How Technical Support Works on
Almost any company that sells goods and services to consumers-and
to a certain extent, that sells to businesses-spends a substantial
amount of time, money, and corporate resources providing technical
support. It need not be a computer or software company. Even people
who buy washing machines or CD players or lamps run into problems
with the products and need help.
Providing excellent technical support, especially for companies
that need to reach a large number of people, can be an exceedingly
expensive proposition. Typically, technical support is provided
via the telephone, sometimes using toll-free 800 phone numbers.
The cost of hiring and staffing support lines, as well as paying
for telecommunications costs, can be staggeringly high.
An intranet can help cut those costs. Instead of having to staff
many expensive support lines, a company can instead create a public
Web site that people can visit. This Web site can contain an enormous
amount of technical support information-everything from answers
to common problems, to downloadable software to fix problems with
hardware, to links to access user-to-user forums where people
can exchange answers they've found to common problems.
In the next illustration, we'll return to our imaginary company,
CyberMusic, and see how they use their intranet to help provide
technical support to their customers.
When companies provide technical support using Internet and intranet
technology, much of what they do is posted outside the corporate
firewall, on the Internet. A variety of material can be posted.
For example, FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) can be posted-answers
to the most common technical problems. A database of problems
and their answers can be searched directly from the Web, using
the Common Gateway Interface. Public discussion areas can be set
up, where people post their problems, and technical support personnel
can answer. And other customers can answer the questions as well.
If the product is related to hardware or software, patches to
the software can be posted that can be downloaded to solve technical
problems. Another bonus in using Web sites to provide technical
support is that the company can get people to fill in their names,
addresses, and other information-a way of gathering customer names.
While much of what is posted is outside the corporate firewall
on the Internet, what goes on inside the firewall on the intranet
is still used in a variety of ways to help provide technical support.
The databases that are posted on the Internet, for example, are
first created on the intranet, and then exported to the Internet.
E-mail sent to the technical support department must pass through
the corporate firewall from the Internet. And when someone registers
to receive technical support, the information from the person
is sent in a secure fashion back through the firewall into the
Intranet. There, it will be put into a corporate customer database,
so that the company can, for example, send out direct mail to
all its customers.
For companies that sell goods and services to the consumer market,
providing technical support can be an expensive, time-consuming
chore. Using a combination of a company's intranet and the Internet,
technical support costs can be cut dramatically, and better technical
support can be delivered. This illustration shows how our imaginary
company CyberMusic uses them to provide technical support. CyberMusic
manufactures CD players as well as publishes and sells records,
so this page shows how they provide technical support for both
lines of products.
- CyberMusic creates a public Web site for technical support
that anyone can access over the Internet. They publicize the site
in their product literature, in their advertising, and even when
people call into their technical support lines, a recorded message
suggests that people access the Web site to get immediate technical
support. The Web site is located on a bastion host outside the
CyberMusic intranet, and is separated from it by a filtering router. The bastion host and the filtering routers are part of the firewall
that protects CyberMusic's intranet from the Internet.
- CyberMusic has found through the years that only 10 or 12
common problems cause 80 percent of the calls to their technical
support phone lines-and these are problems that can be solved
quite simply. (For example, a surprising number of people simply
forget to plug in the power cord of their CD player.) So CyberMusic
posts the problems and answers to them in FAQs on their Web site.
This cuts down tremendously on calls to their technical support
- Not all problems can be solved by reading the FAQs. So CyberMusic
uses several other techniques for providing technical support.
The company creates a database of common problems and solutions
that can be searched via the Web using the Common Gateway Interface. A CGI program takes the user's question, formulates it as a query
for the database, submits it, and returns the result of the query
in an HTML formatted page.
- Sometimes the best technical support is provided by people,
not FAQs and databases. So CyberMusic has created a number of
discussion areas where people can ask questions about their problems,
and where CyberMusic technical support professionals can answer
the questions. In yet other technical support areas, customers
can answer each other's questions. These areas are set up as USENET
newsgroups, accessible via browsers such as Netscape Navigator
and Microsoft's Explorer.
- The company also provides a "mailto" link on the
technical support page that when clicked on launches an e-mail
program in the customer's browser, with the e-mail address of
the technical support staff already filled in. The person can
now type in a question, and the e-mail will be sent through the
Internet, through the CyberMusic firewall, and then to the technical
support department. Once there, a technical support manager uses
groupware to route the request to the proper person, and uses
the tracking features of groupware to see that the question is
- CyberMusic CD's contain more than just musical information
on them-they can also be read by a computer and contain interviews
and interactive articles about the musicians and other information.
CyberMusic has found, however, that some computers have trouble
reading the CD's. To solve the problem, they make available special
drivers and patches for those computers. The drivers and patches
can be downloaded directly from the Web site on the bastion host.
This saves CyberMusic a great deal of money in processing, handling,
and mailing costs.
- CyberMusic, like many companies that sell products to consumers,
tries to maintain as comprehensive a list as possible of people
who have purchased their products. Most people, however, don't
send in reply forms, and so the number of customer names and addresses
they have is quite small. CyberMusic uses its Web site to get
many more names. One way to get names is to have people type in
their name, address, and other information before they can get
to a certain area of the Web site-for example, to the discussions
or to download patches. Another way is to sponsor contests on
the site, such as giving away CD players and records. When a name
and address are typed into a Web form, the data is sent through
CyberMusic's firewall to its intranet. It's then put in a customer
database, where CyberMusic can use it for customer mailings.