Even the best customer service center cannot always handle a heavy volume of incoming calls. With the Web being a growing point of customer contact, finding efficient ways to handle customer inquiries has become increasingly important. Interest in customer relationship management (CRM) is rising, and more CRM solutions are appearing, as the demand grows for powerful ways to manage customer interaction.

Software911 launched a program in March 2000 that offers a simple CRM solution to medium-size companies who attend to a large number of customer calls and e-mails.

The Software911 system focuses on organizations that may not have the resources to fund a large customer service center. The San Jose-based company’s offerings alleviate this dilemma by giving managers the capabilities to place customer service functions into one self-help Web portal that is intuitive to customers’ needs yet is supported by an automated process.

“The reason it’s intuitive is so the general public can use it. The main problem with a lot of fancy CRM tools is that people who are supposed to get help and information can’t figure out how to use it,” said Scott Blevins, a business development manager for Software911.

Shuttling space-age technology into CRM
The main feature of the Software911 CRM solution is a frequently asked questions (FAQ) knowledge base. The FAQ system stems from a similar program used by NASA. Michael Compton, Software911’s director of knowledge systems technology, previously specialized in artificial intelligence systems as a NASA employee. According to Blevins, the system Compton developed was an interactive, organized system of questions and answers.

“It was used to diagnose and troubleshoot the space shuttles,” he said.

Blevins explained that NASA has a few engineers that know the space shuttle inside and out, yet there is a large crew that builds the shuttles. The difference in the sizes of the two teams makes the exchange of information between them cumbersome. To manage the shuttles’ development process, a technician can enter a question into the knowledge base and obtain an answer and a list of related answers.

“They needed a way to get information out of the minds of the experts and make it accessible,” Blevins said. “So if at 2:00 A.M., afterburner number five isn’t firing, they [can determine], ‘should we plug in the right adaptor or should we evacuate the building?’”

The same interactive, question-and-answer technology is what powers Software911’s offering. The program funnels the information from the minds of the employees of a company and makes it available to customers via the Web through what Software911 calls eService Portals. An eService Portal helps IT teams reduce the daily number of incoming calls and e-mails. Like the NASA technicians, customers receive answers to their questions by asking them via a portal.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist
Software911’s hosted self-help system requires little technical training to install and maintain, and the program is usually up and running within a matter of days. (One Software911 press release states that IT managers can have the portals up within one working day.)

“If they are as excited as we are to get started, usually two days. If they’ve got other projects running at the same time, sometimes a week, but at worst a month,” said Blevins.

The FAQ knowledge base is also easy to install. A knowledge base begins from pre-existing questions that a service representative may ask a caller or questions that customers frequently ask in e-mails. FAQs can also be questions that companies anticipate their customers will ask. Populating a knowledge base of FAQs is easy, said Leon Maynard, vice president of business development for Software911.

All FAQs can be entered straight into a hosted Software911 browser. The same browser also accommodates pre-existing customer service documents, which can be viewed as files in Adobe Acrobat.

The knowledge base can be updated at any time. If a manager notices the same questions being repeated in customer inquiries, a quick trip to the hosted browser to enter the question and its answer will add that information on the fly. “It makes the information more accessible and easy to find. If a customer can find the information quickly on a Web site then they’re not going to call,” Maynard said.

The FAQ system also allows managers to rank the usefulness of certain questions. Managers can create reports to tell them which questions are the most popular.

The Web portals are also easy for customers to use. A customer opens a browser, looks up a company Web site, and goes to the help or search section of the site. The Software911 FAQ program fits right in; mimicking the colors and logos of the company. To find an answer in the FAQ section, a customer can search through a structured set of formulated question-and-answer sessions, look up certain categories, or type in their own questions.

Stepping back from the Space Age to the Industrial Age
Software911 has a growing list of customers, including Emery Worldwide, the overnight freight company, and BigMachines.com, which offers a tailor-made solution for business-to-business relationships between industrial machinery manufacturers.

BigMachines.com brings together buyers and sellers of specialized industrial and engineering products in e-commerce exchanges. The company plans to release an e-marketplace this September.

Where does the Software911 technology fit into these plans? “It’s an important piece of our overall solution, especially for the marketplace, to have a good customer service FAQ area that evolves over time,” said Eugene Chiu, senior director of business development for BigMachines.com.

BigMachines.com uses the portals in business-to-business relationships to streamline the navigation necessary for customers to reach the information they need.

“The difficulty in the market we’re tackling is the complexity of the products,” explained Chiu. “There’s a hesitation for [sellers and manufacturers], because their products are so complex and so highly engineered they feel they can’t sell those products online.”

BigMachines.com plans to use the portals to ease some of their customers’ worries.

“The way it works is by bringing more of the questions that would be answered by a customer service organization, bringing those to a 24/7 availability online,” Chiu said.

The benefit of using the portals is a reduction in customer service representatives. “BigMachines is leveraging their manpower,” Blevins said. The company can have one or two people in charge of customer questions, instead of employing 15 to 20. Worldwide service portals are in the works at BigMachines.com to provide information to their international customers.

Can FAQs replace a full CRM solution?
Software911 is aware that its product line may not provide all the tools that a larger, more expensive CRM offering can. However, e-service portals can deliver a speedy way to provide information at low cost. A larger CRM suite will cost quite a sum and may take six months to fully implement The FAQ system can be put into place with minimal surgery and can help ensure that customers are not lost during a lengthy CRM implementation. The FAQ system probably cannot fulfill all the CRM needs a company may face, so if you are looking for a comprehensive CRM package, don’t rely solely on the FAQ system. However, the FAQ system and the portals can fit into other CRM packages.

“We have discovered that this is an extremely fast way to get into e-service on the Internet, but there are also some trade-offs,” said Maynard.

Your business needs

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