E-support initiatives can go a long way in satisfying your customers, and in many cases, vendors are finding that their support offerings are an effective way to differentiate themselves from their competitors, according to Ana Volpi, senior analyst at IDC.
"Customer service has become an overall competitive differentiator," said Mike Brochu, president and chief executive officer of Primus, a CRM software provider.
"Support is becoming more than a product add-on," Volpi said. "Now, support is being developed alongside the product."
In addition to differentiating experience for the user, customer support has also become a strategic element of customer relationships, according to Volpi. This is due to several factors, including the realization by vendors that their annual support contracts have become an opportunity to reach out, understand their customers and up-sell.
Current technology has also made customer service become part of the product development process, Volpi said. When a customer calls with a problem with a particular feature, the customer support team can forward that comment along to the engineering team.
Additionally, there has been a convergence of CRM tools used for technical support that are extending into other areas, such as customer service issues, she said. By integrating customer service information with technical support data, a support incident can be turned into a sales opportunity.
This is where e-support comes in, as many vendors are experiencing a rise in call volumes. Vendors are looking for ways to expand their communication channels, including Web chat, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), e-mail and Web forms, Volpi said. In addition, e-support provides customer support around the clock, she said.
Volpi mentioned several notable trends in e-support. One of those trends is the question of how to automate the call volume, and most companies are leveraging the Internet to provide customer service, she said. Not only are these resources available "24-by-seven," she said, the new types of Web-based software allow Internet queries to be delivered to the technical or customer support person. E-support can cut down on the first 20 minutes of the call and provide instant gratification for the customer, she said.
"Employees are now spending time on higher value calls and getting more difficult calls," Volpi said. This trend in support leads to greater wages for the higher level of expertise, she said. Yet the traditional customer support center metrics and compensation structure can inhibit the use of e-support as well.
Other inhibitors to successful e-support initiatives include the fact that "human behavior is slow to change," Volpi said. Customers would rather use the telephone than Web support, and not just because it's learned behavior. Customers also know that telephone queries get an immediate response, while e-mail queries can take longer to get a response.
The existing infrastructure and lack of integration among communication channels can also inhibit e-support initiatives, Volpi said. For example, Volpi said she could submit a query by chat, a Web form, e-mail and a phone call and have her problem resolved by one of those venues. Yet the company might still have three trouble tickets open for her due to the lack of integration, she said.
In order to have a successful e-support program, an e-support initiative should feature "a strong user interface, site structure and seamless escalation," Volpi said. Concerns about security and privacy should also be addressed, and a variety of self-service options should also be offered. Communication channels need to be integrated, and methods should be included for immediate response, no matter what the channel is, she said.
"You have to be able to give customer those capabilities," Brochu said.
Additionally, metrics and compensation structures should be changed to attract skilled support personnel. "Up-selling" is also important, and so is globalizing support offerings. Those self-service options should be offered in a variety of languages, she said.
"The chance to up-sell generates more business," Brochu said.
In the future, Volpi said that integrating existing infrastructure and communication channels will be very key. Wireless access will also be a large differentiator, as will VoIP and video interaction. And instead of person-to-person interaction, Volpi expects to see person-to-artificial intelligence interaction, where customers will be Web chatting with a highly intelligent software program.