If you’re the guy everyone turns to for help, who supports you? One place support professionals can turn is the Association of Support Professionals (ASP). The international organization offers content regarding industry trends and the latest research on call center operations, Web support, customer satisfaction, compensation trends, and fee-based services.

We spoke with ASP officials and some members to find out what the group’s Web site offers and the price of membership. Here’s what they had to say.

History of the organization
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, executive director Jeffery Tartan and membership director Jane Farber ran semiannual conferences on the East and West coasts.

“Our attendees began asking us to start up an association,” Farber said. They wanted a way to keep the benefits of the conference going all year long. So we started ASP in 1995 at the request of our customers.”

With the advent of Web technologies, the need for conferences was far less, and in 1998, the organization phased out its twice-yearly gatherings.

The cost
Individual memberships to ASP are $60 annually; corporate memberships are $500 annually and cover as many support professionals as your organization employs globally with full benefits for each one.

Farber said ASP membership is affordable because the association doesn’t squander money on expensive, glitzy conferences.

“Everything is on the Web,” she said. “We have no printing costs to pass on. We don’t have to cover travel expenses. All we need to cover is the time we invest in researching information for our members.”

While ASP’s membership costs thousands of dollars less than that of other associations, it’s just as valuable, according to member Jacky Hood, president of Crescent Project Management. Hood recalls a project from several months ago, when she had to assess call centers at a health care company with two hospitals and approximately 15 clinics.

“The telephone menu trees had been redone dozens of times and the client wanted to know if there were any standards,” Hood said. “I called a number of consultants, looked through old magazines, and nobody had anything useful.”

She called Farber, who quickly located and sent a 1996 article with precisely the right information that had appeared in an ASP publication.

ASP publications
Farber said ASP publishes a series of statistical and advice-based articles drawn from the experience of its members and other support professionals, typically on subjects where there is little or no comparable material anywhere else.

“We focus on a fairly narrow niche, so there simply aren’t many other people collecting the kind of data we do—statistics on IT organizations and help desk groups are usually not applicable to external support groups,” Farber said. She said ASP attempts to listen closely to members’ information needs and conducts studies specifically in overlooked areas.

“In fact, I’d say almost all of our research efforts have been inspired by questions from our members,” Farber said. “Our research isn’t academic. Literally every question we investigate has some practical application for people who are running support organizations.”

As an example, Farber said ASP is one of the few organizations that collects data on Web support, support outsourcing, and fee-based support. She said that while these are critical issues to ASP’s audience, they’re not particularly interesting to people outside of our market niche.

Feedback about support Web sites
Hood said she gets “tremendous benefit” from ASP’s Year’s 10 Best Web Support Sites contest, which is open to the public. The contest honors outstanding Web-based customer support sites for software and other technology products. Entries are judged on 25 separate performance areas, including overall usability, design, navigation, knowledgebase and search implementation, interactive features, personalization, and the major site development challenge.

Every entrant receives a comprehensive evaluation of that person’s site, and many companies find the in-depth critique a better prize than actually winning. Even companies that don’t enter the contest can purchase a booklet that details the winning Web sites and explains what makes them best of class.

Benefits for members and nonmembers
Joining ASP provides immediate access to current and past benchmark reports, the current member directory, free use of online job classifieds, and a subscription to the association’s twice-monthly e-mail newsletter. In addition, ASP has assembled a group of independent consultants who have agreed to provide at least an hour of free advice to members. Members may simply go through the list and collect a free hour from each consultant.

Nonmembers have full access to the site’s library, where past years’ benchmark reports and surveys are part of the public domain. Nonmembers may also browse the forums where founder Tartan answers questions on a variety of relevant topics.

About the members
Most of the association’s members are managers or analysts who run tech support organizations in software and technology companies.

“We’re a little bit different from other support associations in that our focus is primarily on external support professionals rather than help desk support,” Farber said. While the niche group represents a smaller market than the general help desk group, Farber said they often have greater responsibility for the success of their companies and have “a correspondingly better finger-on-the-pulse of their company’s support operations—tracking, metrics, etc.—so they’re the people with the numbers to share with us.”

Member Brian Bartel, CEO of Dolphin Sense, said that ASP takes a lot of the guesswork out of the technology business and that the value of its research reports alone pays for his membership fee many times over. He said he uses the information to tackle specific issues.

“For example, the economics of on-line support provides some excellent information on trends as well as specific ways companies are tackling problems like on-line customer satisfaction and knowledge management,” Bartel said. “ASP’s reports offer accurate industry cost estimates to compare against actual company performance. As a CEO, this information is particularly useful in making certain that my company is competitive.”

The icing on the cake is the networking benefits and the value from chapter meetings, he said.

The organization has memberships from small and large businesses. Companies with corporate memberships include Timberline, IBM, Cognos, VeriSign, and Microsoft’s Great Plains offices. Bartel said that he’s pleased with the mix of the membership and that the information he gets from the group provides answers to problems he faces on a day-to-day basis.

As an example, Bartel cited a recent chapter meeting where members from VeriSign provided information on how they include support in the product lifecycle process.

“The panelists gave specifics on how companies of any size can improve customer satisfaction, increase profits, and build employee satisfaction by taking some simple steps,” Bartel said. “It’s a pleasure to see even competitive companies sharing information and ideas.”