Service 911 Makes Nothing an Emergency | Article

Fire ExtingisherToday, personal computers, Web-enabled cell phones and personal digital assistants are an integral part of doing business in a connected world. If there’s a problem, users need some 411 before the problem requires 911.

Larry Schwartz knows all about computer-generated frustration.

The story begins when Schwartz, while working in sales for a medical company, noticed that many business people were clueless about fitness. He wrote a book proposal and received an advance from a publisher. He settled into his study to write his best seller. And then he had computer problems.

He made phone calls. No one could help him. He grew increasingly frustrated as his book deadline neared. Then another light bulb went on. Schwartz decided to form a company to help frustrated computer users like himself who thought getting a byte meant going out to eat. He formed Fix My PC in 1996 in Dallas, Texas. “We were the Domino’s for computer services,” he explains.

The company built a big following in Dallas, with a fleet of technicians on the ready. However, Fix My PC kept getting importunate pleas for help thousands of miles away. So, in March 1999 Schwartz decided to erase the human element and provide support over the Web, changing the name to Service911 that September.

The Web site allows users to have question and answer sessions through email. They can also download drivers, tools and knowledge bases of technical information. Added offerings include video content and live chat. For example, Palm Pilot users can scour the site for new upgrades.

Becoming an ASP to Provide E-Support

Consumers, however, were unwilling to pay for these services. But corporations were glad to do so. Excel Communications approached Schwartz, who is CEO of Service911, to provide support for its multi-level marketing representatives. “They were getting bombarded with help desk calls,” he recalls. Then, as Christmas approached, called for help, too.

And so a new ASP was born. Today Service911 provides “an e-support infrastructure solution.” Outsourcing e-support is cost effective for buyers. Schwartz says every time a company has a live person answer a call, it costs the company $33 “and that’s only if you solve the problem in a short period of time.”

Companies are also looking at customer support as a way to differentiate themselves from their competition, Schwartz adds. On the Web, that can be a crucial differentiator. Service911 services Fortune 100 and digital 500 companies like Visa, Lycos and Mary Kay. The ASP currently has 30 clients.

It is also a choice for companies in hyper growth mode. Vignette Corporation’s head count is growing 100 percent a quarter, reports Schwartz. It hired Service911 to provide technical support for its burgeoning employee roster since its outsourcing solution “is 100 percent scalable.”

The ASP’s support function helps Web-based businesses in two ways. It keeps user frustration levels low by providing instant support. In addition, support “provides a vehicle for people to stay longer,” the much sought after Internet stickiness.

The service is tailored for companies introducing new products. Digital Convergence, another Dallas company, launched a product that uses new technology. It features a “cat” that scans UPC codes in print publications and on TV to takes a user to a Web site. Looking over its call records, Service911 noticed a huge blip in questions about how to install the &*%$# thing.

Monthly Stats Point Out Trends

It reported its findings to the executives at Digital Convergence, who then added diagrams on how to install the cat to their Web site to address these specific problems. Customer support usage then dropped dramatically. “We provide case histories to make organizations smarter. We look to increase efficiencies,” says Schwartz.

Every month Service911 sends its customers an executive summary of their activity levels. The report highlights emerging trends and points out potential trouble spots.

New ASP buyers simply have to set up a link to Service911’s system; deployment usually takes two to three weeks. “All they need is a check,” says Schwartz.

The interface is seamless so customers are unaware they are on Service911’s site unless they check the URL in the locator box. Service911 mirrors its customers sites so visitors believe they’re still there.

A patent is pending on its Webskin technology, which is its service delivery platform. Webskins also allow buyers to integrate Service911 user information into their customer relationship management (CRM) software. “No people to hire, no hardware to install, no custom programming, and no additional software to purchase. Just customized tech support without the hassle,” says Schwartz.

Buyers establish their own service level agreements (SLA) at the time they sign their contracts, which generally span one year. Almost every SLA encompasses uptime (99.9 percent.) So far, Schwartz says the company has not missed that metric. Buyers also “don’t want the same customer coming back three days later with the same question,” continues the CEO. “So they’ll set up an SLA around that.”

Dealing with Buyer Expectations Before Signing a Contract

The ASP assigns an account manager to each buyer. To nurture the relationship, the account managers review the status reports with the buyers and make recommendations.

If there’s a dispute, Schwartz employs one word: “Communicate.” The company has tried to cut off misunderstandings at the pass by reviewing every aspect of the contract with the customer at the outset. “Customers have expectations. We cross every “t” to make sure we meet their expectations,” explains the CEO.

The ASP must be doing a good job of communicating since Schwartz says it is enjoying a 100 percent contract renewal rate.

Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer:

  • ASPs are a good options for companies in hyper growth mode because their solutions are scalable.
  • Customer support can be an important corporate differentiator.
  • Outsourcing customer help is cost-effective because each call answered by a live person costs $33 or more.
  • Reviewing all the clauses in an outsourcing contract before consummating the contract helps clear up confusions and expectations.

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