Customer service: lifelines on the Web

When customers connect to your applications through the Internet you may not know who they are, what they're using or what their history is. But it's still possible to help them, says Danny Bradbury

If there's one thing that IT professionals like, it's certainty. While the Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity for information exchange, universal access to computing services and strong business growth, it is probably one of the least IT-friendly media, at least from a support perspective.

IT support staff like to know who their end-users are and what systems they're using. End-users communicating with a system across the Internet, however, could be running anything from a state-of-the-art PC, through to a simple Linux box, or even a Wap phone. This leaves support departments with a daunting challenge, trying to ensure that end-users get the service that they want, while having little or no information about them. The goalposts aren't so much shifting as being lost in an impenetrable fog.

Another variable in the equation is the relationship between the company and the customers it is supporting. In-house support systems simply have to run well, or your company would not function because your staff would not be able to use your infrastructure. With customer support, however, you have to take into account the potential revenue stream from your customer base when investing in support, points out Nigel Langley, enterprise consultant at IT services consultancy Technosys. "It's something that comes off your bottom-line. It's a cost," he says. "If you can't afford that cost you must charge for it, and if you can't charge for it, you have a problem."

You must take this into account when choosing the technology that will support your Web-focused support operation. At least one thing is certain in this scenario, because it's true of every other support environment - if you can stop support calls before they arise you'll save yourself a lot of money.

Bob Wild, a consultant at Compass Management Consulting, is fanatical about the subject. So many companies don't do their homework during the design phase that they end up with badly designed applications that present all sorts of problems to the end-users across the Web and get the support lines ringing, he explains. He emphasises the fact that a computer application with a Web front end is still an application, and as such is subject to the same design rules as all other software.

There are ways to ensure that your software is watertight, however. The Rational Unified Process from Rational Software is quickly becoming the de facto standard for software development using component technologies, which are the lifeblood of middle-tier Web applications. The process encompasses issues such as the definition of business entities, the gathering of requirements for the application and, perhaps most importantly, the software testing process. For many companies, software testing is the booby prize given to the unwitting 16-year-old on work experience at the end of the project, and yet it is an important issue for any development team. Proper testing will enable you to check things like exception handling, to make sure that your end-users are not directed to pages within your site that don't exist, for example.

Another important issue in a Web support context is load testing. So many Web sites have suffered from bad capacity planning, meaning that when Web traffic peaks, the site falls over or starts blocking users. Companies such as Rational Software and Israeli firm Mercury Interactive produce software that enables you to simulate different levels of traffic on your Web site to measure its performance. You will be glad you did this when your competition's Web site falls over and its support helpdesk is flooded with calls from irate users.

Design is even an important issue at the presentation layer, which is something that e-commerce application designers often dismiss as irrelevant. On a technical level, technologies such as dynamic HTML (DHTML) can cause problems for browsers, because suppliers do not implement them in the same way. Consequently, a piece of DHTML code in Windows Explorer might not operate in the same way that it does in Netscape Navigator, for example, and the same is true of Javascript, which is becoming an increasingly popular means of handling applications such as form validation online. If you have ever encountered a Javascript error on a Web site that will be the likely cause of the problem (that, or simply erroneous code that doesn't work in any browser). This can be irritating when you are using Javascript for animated graphics and such like, but it can be potentially fatal for your support department if you're using it for a business critical piece of logic such as form validation. Langley's answer is to test his solutions on as many different browsers as possible.

Even the most expert application designer will probably not be able to prevent all support calls, so you must have support mechanisms in place to handle the rest of them. It is still possible to spot problems early on before they begin costing you customers.

Many customers will use your Web application for specific business processes such as buying products, finding marketing material or updating personal profiles, for example. So you might want to use Business Bridge, a new product from Systar that monitors your Internet application, simulating customer access to various processes and returning a quickly assessable summary of whether they are performing adequately, along with a description of the possible technical cause of a problem.

