can help service providers shift the service industry paradigm from reactive - waiting for a customer to call with a problem - to a proactive model that prevents the calls from coming in.

Opportunities like these have risks. Embarking on an electronic support program isn't for the faint of heart or those seeking short-term cost reductions. Many customers perceive electronic services as nothing more than an inexpensive substitute for voice services - more of a cost-cutting gain for the company than a service gain for the user. For organizations focused on long-term gains and increasing customer value, however, such investments in electronic support aren't an option. They're a necessity for maintaining customer satisfaction while accommodating growth. Well-thought-out electronic service plans can deliver those benefits while minimizing the aforementioned risks.

Selecting From The Electronic Service Menu
Organizations that want to put together an electronic services plan must consider if they want to deliver electronic services in-house or via a partner; meet or beat phone-based service performance; what entry/capture systems and tied-in technology they will use; the level of responsiveness they will offer; and how to balance the uncertainty of new users trying electronic services with the comfort they need to use it again.

Support organizations have to pick the right mix of electronic services, keeping the nature of their products and the composition of their customer base in mind. The term "electronic service" encompasses client and server-based help utilities deployed locally or remotely, and Internet-based services such as online knowledge base services, online direct response, chat rooms, bulletin boards and Web/e-mail responses. Call routing and database technology support the actual service delivery technology by routing customer requests to the right place and providing the knowledge to answer questions. To be effective, electronic support initiatives should contain choices of services, levels of responsiveness and the price customers must pay for each.

The actual service rendered can come in any number of forms. A specialist can write a solution response and send it to the customer via e-mail, the customer can retrieve previously created solutions or initiate a live chat with a specialist. Customers might also choose an electronic response within a certain time period or request to be phoned back within a certain time period.

Prevention Versus Cure
Electronic support can help service organizations move from reactive - answering an inquiry when someone has a problem - to proactive - anticipating issues and resolving them more cost-effectively before a customer has to call.

Electronic support captures massive amounts of product and customer information in structured formats, such as online forms, that companies can quickly turn into proactive service programs. Each instance of support delivery becomes a chance to analyze what features are being used, how they are used and opportunities to add enhancements. If call data analysis reveals a spike in call volumes about a particular feature or function, for example, the company can send out advisories or software patches before the problem area turns into a service nightmare, and resolve the issue in subsequent releases.

Being proactive requires service organizations to understand individuals' needs. That means maintaining an electronic profile of interest, expectations, tendencies and objectives. Companies should design an electronic support solution to categorize the types of information each customer most often wants so when it generates new information in that area, it is distributed automatically.

Different customers have different senses of risk and urgency. Therefore, the service provider should make sure customers can set their own requirements for responsiveness, which contributes to the perception of a proactive service organization. For example, customers can request that the support system automatically respond to their requests and provide updates on solution status as frequently as they desire. Other techniques have the same effect as being proactive because they appear to personalize the interaction. These can be as simple as auto-populating a submittal form with pertinent account information or cataloging previous support requests from an organization and recommending areas of training focus.

Every company pondering the question of electronic services must ask itself what its goals are: to reduce cost, increase customer satisfaction or build revenue? What are electronic services intended to do as part of a company's current portfolio: augment, replace, deflect or complement existing service offerings?

Companies that plan to do electronic support simply to reduce costs are likely to be disappointed. Certainly, cost savings can result. Specialists who use sophisticated filtering, parsing and analysis tools can handle hundreds of issues each day with a better than 95 percent accuracy rate. Compare that to phone-based capabilities and it's easy to see cost savings.

But driving that effort is the need for better solution accuracy. For an effort to be successful, it must define what service attribute the company wants electronic services to enhance. Is it timeliness, availability, accuracy, expertise, personalization or something else? Once a company determines its goal, it puts itself in the position for electronic services to enhance the value delivered to its customers. That improved value is what builds acceptance and adoption, leading companies into an updraft of cost savings and satisfaction.

Deb Keeman is director of the Internet Services Business Unit at Stream International, a leading provider of outsource technical support services.


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