Bridging the Gap in Customer Support | Article

High fiveHistorically, customer support organizations were put in place to support specific technologies at given companies. Today, the challenge is much greater. Product interoperability, which evolved from standards established by technology companies and providers, has created an open-system, client-server environment where an infinite number of possible technology combinations may be present in any request for customer support.

“They (the support organizations) all face the challenge of supporting lots of different technologies because of the ‘plug and play’ and open systems,” said Greg Oxton, executive director, Customer Support Consortium.

That need for support groups to be all things to all people is one of the issues being addressed by the consortium, a non-profit organization based in Belmont, California. The consortium is studying the value of standards in setting up outsourcing relationships for support activities. Oxton has been studying that issue for four years, beginning when he was director of worldwide support at Tandem Computers. He joined the consortium in 1997 when the organization, which was established in 1992, became a non-profit.

“”The problem is that it’s very expensive to try and be self-sufficient, said Oxton. “In the days of proprietary systems, that was doable, but as installed bases have moved to open systems, multiple vendors are involved in any business application today.”

Knowledge Management

That has created a situation where, according to Oxton, support costs in some cases are rising faster than the revenue stream and the level of customer satisfaction is declining. As a solution to that problem, the consortium proposes a new way of thinking about managed customer support. One of the new ideas is a knowledge management strategy for support organizations.

“That’s a way to capture, structure and reuse the knowledge that’s created as a result of support interaction,” said Oxton. “An interesting statistic is that 80 percent of the calls that come in are problems that have already been answered somewhere before, often in the company. They’re spending a lot of money reinventing answers to problems that have already been solved.”

The knowledge management strategy differs from collecting just information in that the knowledge collected is actionable. Once the knowledge is collected, it can be delivered to customers when they call in or, more efficiently, provided on a web site or via other self-help tools. That easy access greatly expedites the customers’ ability to get the answers they need.

The Impact on Outsourcing

Moving from information collecting to knowledge management can have a major impact on what Oxton sees as a growing movement toward outsourcing or out-tasking support organizations. Outsourcing enables companies to take advantage of the suppliers’ skills and knowledge to answer all of the possible questions that might arise, rather than building all of that capability within their own organizations.

“This is a good thing,” said Oxton, “except it takes a long time to set up these relationships, and each one is unique.” In today’s standards-free environment for customer support, each relationship establishes the way the parties will interact, and those methods of interaction are not scalable or repeatable.

“The consortium is proposing that we move to a standards-based model for these relationships,” said Oxton, “and the standards would outline a structure for the knowledge so that information can be shared across support boundaries. That’s what the solution exchange standard is all about. It defines a format and mark-up language for support knowledge.”

The consortium also has proposed that transactions between organizations be standardized. They have defined an incident exchange standard that includes a standard format and mark-up language for documenting requests for assistance. “This incident exchange standard can become the basis for moving information or requesting assistance from partners,” said Oxton. “It becomes scalable and repeatable, so once you comply with the standard, you could interact with or† exchange with anybody else who’s compliant with the standard.”

Implementation of the standards not only would greatly improve the transactions between partners, according to Oxton, it also would reduce the time and expense needed to set up relationships.

Creating a Business Framework

Oxton said an important element of the multi-vendor support strategy is a business framework for cross-support organizations that outlines relationship models for using the exchange standards at the transaction level. The models, four of which have been defined, outline the rules of engagement, framework and vocabulary for negotiating service levels and international property rights. The framework also enables the users to conduct financial transactions, if they choose to do so.

“If these exchange standards and the multi-vendor support strategy were used as the basis for outsourcing and out-tasking relationships, there would be some great efficiencies and flexibility in the support industry in terms of partnering,” said Oxton.

He sees the implementation of such standards as the way to a better future for support organizations.

“On the technology side, they’ve created ‘plug and play’ relationships between technology,” said Oxton. “We need to do the same on the support side. That requires standards, so we have to move from a standard-free environment to a standard-rich environment. Potentially, we have to transition the support industry into a support community.”

Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer:

  • Product interoperability has created a challenging environment in which support organizations must deal with an infinite number of technology combinations.
  • Knowledge management, rather than information collection, enables the reuse of knowledge that has been captured.
  • Establishing standards for information exchange can facilitate and reduce the costs of establishing an outsourcing relationship.
  • Having standards in place also can improve the transactions between partners.

Additional information about the Customer Support Consortium can be obtained by visiting their web site.

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