The dollars and sense of Web support

The Internet has always been an intricate Web of minutiae, but as more and more companies increase resources for Web-based customer support it is quickly becoming the go-to place to find immediate answers to specific questions.

A recent report, The Economics of Web-based Support, by the Association of Support Professionals in Watertown Mass., found the Web is an ideal way to answer certain types of customer questions while, at the same time, reducing per-transaction costs.

The report, based on information gathered from 103 software companies, found the median cost to create and maintain a Web site to be US$3,889 per month. The largest portion of the cost was staff payroll, which made up half of the overall cost. Other costs included Web site hosting and design, software, equipment, coding and site maintenance.

Yet unlike traditional telephone support, costs do not rise significantly as more and more people seek help. This is because telephone support is almost always a one-on-one interaction, meaning each query ties up one paid employee.

IBM Corp. has been using Web-based support for several years and has the savings to prove it, according to the company.

Jim Ingratta, general manager of e-business consulting and services at IBM in Markham, Ont., calls it ERI, Electronic Return on Investment. For companies unsure about creating or increasing Web support he cites IBM’s own situation. His company saved US$750 million in 1999 by diverting queries from call centres onto Web self-service offerings.

According to Ingratta, if many people can easily find the answer to their question on-line, it will also free up the call centre for more serious calls. “For customer service, [humans] will deal with the more difficult issues, where you can use the Web site, the technology and e-mail to answer the 50 mundane questions you always get at the call centre,” he said.

Creating financially viable Web support is not limited to large corporations nor, as the report covered, just software companies. Much smaller businesses can also benefit from offering customers quick answers to a wide array of questions.

Few people view university students as customers, but that is exactly what they are. For schools that have a high international enrolment the Web can be a perfect solution to decrease phone bills and allow perspective students 24 hour access.

“For certain populations, they not only use [the Web], they expect it,” said Tom Keenan, dean of the faculty of continuing education at the University of Calgary. “We could not do our SAP program, at the quality level we do, without this kind of Web support,” he added. The university site has everything from answers to simple questions like “How to get to the university from the airport” to job listings and chat groups. Since the vast majority of students are not from the Calgary region, the site allows the school to offer easy, world-wide support .

David Leskiw, program director for SAP educational alliance training at the University of Calgary, said the site has been quite cost effective. He added, “this is our only form of international advertising, we do nothing else.”

Because Web technology and customer expectations are evolving at breakneck speeds, increasing Web support is not a panacea for all companies, according to the report. If the site is not reaching what the report calls “critical mass of traffic” the Web actually costs more than traditional telephone support. By dividing total Web costs by the number of Web resolutions, the report found those companies who solve only a small percentage of their issues via the Web can be paying as much as US$160 per transaction. But for those companies which resolve over 50 per cent of support issues on-line, the cost falls to US$2.20. IBM, which had over 14 million self-service transactions, figures the cost at only pennies per transaction.

Also, cost effectiveness is not the only issue. For many customers, the Web offers the ability to solve problems on their own, at their own pace.

“Not only is it more cost effective not to have a person, but the customers appreciate going in and managing their own world instead of having to know what question to ask a customer support person,” said Jane Brul