Fifteen years ago, self-service gas stations were rare. Now they are the norm. Cost and convenience -- both for business owners and customers -- drove the change. One might not immediately expect this same paradigm to apply to support software, but two well-known applications vendors have discovered during the last year that it does.
Network Associates Technology Inc., based in Santa Clara, Calif., and Intuit Inc., based in Mountain View, Calif., had different problems supporting popular products. For Network Associates, the trouble involved fielding the mounting costs of its highly available, free phone support for McAfee antivirus products. By contrast, Intuit felt that it was unable to provide adequate support for its TurboTax software, usually failing to help users during the times they were most often working with the software: on the weekends. In both cases, something had to be done.
With the help of CRM provider Sento Corp., based in American Fork, Utah, the companies arrived at similar solutions.
The McAfee division of Network Associates was spending as much as 20% of its revenue on support. "Our interest in changing our support model was purely a financial play," said Scott Lessard, senior manager of technical support.
McAfee had been in contact with Sento since Network Associates acquired Sento customer Dr. Solomon's Software. "Sento began coming to us with ideas," Lessard said. Those ideas were based on a concept Sento calls "Customer Choice." Sento software guides users to a series of solutions on the Web and, at every opportunity, offers them live phone support. The theory is that, given the choice, most users will opt to solve their problems on their own.
The McAfee implementation consisted of online FAQs, a surprisingly effective chat system and live phone support. Before implementation, Lessard encountered some resistance from company executives and sales staff. But savings forecasts ultimately led to the project's approval.
Even though the company's European sales force was convinced that the system wouldn't work because so few users had Internet access, in the end, "the very countries who complained the loudest were the ones that showed the highest adoption rate after the new campaign was in place," Lessard said.
Within three months, McAfee reported an initial 87% decrease in support costs, which then leveled to a 60% to 65% savings, according to Lessard. McAfee reduced its cost per transaction from $7.50 to $0.73.
In 2002, the Association of Support Professionals named www.mcafeehelp.com to its list of 10 best support Web sites.
If McAfee customer support was a case of fine-tuning to save money, executives at Intuit admit there was nothing fine about how TurboTax customer support was tuned. But that wasn't necessarily a knock on the TurboTax division. After all, because of the seasonality of taxes, TurboTax in 2001 got nearly all of its 1 million support calls during a period of a few months. "Our current solution was not scalable and was not taking care of our customers' needs," said Erik Seoane, director of service delivery.
As Seoane and his team began to hammer out a "stepped" solution for guiding users to self-service answers, they found that implementing this new approach would be quite a task. Coincidently, Seoane was introduced to Sento.
"Our philosophical ideas were virtually an exact match with Sento's solutions," Seoane said. TurboTax was able to roll out a solution in time for the 2001 tax season.
"The results were just dramatic," Seoane said. Sixty percent of transactions were deflected and, of the remaining inquiries, only 15% to 20% required a phone transaction. The remaining issues were solved via an online chat feature that's available 24/7. "We were able to improve our service with no increase in budget," Seoane said. The Sento solution reduced Intuit's costs from $12.83 to $4.76 per transaction.
Occasionally, users do need some prodding. They're encouraged to try to answer their own questions because free phone service is pretty much obsolete. McAfee offers a priority live phone contact that is charged on a per-minute or per-incident basis. TurboTax, likewise, charges a fee for phone support. As an added convenience, updated wait times are posted for these services, and live technical support is available through the Web-based chat feature.
Sento operates through an application service provider model, hosting the help pages and charging its customers transaction fees. Businesses like Network Associates and Intuit can choose to either outsource the chat and call center operations or handle them in-house. Sento also offers these services.
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