Facing the double whammy of serving more customers with a shrinking labor pool, a growing number of e-businesses are embracing a strategy pioneered by fast-food joints: self-service.
However, these companies are taking a high-tech approach to the help-yourself concept by creating technical support Web sites that let customers diagnose and fix their own problems over the 'Net.
Dubbed e-support, the trend has been embraced by Cisco Systems Inc., Lucent Technologies Inc., Nortel Networks Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Compaq Computer Corp. and others. These companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on their tech support Web sites, adding automated tools far beyond online searching of product documentation.
The e-support trend is a boon to network managers, who can use these Web sites to isolate and fix hardware and software problems without having to spend the time or money to call the vendor's tech support telephone line. Network managers can deploy the same underlying e-support technologies to serve their own employees and customers.
Neena Taskar, a consulting network engineer with PeopleSoft Inc., visits Cisco's e-support Web site a couple of times per day as she manages a network that features 70 Cisco routers and serves 9,000 users.
"I hardly ever call Cisco because I can get the product documentation that I need off the Web site," Taskar says. "If it's not a network-down emergency, it's really hard to call Cisco and wait for a call back. . . . It's faster to go to the Web site and look up what you want."
Although Taskar praises the search capabilities and software downloads available on Cisco's site, she says the bug-tracking feature doesn't work well and the troubleshooting tools are too basic.
"I'd like to see more-advanced troubleshooting tools and more white papers on newer technologies," she adds.
Shortcomings aside, these sites are growing in popularity, experts say.
"Customers want correct answers immediately in the medium of their choice," says Tony Adams, a senior analyst following support services for Dataquest Inc.
"Customers really like and give higher satisfaction ratings" to tech support Web sites vs. traditional telephone support.
Such e-support is a major undertaking, with some companies dedicating 50 or more specialists to create content for their support sites. Deploying automated PC diagnostic tools from such vendors as Motive and Support.com costs $100,000 or more. Still, industry watchers say automated Web-based tech support systems produce savings in the long run.
"Manufacturers are beginning to recognize the fact that toll-free telephone support is extremely expensive," says Richard Dean, program manager of market research firm International Data Corp.'s network support and integration services research. "The trend in the industry is to get away from expensive telephone support and make investments in online support."
One of most advanced e-support Web sites is Cisco's Technical Assistance Center (TAC), which is available to the company's enterprise customers. About a year ago, Cisco began investing heavily in the site's content and self-service features as a way of stemming the flow of telephone calls to its four assistance centers around the globe, which employ more than 1,000 engineers.
Since then, the TAC staff has grown from a handful of folks to 100 people contributing content. Meanwhile, traffic on the Web site has grown sixfold from 350,000 page views per month last September to more than 2.2 million page views per month in June.
The online product documentation is the most frequently visited section of the site. An increasing amount of traffic is derived from automated tools such as the IP Subnet Calculator, which creates an IP addressing scheme, and the Stack Decoder, which gives network managers troubleshooting information when a router crashes.
A newer tool is the Output Interpreter, which analyzes the most popular commands on Cisco routers and switches, and provides feedback to customers on possible problems. Meanwhile, the Compatibility Adviser lets users enter the equipment they have and the equipment they want to buy to make sure it will work together.
Cisco is seeing benefits from investments in TAC. June was the first month the company saw a reduction in the growth rate of the telephone calls received by its technical support centers.
"Customers are better enabled to solve their own problems now that our team has brought the information to the Web," says Steve Gordon, director of the TAC Web services team.
In October, TAC plans to add support for the SNMP in its Output Interpreter tool.
"What we're doing is tying the Output Interpreter to the network management systems so the person in the network operations center can take two or three or four more advanced steps and help them reduce the time to resolution," Gordon says.
SNMP support is just a glimpse of the advanced self-service tools Cisco plans for TAC.
"Our customers can look forward to the increasing intelligence and expert system capability of our tools," says Sean Iverson, TAC marketing manager.
One such customer is John Tiso, a senior consultant with Networked Information Systems in Woburn, Mass., who consults TAC several times a day. Tiso's favorite features are product documentation, bug tracking and service call opening.
"We train all of our technologists on how to use the TAC site to research solutions to problems," Tiso says. "It increases our efficiency, saves us time and ultimately saves our customers money because we're able to solve their problems quicker."
Meanwhile, Lucent launched its e-support initiative - called eSight - in May to provide users of its modems, routers and switches with self-help capabilities.
The site features product documentation, troubleshooting aids, software patches, trouble-ticket entry and live chat with technical support staff.
Lucent built eSight around a knowledge management system from Primus that lets end users describe a problem and receive likely solutions. The site also features integration with a Documentum Web publishing system to ensure online product documentation is current with print manuals. A 50-person team develops content for eSight.
"ESight isn't just about services," says Jim DiRenzo, e-business director for Lucent's NetworkCare group. "It's about ease of use and navigation. No documentation is more than two clicks away."
So far, eSight seems to be hitting the mark. DiRenzo says it attracts 1,000 visitors a day and has 20,000 registered users. In a July visitor survey, half of the respondents said visiting eSight saved them from making a telephone call to Lucent's tech support line.
DiRenzo says Lucent plans to add decision support and network design tools, network management services and online consulting to eSight next year.
Companies that invest in tech support Web sites are quick to reap rewards.
Consider Adelphia, the fifth-largest cable Internet access provider in the U.S., which recently spent $350,000 on e-support software from Motive.
Adelphia installs a copy of Motive Communications Inc.'s PC diagnostic tool on its customers' systems, letting them run speed tests, fix browser problems and establish network settings without the help of Adelphia's tech support team.
Customers that need extra help can send e-mail to Adelphia analysts, who have access to diagnostic information from the customer's system and can quickly pinpoint the source of the problem.
Chris Hanlon, director of national support operations for Adelphia, says it costs around $15 per tech support telephone call, and the company receives 40,000 calls per month. "Any way that we can defer those costs has a huge [return on investment] potential," Hanlon says.
Since rolling out the Motive software, Adelphia Business Solutions Inc.'s tech support Web site is handling 1,500 self-service incidents a week, and the average time it takes to resolve a tech support telephone call has dropped from 17 minutes to 7 minutes. "Our goal is to handle 90% of our calls in under 4 minutes," Hanlon says.