For established business the Internet has generally meant one thing - the opportunity to do the same business that they have always done, but do it cheaper. Why cheaper? Because, the theory goes, you need fewer employees to get the job done.
Websites promised to cut marketing expenses and e-commerce promised to do sales with fewer salesmen and fewer branches. Using the Internet to provide post-sales support, which for many companies is the most costly part of the sale, could also be cheaper by reducing the number of employees servicing customer needs face-to-face or over the phone.
Yet so far adoption of online support or e-support has been sluggish. Mark Walker, Instinct product director, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young (CGEY) says recently there has been a significant rise in interest.
According to IDC research manager Bill Clough e-support is expected to be worth $150m in 2001 and to reach over $500m by 2005 growing at 33% over the five-year period.
Ignorance or caution?
Does this steady take-up show ignorance to the benefits or sensible caution? On the one hand, every problem solved or question answered over the Internet is one that doesn't have to be solved in the branch or in the call-centre.
On the other hand implementation of such a strategy can be costly and time consuming while the penalties for a slap-dash e-support strategy can be high.
For a case study look no further than the retail banks. In-house bean counters predicted the potential cost-savings by servicing customers with Internet banking and call-centre banking and immediately announced sweeping branch closures invoking public outrage. Then throw in a couple of embarrassing security breaches at the online bank for a top class customer-relations disaster.
"Financial services organisations are realising, the benefits of the face-to-face relationship and the contact centre relationship," says Carl Rigby, Chairman & CEO, of AIT Group, a company that helps financial services companies build integrated multi-channel customer service strategies.
"However, they realise that there is a certain type of client that will want to deal with a company via the Web and they will offer this service as well."
Not surprisingly, many of the earliest adopters of Web-based support are in the hi-tech industry. IT products by nature are often complex, difficult to install or use, or have a tendency to go wrong.
Often more man-hours are spent in after-sales support than in any other part of the sales process. At the same time there is more chance of acceptance among those customers with good computer literacy.
While on the one hand the suppliers reduce the costs of support, many also stand to gain in the long term if the customer can see the benefit of online support and considers investing in similar technology in-house.
Oracle, one of the early adopters of e-support stands out, largely because it celebrated its ability to cut costs by automating processes. While it also reduced headcount, it is unclear how much was a direct result of moving support online.
But the change in customer usage patterns suggests savings could be considerable. Formerly, everything was done over the phone, explains Mark Allcock, IT manager at Denby Pottery. "In the early days of our Oracle Applications implementation I racked up the most expensive phone bill in the company - about 24 hours per week! All to Oracle Support."
Now Allcock answers 70% of his questions himself using Oracle's MetaLink e-support mechanism. If he needs help with other queries 22% are answered without using the phone. Only in 3% of cases does he ring Oracle direct, but he could not survive on MetaLink alone.
"I can't imagine that customers would ever accept the loss of telephone support, it's essential when a critical problem occurs," he says.
Meanwhile, Michael Ault, a senior technical management consultant at US Oracle implementation specialists TUSC, answers 90% of his own questions on the Internet. The other 10% of answers is an even split between Oracle support and other sources. "Rarely do I talk directly to support," he says.
However computer-savvy these gentlemen are, they're not going to shift from phone to 100% Web support unless they believe they can answer a query faster through e-support.
"Phone support was dodgy at times, especially for US-based calls. We would wait until the UK or Australia was answering, then call."
Users report that when MetaLink was first introduced it was slow, held less information and was difficult to search. Improvements have been made, but at a major cost to Oracle's support staff time, according to Allcock.
Despite improvements, Ault only likes MetaLink "sometimes". Both Ault and Allcock point out that users need to learn how to use it through experience and that it could be intimidating to a new customer. Another user Tim Alsop, technical director, at CyberSafe describes MetaLink as "confusing".
And if there are cultural issues with online support in the IT community, there will certainly be issues in the wider world of business.
Open to science
Science Warehouse provides services to make it easier for people working in life sciences to buy and sell over the Internet. Customers are clearly open to modern electronic methods, but even so Science Warehouse does not restrict its support to the Internet.
"This heralds a significant change in culture for a number of our customers," acknowledgs Graham Darnell, CEO Science Warehouse.
Darnell picks up on two golden rules of e-support - customer satisfaction and exhaustive planning and testing.
"Anything and everything you do should be determined by your customers and their satisfaction. Effective piloting, project management and implementation are critical to customer adoption and cost control," he says.
Reinforcing the rules
These two rules are reinforced by Clive Mundy, e-business Consultant at More Th>n the online arm launched by the Royal & SunAlliance (R&SA) last year.
"Providing customer support online is only worthwhile if the customers want it," says Mundy.
This maxim is more important for the RSA customer base because IT literacy will be lower than customers of an IT company or online exchange. An in-house survey of the customer base found that 80% were interested in the option to process claims and do policy servicing - renewals and such - online.
While the plan is to enable claims processing and other services this year, More Th>n will not go live until it is convinced that the site is right, is efficient, secure and that it offers what the customer wants in a form they want to use.
More Th>n is acutely aware of competitors that have dropped in too early and have annoyed a lot of customers. Together with customer feedback More Th>n tests everything rigorously before and after launch using tools from Mercury Interactive. The support application is fully integrated into back-office applications and into the call centre so information can be pre-populated into a form.
Also, if the customer panics and wants to finish it off on the phone, there will be a click to call button. The call centre operator will phone the customer and complete the form with them.
IDC's Clough believes that e-support should never be an independent project, it must be able to communicate and share data with the call centre and any other company application.
Before considering integration into back-end systems the complexity of building the e-support application may put off companies.
Many of the early adopters have built e-support applications from scratch. Others have built extensively on top of existing applications. For example, Science Warehouse e-support is built upon the content management portion of the Ariba e-procurement software and a customised version of the Goldmine CRM software.
Mercury Interactive has built on top of the Web services constituent in its Siebel Systems CRM application and its content-management software BroadVision.
But the build-it-yourself stage is coming to an end. This solution served a purpose for the last 12-18 months, according to CGEY's Mark Walker, but now the available e-support applications are comprehensive and competitive.
According to Walker, some larger European companies are piloting automated support applications from US companies such as Motive Communications and Support.com.
CGEY is one company offering to outsource the e-support function. Launched six months ago, InstincT is the total support package both between CGEY and the customer and between the CGEY customer and its customers.
Remote e-support services are also available through application service providers. UK-based CyberSafe is one of 100-plus customers of the US-based ASP Applied Innovation Management.
CyberSafe only signed up this month, but uses it to support five of the customers that use its Kerberos based security products.
CyberSafe's Alsop holds that it is unperceivable to his customers that they use an ASP and that there would be no other way that at small company would be able to offer support to a multinational client base.
"We don't have to worry about the cost of buying, managing and hosting a database system. We don't have to worry about backups and other systems management tasks - we can get on with our job of looking after our customers and leave the support system management to the experts," he says.