Project Management

Cut costs and keep customers happy with Web-based support

Instead of watching as your company cuts its level of customer service, IT can take the lead in innovations that save money and retain client good will. One company saw a 20 percent jump in customer satisfaction by investing in a Web-based support system.

As economists debate whether or not a recession has started, most CIOs already recognize the pressure to cut operational costs and drive up margins. Senior managers often look to “cost centers” to find savings, without regard to the strategic importance of the functions those centers serve. One of the first places many companies look to cut is customer support, speculating that their existing support functions serve only existing customers and that most faithful customers will put up with poor support.

This line of thought has several problems. Obviously, you can’t afford to neglect your existing customers, who ultimately are your most profitable resource; it takes a lot less marketing dollars to up sell or renew with a happy client than it does to court a new prospect.

And, in the context of cost savings, senior management often believes that current, less scalable support practices are the only option. But the cost of support does not have to go up as the number of customers does. In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at one company’s migration from a traditional phone support center to a Web-based system that proves you can give better customer service and still trim your overall support budget.

Moving toward Web-based support
While preparing a presentation for a customer support conference, I did an extensive interview with a former help desk manager of a large appliance manufacturer. We spoke at length about the turnaround this company had experienced by moving a large portion of its infrastructure from phone support to Web support. The manager offered these data points about an average support call:
  • A caller who needed support would wait six to eight minutes to speak with a live body. The loaded cost of the company’s 800 number service was about $1.20 a minute.
  • Because personnel training was consistent and of high quality, when the customer finally connected with a live body, typical questions could be answered on average in three to five minutes. If the call had to be escalated to second- and third- level support, it would require significantly more time.
  • In 10 percent to 15 percent of the cases, staff had to call back the customer, usually within 48 hours. Obviously, such scenarios were much more labor-intensive.
  • If an onsite service call was needed, the support center would place the call for the customer and set up the service call.
  • If a part was required, the support center would place the order.

In this set up, the support center became not only the single point of contact, but also the single point of failure. After analyzing call center requests and traffic patterns, it became clear that the customers themselves could handle most requests if they had an easy method to do so. The company went on a nine-month mission to build a Web-based call center that allowed the customer to:
  • Search a knowledge base to answer questions about the company's products.
  • Schedule their own service calls and arrange reminders to make sure they were at home at the appropriate times.
  • Order parts for their own installation if the customer could maintain the product.
  • Purchase service contracts online at the point of repair.

The results? The Web-based customer support system has dramatically improved customer satisfaction and reduced costs. Telemarketing surveys have found that, overall, customers prefer the Internet system by more than 20 percent.

Under the previous system, a call center worker could answer about 18,000 to 20,000 calls a year. That volume can now be handled by half the staff previously required. In fact, the call center’s workforce has been reduced by 50 percent in the last nine months since the Web call center went live, and the entire operation may eventually be rolled into another regional call center. In the words of the former manager, “It is almost like call centers are becoming passe.”

Ramping up quickly
Although this company chose to develop its own system, out-of-the-box help desk systems on the market today support many of the key functions that would help you quickly create a Web-based call center. This checklist explains key features to look for when evaluating a new help desk product.
  • When a customer submits a question that can’t be answered by the existing knowledgebase, the answer researched by a help desk representative should automatically be added to the knowledgebase.
  • Customers should be able to submit new help desk questions or check the status of existing ones. If a problem can’t be solved by a front-line help desk worker, the customer should be able to interact with actual engineers rather than the help desk frontline after the call has been escalated.
  • All data about support calls (whether phone or Web-based) should be captured and available for analysis.
  • The system should provide integrated chat-based support and, if it’s cost-effective, online video support. Integrated instant message-type support will allow you to farm out calls to offsite individuals or companies and pay for it on a per-piece basis.
  • The system should include remote-administration products, similar to Symantec’s pcAnywhere or LapLink 2000, that allow support techs to take control of users’ desktops. Microsoft is building this capability into Windows XP, but there will be older versions of Windows around for years to come.

Companies that move quickly to minimize direct personnel costs but maximize the availability of product information for their customers will benefit from both reduced cost and increased customer satisfaction. That’s an unbeatable combination—especially in this business climate.

What are your 2002 plans for your call center?
Are you planning enhancements or reductions to your call center’s budget in the next fiscal year? Are you sticking with your current system or automating some functions to cut costs? Tell us your strategic planning for your call center.


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