Online chat

After all that, you'll still find support queries turning up that must be dealt with. Dealing with queries across the Internet rather than over the telephone is one way of reducing your support cost, but this does not mean that you have to present an inhuman interface to customers. Technologies are emerging that enable support technicians to deal with customers live online, using a mixture of online chat, videoconferencing and in some cases remote control of customers' PCs.

Talisma is one company offering live support in this way. Using its technology you can monitor what individual users are doing on your site, and fire off interactive chat sessions with them if you feel that they may be running into trouble.

The company also offers a facility to outsource your technical support via e-mail. It will work with your staff to build up a knowledge base of different problems and answers, and can then create predefined templates that it will send in response to specific queries. This will leave your support staff free to deal with the most complex, ad hoc queries from Internet users.

Other companies are also providing live chat services for support technicians. Helpmagic provides a range of different services, including Chatmagic for online text chat and Mailmagic for e-mail-based communications. Companies wanting to use the service can download buttons to put on their Web sites, which can then be linked either to the Helpmagic customer support centre, or to support staff within the customer company itself, depending on whether it wants to outsource its support or not.

Handling support queries online also offers you the facility to personalise your support. Primus, for example, offers its e-Support software, which marries Web-based support facilities with personalisation technology. It enables you to get a better understanding of the support issue before customers are routed through to a live support technician online.

Really smart companies will reference a database containing their customers' details, so that incoming support calls can be prioritised according to customer importance. There's no point spending half an hour solving one support problem for an occasional customer who doesn't spend very much, when another customer who spends much more with your company is waiting online.

Jay Goode, director of development at e-commerce consultancy Tanning Technology, is particularly interested in the idea of monitoring end-users' movements around a site, but wants to take it one step further by enabling technical support staff to find out exactly what they are doing, including assessing what they are entering on online forms, for example.

"From a customer support agent's point of view that would make the job a lot easier," he says. "Every time you do something the system can display it on a customer service person's screen, so that when you're talking to me I can walk you through the site. Before you get the user to look at specific things, the customer service operative can know what values were entered."

Unfortunately, he is not aware of any third-party software products that allow companies to drill down to this level, and his answer to the problem was to custom code his own solution. He produced a servlet (a piece of code residing on the Web server) that works with the Web application to find out what pages have been submitted to the user. For companies using server-side technologies, such as Microsoft's Active Server Pages and Sun's Java Server Pages, this shouldn't be too difficult, because the ASP and JSP templates deliver pages to the end-user by using scripts to process inputs.

On speaking terms

If all else fails, you may need to resort to the dreaded telephone to resolve a customer problem. Using conventional interactive voice response [IVR] will enable you to route calls from customers running different machines and experiencing different categories of problem, for example. Alternatively, you can make it easier for customers (who generally hate automated telephone systems) by enabling them to enter the nature of the problem, and then clicking on a callback button, alerting one of your customer representatives to telephone them at a set time. This is another service that Helpmagic can provide.

Nevertheless, this approach may not be appropriate if you want to speak to customers while they are online to your Web site. Depending on the nature of your customer base you may find that many of them are connecting to the Internet over the same phone line that they use to call your support line, meaning that they won't be able to access the Web site when speaking to your customer representative. This will be particularly true in consumer-focused sites, when many people will access the service from home.

An innovative solution is to use Voice over IP (VoIP), or even videoconferencing, as a means of connecting with your customer while online. Such services will be more effective as broadband Internet access becomes more widely used in the UK. Helpmagic provides Voicemagic, a button to start up a VoIP session between customers and support staff.

Ultimately, while companies running Internet operations are faced with an unspecified and difficult to control user base they do have the advantage of an access medium where queries can be filtered and controlled in a more effective manner than conventional phone-based support infrastructures. Every challenge has a flipside opportunity, and savvy companies will use a mixture of automation and collaboration technologies on their Web sites to ensure that customers get the best possible level of service.

Seamless transition

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