Eighteen months and US$500,000 into the implementation of an IT online help desk support system, Visa International Inc. dumped its project in favour of a mix of customised online support services that includes tutorials, instant tips and other support and training content from Dallas-based Attenza Inc., formerly known as Service911.com Inc.
The original system "took a lot of effort to implement, and it turned out it was kind of an empty shell," says Lloyd Steadman, chief consultant in network integration at the Foster City, Calif.-based credit card company, which has 21,000 financial institution members. "There was no compelling content," he says.
"When it comes to self-help sites, content is everything," says Steadman, and "Attenza has a huge wealth of content."
What the start-up offers Visa and many other large corporate clients is a variety of Web-based computer support services that includes live chat with technicians, e-mail support and video, and text tutorials, says Lawrence Schwartz, founder and CEO of Attenza. And a series of acquisitions, including the purchase of online learning content developers Learnlots.com and BizWorks Inc., has built up Attenza's tutorial library.
The e-support service is available for in-house IT help desk functions or can be repackaged to transparently serve a company's external customers. Through what it calls its Webskin content delivery infrastructure, Attenza claims that it can deploy within days a private-label corporate product that includes a customised look and feel.
That was attractive to Glen Hamilton, business and product development vice president at Egghead.com Inc., an online computer hardware and software reseller in Menlo Park, Calif.
Egghead licenses its online support content from Attenza, but customers "know they're coming to us," says Hamilton. "Our brand name adds some legitimacy to the content."
But Attenza's content was also important, he says. "When we were [deciding whether to] build and maintain our own system, we were pleased to find a company like Attenza, which specialises in [online customer support] content," Hamilton says. Customers at the Egghead Web site can use Attenza's step-by-step instructions or view short videos on subjects such as how to install memory.
Hamilton says he expects the service to substantially reduce customer support calls, although neither he nor Schwartz could quantify the benefits yet. Hamilton says he sees Web-enabled customer support as "a strategic tool to maintain smooth internal and external operations and remain competitive." So far, Hamilton says, he's happy with the service.
Other e-support providers offer customised service as well, says Tony Adams, an analyst at the IT services group of San Jose-based Dataquest, a unit of Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc. Webskin is simply "another name for private branding," he says.
Attenza also offers the Content Analysis and Reporting System (CAARS), which it says enables companies to monitor and analyse service usage by tracking user support histories, chat sessions and e-mail communications. Each user interaction updates the knowledge builder for that client.
Egghead and Visa aren't using CAARS yet, but both say they plan to do so. Steadman says he hopes to use it to identify areas where better staff training is needed.
Attenza has a long list of large corporate customers and has grown 100 percent annually, says Ana Volpi, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. She calculates that Attenza's revenue doubled from $2 million in 1999 to $4 million last year.
Schwartz says he expects Attenza to show a profit late this year.
Attenza is currently looking for new growth areas. "Today, we do a lot of things other than service," Schwartz says. "We do . . . e-learning, custom content creation, business intelligence based on user information, all on an outsourced basis."
Schwartz adds that he also hopes to use CAARS to sell Attenza's services to hardware manufacturers, which could use the reports to identify product problems and support issues.
Kay writes about technology as a principal at Choice Communications, an editorial consulting firm in Chelmsford, Mass.
Competition By Attrition
E-support is where it's at. The e-support market will explode from $986 million this year to $4.1 billion by 2004, predicts Ana Volpi, an analyst at IDC. But that doesn't make the business easy. Competition among third-party support portal vendors is "fierce and growing," she says, and some consolidation has already occurred.
Volpi defines e-support services as Internet destination sites where third parties - not software or hardware vendors - offer technical-support data on software and hardware technologies.
Attenza and its competitors share several attributes, although only a few offer Attenza's broad range of services. For example, not every vendor offers online learning services and customised activity reporting. However, some offer telephone and on-site support options - something Attenza doesn't.
E-support businesses will continue to thrive as long as the shortage of skilled technical workers continues, Volpi says. "Vendors and corporations need to provide technical support 24/7," she says. "People are becoming increasingly mobile and travelling worldwide, and they need tech-support help."
But attracting and retaining skilled technical-support workers is a challenge for support providers as well as their customers, says Tony Adams, an analyst at Dataquest's IT services group. "Many service vendors have gone belly-up because of problems keeping their workforces happy," he says.
And although the market is expanding, it's also crowded, and a consolidation has already begun. In addition to Attenza's recent acquisitions, PCsupport.com Inc. acquired MyHelpdesk Inc. last year, says Adams.ePeople Inc.
Mountain View, Calif.
EPeople is an online exchange that matches technical-support providers with users and offers a Web-based e-support front-end system for corporate users that leverages its network of support providers.
PCsupport.com offers technical support services for hardware and software via live chat, e-mail and the telephone.
Location: 1525 North Stemmons Freeway, Dallas, Texas 75207Telephone: (214) 369-3499Web: www.service911.comThe technology: Web-based IT help desk support and electronic-learning servicesWhy it's worth watching: The shortage of technical-support professionals makes outsourcing help desk support attractive.
Company officers: - Lawrence Schwartz, founder, CEO and chairman - Mark Thompson, president - Ray Balestri, chief operating officer Milestones: - 1996: Company founded as Fixx My PC - 1999: Name changed to Service911.com; focus shifted to Internet-based support - 2001: Changed name to Attenza Inc.
Employees: Approximately 100
Burn money: $33 million from W.R. Hambrecht and Co., CNET Networks Inc., ZDNet, Ask Jeeves Inc., Richmont Capital Partners LLP and others Services/pricing: Setup and development fees of $50,000 to $100,000, plus usage and monthly maintenance and hosting fees.
Customers: Egghead.com, American Airlines Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., Mary Kay Inc., Visa International and others Partners: BancTec Inc., Buy.Com Inc., McAfee.com Corp. and Support.com Inc.
Red flags for IT: - Service requires a working PC connected to the Internet. - With no telephone support, the service is a help desk supplement rather than a replacement.