Customer support simplified: Get someone else to solve your problem

Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

For longer than I can remember, the software development world has been flirting with the ideal of self-service customer support — forums where bug-plagued or perplexed users can resolve their problems quickly by talking to each other without minute-upon-minute of human-to-human telephone interaction.

Microsoft is monitoring and using this sort of information as the basis for its "Fix-It" buttons, which are automated scripts for solving some of the most commonly experienced issues that users face. The Fix-It program kicked off in December 2008 and now there are about 210 different scenarios that they address. New ones are added based on what the company's customer support listening system tells them is an area of greatest need AND whether or not the solution is something that can actually be automated without manual intervention. As I write this, 23 different languages are supported.

Lori Brownell, Microsoft's general manager of product quality and online (and formerly a manager over in Microsoft's operating systems product group), says it's her mission to stay abreast of "what people are having trouble finding information about and getting the answers to."

Another effective technique for keeping customers happy has been the Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) program. This, in effect, offers the way for the company to expand its technical support resources without actually having to hire anyone. "These folks are very savvy about the products, they are not employees of Microsoft. ... They help people with technology because they love it."

The net effect of these policies has been to boost the company's online resolution rates by more than 12 percent over the past several months. And it transforms support from a costly one-to-one interaction to a one-to-many dialogue. Brownell figures that every answer placed in the Microsoft Partner Network TechNet forums is seen by up to 1,000 people.

Increasingly, the smartest businesses will turn to communities of customers and partners to improve the support experience -- and to glean valuable development insight along the way. Chordiant, which makes customer experience software, dramatically reduced the time it takes to get products to market by using so-called social business software from Jive to help developers across divisions, companies and time zones collaborate. Disclosure: The reason I know about this example is because I helped Jive create its Social Business Manifesto earlier this year.

In my opinion, the potential of this sort of software makes Customer Relationship Management applications pale by comparison. Today's customer has less tolerance than ever for anything less than instant gratification with a minimum of gear-grinding.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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