Techniques: Killer Tools

A sword of Damocles hangs over Nicholas Zaldastani, president and CEO of Internet-software provider Open Horizon. All it will take to sever the cord is some lousy customer service.

That's because of a unique contractual agreement Open Horizon has with its clients, a number of which are oil-service companies with offshore operations that require continuous oversight. Rather than pay for expensive satellite links, those oil companies have opted to save millions of dollars annually by relying on Ambrosia, Open Horizon's Internet-based event-management software. Ambrosia is the heart of a system that tracks conditions at the offshore oil rigs, automatically signaling dramatic changes in such critical operating conditions as oil pressure or prevailing temperature. If Open Horizon's software breaks down or interrupts a customer's operations, the company is contractually bound to get things working well within a matter of hours or pay thousands of dollars in penalties.

Zaldastani asserts that Open Horizon's protection against such calamities is the quality of its product. Still, he knows better than to tempt fate. That's why, in 1994, a year after the company commenced operations, he invested more than $50,000 in SupportTeam database software, from Scopus Technology. SupportTeam--like ClearSupport, Action Request System, and Vantive Support--is a customer-interaction system (CIS), a relatively new type of software that helps companies address their customers' concerns quickly, effectively, and efficiently. SupportTeam coordinates and connects customer support, product development, sales management, and quality-assurance functions, permitting Open Horizon to diagnose problems and recommend solutions even when another vendor's software is to blame for performance glitches.

That's just what happened one recent Friday afternoon. The countdown began when one of Open Horizon's customer-service reps fielded an angry phone call from a customer in Korea, who reported that his company's computer system had been crashing repeatedly. Open Horizon had until Monday evening to come up with a fix. The weekend technical experts struggled to discover the root of the problem, but by Monday morning they were still testing possible causes. Their efforts had not, however, been in vain. Because SupportTeam had kept track of their work, the weekday technical crew could easily pick up the process of testing and eliminating causes when they took over on Monday morning. Within a matter of hours they'd found that the problem had been caused by another manufacturer's software, a package that had created problems earlier for another client. Quickly they dipped into the SupportTeam database, where the solution had been stored the first time around. SupportTeam then prompted the rep to refer his Korea-based client to the manufacturer's Web site, where he could download a corrective patch.

More often than not, customer-service operations amount to little more than a room full of phones manned by teams of haphazardly trained tyros. The inadequate tools of their trade are the names and phone numbers that co-workers scribble on scraps of paper and tack to cluttered bulletin boards. With no mechanism to facilitate communication, most customer-service employees have no idea whether the questions they hear are familiar tales of woe or brand-new stories.

CIS software, on the other hand, makes it much easier to reap the benefits of customer dissatisfaction. It is built on the premise that questions to customer-assistance lines are thinly disguised demands for improvements to design or documentation and that call histories are sources of sales leads for training programs and maintenance agreements. CIS software prompts service reps who answer calls to log complete contact information and to categorize and describe each problem on an electronic form. The system then notifies every affected department. If a customer reports a product flaw, for example, the CIS generates a "bug" report that pops up on screens in the design department. Later, the system records the solution and who developed it, and alerts the rep and the customer by E-mail, fax, pager, or phone. Because the database stores contact details about all company customers, the system can also E-mail, fax, or phone any other customers who might benefit from the latest product alert.

Rather than evaporating into the ether, problems and solutions reside in an interactive database that stays current with the company's daily transactions. CIS databases are searchable by product name, keyword, and other identifying characteristics. Reps can easily retrieve complete customer records, and customers, in turn, can enjoy consistent product service and support.

Companies can even customize their CIS software to respond to an individual customer's requirements. For example, a company might specify that reps must resolve all calls from its best customer within eight hours. The CIS database, reflecting that policy, would track its employees' performance and reliability. If resolution of such a problem exceeds the prescribed time parameter, the CIS will automatically notify designated managers.

For Charter Communications, an Atlanta concern that provides dedicated phone lines to companies doing business in Panama, Honduras, and Venezuela, a CIS proves an effective way to shield its customers from the effects of rapid growth through acquisition. When the $9-million company acquired other organizations with incompatible computer systems, business got messy. "Customers bought service and never got it; customers that had been on for six months never got billed. We were searching for records on paper, and all too often we couldn't find what we needed," CEO David Olson recalls.

To establish a semblance of order, Charter paid more than $50,000 to license 38 copies of Action Request System, a CIS package from Remedy Corp. "The system makes sure that salespeople fill out every part of an electronic form before they can close," Olson explains. "That information is channeled to the appropriate departments immediately: billing information goes to accounting, the password goes to engineering, installation details go to operations, and so on."

The system also ensures that customers get made-to-order assistance. When a customer calls for help, a Charter rep enters the customer's name and--presto--the system brings up his or her complete record. If the person has, say, called three times about similar problems, the rep makes sure that he or she gets high-level technical support. Similarly, if a dozen people call with the same complaint, the system alerts the Charter staff in time to do something about potentially serious defects. "Say the phone circuit in one of our regions goes down," says Olson, "and our customers are unable to use our local number for Internet access. Still, because our equipment continues to function perfectly, that local failure would trigger no alarms. At the same time, however, our help desk logs six or seven calls from customers who can't get on-line. Our CIS system recognizes the pattern and alerts us. We then deduce that the phone circuit is out and take steps to deal with one large problem, not six individual ones."

CIS vendors plan to have their products go even further. They are currently integrating their systems with both intranets and the Internet, so companies can provide on-line self-service by giving customers access to company databases. Such a service doubles as an effective mechanism for tracking customer concerns. And, as Ori Sasson, chairman, president, and CEO of Scopus, says, "A customer with a problem is your opportunity to provide a better product or service."

Srikumar S. Rao is chairman of the marketing department at the C.W. Post campus of New York's Long Island University.


These are some of the most popular CIS packages on the market:

  • Action Request System
    $9,500 per three concurrent users
    Remedy Corp.
    Mountain View, CA
  • ClearSupport
    $3,750 per concurrent user
    Clarify Inc.
    San Jose, CA
  • SupportTeam
    $2,975 per concurrent user
    Scopus Technology
    Emeryville, CA
  • Vantive Support
    $2,500 per concurrent user
    The Vantive Corp.
    Santa Clara, CA