REDMOND, Wash., May 24, 1999 — The first time Clay Sales tried Microsoft Online Support, it was trial by fire. A business manager for Redmond Technology Partners in Redmond, Wash., Sales had been pitching a product implementation to a customer when someone posed a business question that no one at his IT consulting firm could answer. He had until the next morning to deliver.
“It was a real show-stopper,” said Sales. “If we didn’t provide a solution in short order, the deal would fall through.”
Sales had heard about a newsgroup service on the Microsoft Direct Access Web site, a support site tailored to the needs of consultants and resellers. With few alternatives and not much time, he posted the question on the site and hoped for the best. Within two-and-a-half hours, one of the Microsoft support engineers hosting the newsgroup came through with an answer.
“I was able to go back to the customer, not the next morning but that same afternoon, and answer their question,” Sales said. “The fact that I could deliver that fast and that reliably impressed them, and we got the contract.”
Sales is just one of many people who are looking to online support to boost the efficiency and lower the cost of technical support. Three in every four Microsoft’s customers, for example, want to be able to help themselves first with technical support issues, according to the company’s research. Denise Rundle, director of Online Support at Microsoft, expects this trend to continue.
“For the past two-and-a-half years, our call volumes have remained constant-about 19,000 calls a day-even as we’ve experienced substantial growth in product sales. The Internet takes up all that additional demand,” said Rundle.
Microsoft Product Support Services recently redesigned its Online Support offerings into separate Web sites segmented by customer type. This lets customers rely on a support site tailored to their unique market segment for fast, easy and accurate problem resolution. Since January of this year, more than 250,000 users are visiting one of Microsoft’s Online Support sites each day, and according to Microsoft customer feedback, 90 percent of them say they will return to Online Support to get their questions answered.
NetWorks Inc., a value-added reseller in Minneapolis that provides one-stop IT solutions for small and mid-sized businesses, currently uses Microsoft Online Support to get answers to more than 60 percent of the questions the reseller can’t answer alone. As a result, the company has seen its support costs plummet, and its customers are happy because they get better solutions more quickly, according to Paul Evans, NetWorks’ president.
Another customer, Ramon Ray, who is a small-business technology consultant in New York, said he views Microsoft Online Support as his first line of defense against the questions he can’t initially answer for his customers. Ray’s clients, which include art dealers, travel agents, and print shops, typically have fewer than 50 users and don’t employ in-house support staff.
“I turn to Online Support first, all the time, and it works,” said Ray. “So my customers think I’m a genius. They don’t care how I get answers to their problems, and I don’t tell them. I just say, ‘give me an hour or two,’ and then I come back with the solution. It makes me look great.”
Online Vision Echoes Customer-centric View
The redesign of Online Support reflects Microsoft’s recent company-wide reorganization, which realigned internal divisions by customer segment, rather than along product lines. The point is to put the customer at the center of everything Microsoft does. Product Support Services, in turn, has tailored its entire family of support offerings to meet the needs of different customer types. The group is focused on simplifying and enhancing the support experience, using leading-edge technologies such as the Internet.
“Microsoft Online Support is committed to providing a family of customer-segmented online support sites that deliver the best self-help resources and assisted-help services in the industry,” said Rundle. “By investing in our people, Internet technologies, consistent execution of our support processes, and tighter product integration, we aim to satisfy Microsoft customers 100 percent.”
People who use Microsoft products comprise three major sets of customers. These include enterprise-level IT professionals; those in the professional community such as resellers, consultants and developers; and consumers and small businesses. To address their diverse support needs, Product Support Services late last year launched six separate online support sites, which are available at no cost, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Professional-level support sites include Direct Access for consultants and resellers, MSDN for developers, TechNet for enterprise professionals, and MCSP Online for Microsoft Certified Solution Providers. Each support site provides tools and services customized for its particular audience. Direct Access, for example, includes deployment guides and the NetWare Migration Center. The MSDN site, on the other hand, features tools that help developers in code sampling and debugging. By gathering sample code, patches and tools on the MSDN site, developers can more easily find the support that is most relevant to them, and other professionals don’t have to spend time wading through information that is not relevant to their needs.
