The people factor

The customer support model is changing because more users want to help themselves

The customer support model is changing because more users want to help themselves

According to the International Labour Office, the IT skills shortage in Europe will triple over the next two years and employers will struggle to fill a potential 1.6 million seats by 2002. So, what is the answer? If there are not enough people to fill the seats then how can companies keep up with the demand?

Traditionally, new customers generated new backend positions; but the Internet is changing this approach to customer service. The Internet means customer service is entering a new era. Customer numbers can grow exponentially. Yet companies can't recruit support staff at the drop of a hat. While it has never been easy for help desks to achieve the appropriate level of support, it is now even more unpredictable.

With headlines such as 'Skills shortage to leave millions of empty seats by 2002', the customer-service industry is under increasing strain. Add to this the growing demand for anytime, anywhere technical advice, and hepdesks will be struggling to keep up.

Good customer service is about empowering users to help themselves. For example, Xephon2 found that even in organisations with increased staffing and performance levels, users were not happy with the level of support. Furthermore, those companies which had reduced the number of helpdesk calls (by enabling the user to solve simple queries themselves), had a higher level of user satisfaction.

To relieve the pressure on customer service departments, organisations are using new technologies to empower users. A new online model is emerging, with Web-based support services taking the place of traditional, phone-based support. This offers a number of advantages such as lower support costs, better customer satisfaction and improved productivity.

While some companies are starting to develop an online support strategy, many are still unsure how to do so effectively and reap the benefits of online support.

The new e-Support model

The current support model is typically two- or three-tier, with the phone being the main means of communication. Forrester Research has defined a new online support model, which introduces a new tier, tier zero, to the established three-tier model of customer support.

Tier zero: self-healing

This new tier uses self-healing technology to solve problems before they occur, and should be seen as the foundation element in any support strategy. It can proactively identify problems and in many cases resolve them. This personal support agent also captures critical system, software and personal information that can be passed to the other support tiers.

Tier one: self-service

Many companies are beginning to help customers to help themselves. Contextual information captured at tier zero helps to optimise self-service, enabling end users to address support requests themselves. Automating steps in the support process that typically would be done by the help desk can significantly reduce the amount of time spent fixing simple problems.

Tier two: web-based service

The Web also enhances the ability for the support organisation to provide Tier Two support, using technologies such as email, chat, remote control, Web-page push, automated problem diagnosis, and so on.

Intelligent email technologies can now automate some of the support communications by evaluating questions and returning automated responses without ever involving a support representative. Using chat, customers can pose questions in real time to service professionals and get instant feedback. If required and permitted by the user, the service professional can take remote control of the user's system to quickly resolve the query.

All through this process, contextual information about the customer's query is captured, providing the service professional with the means to shortcut much of the diagnosis. The resolution of the query can also be automated by taking advantage of this contextual information.

Tier three: phone and visits

Today, the traditional method should be a user's last resort. By providing self-healing and self-service technology, the number of calls to customer support is significantly reduced and calls to the help desk are reserved for more serious problems.

In today's competitive environment, companies need to find alternative ways to keep their customers happy, which not only cope with the explosive growth rate of the Internet but also with higher customer expectations. Of course, the biggest challenge is a system that is not expensive and that even lowers overall support costs. Automation seems the likely answer.

Terry Lawlor is director of marketing EMEA,

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment