We’re fast approaching the day when online customer support will overshadow traditional phone service. For many PC users and consumers, that day can’t come fast enough—especially around major holidays.

By 2003, Web-based support will jump to $2.5 billion in sales from $1.75 billion in 1999, compared to a projected $1.75 billion for traditional telephone support during the same period, according to Forrester Research in Boston.

As the CIO charged with deciding how to best meet your organization’s support needs, it’s important to recognize that Web-based support is emerging as a cost-effective alternative to call centers. How can online support figure into your help desk strategy? What advantages does it offer? Which organizations offer online tech support? Here’s a look at some of the companies leading the way.

Cost savings
Online support can save time and grief—and it also offers significant savings. Giga Information Group, a Cambridge, MA-based research and advisory firm, reports that the typical cost of telephone support is $100 to $200 per call, as opposed to $20 per incident for online support.

Some of the online support players include PeopleSupport in Los Angeles and Austin, TX-based All.com, which provide online support to small and midsize companies.

Another provider, Expertcity.com in Santa Barbara, CA, offers online support to consumers and also outsources technical support to companies. Plenty more companies are also peddling their own online technology.

PeopleSupport provides online support that takes control of clients’ browsers so the company can send them content, instructions, and diagrams to solve their problems. “It’s a richer experience and an easy way to solve technical problems,” explained PeopleSupport CEO and Chairman, Lance Rosenzweig.

PeopleSupport’s three call centers employ 250 representatives. Rosenzweig says that rather than having them tucked away in out-of-the-way markets—where there is often unskilled and inexpensive labor—PeopleSupport’s call centers are strategically located around college campuses in Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Manila, Philippines, so it can hire educated and technically knowledgeable workers.

And instead of calling them “customer service representatives,” they’re called “e-reps,” implying a technically savvier tech who delivers a response time of less than a minute.

“The typical e-rep is a college grad who has been surfing the Web for years, has a good working knowledge of technology, and excellent communication skills,” Rosenzweig said.

Instead of having its customer support reps in call centers, Expertcity.com has its 1,000 techs working out of their homes. Most are part-timers, saving the company a bundle of money, according to company spokesman Omid Rahmat.

Here’s how their service works: The customer e-mails Expertcity.com and explains the problem. Based upon their knowledge of the problem, techs actually bid on the job. A split screen allows customers to see a picture of each rep and his/her qualifications.

Once a bid is accepted, the tech goes to work and, rather than controlling the customer’s browser, Expertcity’s techs take over the operating system and use keyboard and mouse to fix the problem. All the while, the techs explain what they’re doing through the split screen.

“Once the tech sees the problem, half the communication problems are eliminated,” Rahmat said. “The customer actually witnesses the results and participates in the problem-solving process.”

All.com has yet another Web-based technology, one that is more advanced than Expertcity’s approach, according to its founder and chief operating officer (COO), Scott Abel. Instead of controlling a browser or operating system, All.com, which advertises a response time of less than five minutes, downloads software that gathers diagnostic information so the problem can be found.

Once isolated, the problem is solved. Whatever the situation, Abel says its techs, who are called “Certified TechAdvisors,” can solve it. Each advisor has an average of eight years of IT help desk experience and is also trained by All.com.

Bottom line
That’s just a taste of the online support variations. Instead of having to hire your own support staff, you could have the option of outsourcing the technical help your users need.
Have you hired a company like the ones we’ve described here to handle technical support? What are the benefits and drawbacks? Send us an e-mail or start a discussion.