All of the professional sites provide access to the 150,000-article Knowledge Base-one of the most extensive in the industry-as well as troubleshooting wizards, downloads and drivers. Each site also provides a tailored version of popular topics, critical problem alerts via e-mail, and newsgroups and chats.
Of all features on the support sites, the newsgroups, which provide access to peer-based discussions, are gaining the most attention from users. Support Online hosts both public and private newsgroups. The public newsgroups are forums for customers to help each other with Microsoft products, and Microsoft recruits experts in the community to help facilitate them. Private newsgroups are staffed by Microsoft support professionals. Microsoft also offers private newsgroups for resellers and consultants on the Direct Access site. This relatively new service has been a big hit with users.
“Online support is a good idea, but a lot of vendors just stock their sites with databases,” said Ray. “You need some form of live support on these sites, and Microsoft-moderated newsgroups is the answer.”
Ray says he often uses the Knowledge Base first to do a little research when he has a question. And then he turns to the newsgroups.
“They work,” he said. “When I post questions, I get answers within a few hours almost all the time.”
Personal Online Hones Consumer-Relevant Support
To meet the needs of consumers and small-business users, Microsoft tailored the Personal Online site to emphasize the products consumers are most likely to use and the questions they are most likely to ask. It contains a lot of information about personal productivity applications, for instance, but not so much about BackOffice server suites.
Customers have the option of using two different versions of the site. They can use the default version, which provides extensive branching of options and information designed to make it easy for consumers with very little technical background to find the information they need. Or they can use the advanced version, which is designed to provide streamlined choices that deliver information more quickly to users with more technical experience.
The search engine that delivers Knowledge Base articles to consumers has also been customized to more easily pinpoint the articles that deliver the most appropriate information. For example, while an IT professional might know to search for “print spooler” to research a printing problem, a consumer may not know to use this term. Microsoft uses industry-standard extensible markup language (XML) to re-tag Knowledge Base articles so that they will be more useful for consumers.
The XML tags also allow Microsoft to tag specific sections of articles for consumers-say, on symptoms, causes and resolutions-so that the search engines work more quickly to direct users to the most relevant information.
Rundle said Microsoft continually refines Personal Online Support based on customer feedback. Surveys at the end of Knowledge Base articles, and pop-up Survey Wizards that question consumers after they’ve visited Personal Online, channel feedback to Product Support Services.
A Focus on Faster and Easier-to-Use Proactive Support
In the coming year, Product Support Services plans to focus intensely on increasing customer satisfaction by making a number of improvements to Online Support.
Most of the activity will center around refining content on the sites to deliver the kind of information that helps users proactively avoid problems. By making available additional training materials, Critical Problem Alerts, migration and deployment guides, Microsoft Press books, and real-time, on-demand technical presentations-called Support WebCasts-Microsoft hopes to provide the resources customers need to combat potential problems before they start.
Product Support Services also plans to focus on building a truly global, integrated online support experience, in which customers can interact in their chosen language. Part of this plan includes integrating the Online Support sites more closely with other Microsoft sites, such as Windows update sites, so that customers can actually get updates to a new Windows version, have their systems scanned to troubleshoot performance issues, or have the system do those things automatically.
While avoiding problems is something to which almost every technology user aspires, people like Clay Sales are more than happy just to have effective problem-resolution resources at their fingertips. For Sales, the biggest advantage of using Microsoft Online Support is that it saves him time and saves his customers money.
“I can get to Support Online from anywhere,” said Sales. “So instead of hanging out on the phone for several hours while someone finds an answer to my question, I can post my query and go off and do something else. My customers don’t have to pay me to sit on the phone, and I get more accomplished in the few hours that it takes to get answers to my questions.”