What's Your Problem?

Article excerpt

Customer support lies at the crux of the online industry's problems these days. All the advisers in the art of management harp unendingly tht companies and industries must build their products, services, and futures around what the customer wants. At the same time, computer shoppers complain that technical support from hardware and software firms has nearly vanished at a time when platforms have become more complex. At least free technical support has, though the 900 number has arrived.

The database industry faces even more challenges as its traditional professional searcher market presses for continued expert service, while the growing end-user market demands expensive, time-consuming coaching. What to do? What to do first? What to do for how much?

Lessons from WordPerfect

A customer support desk's best question is an unasked question. This rule also applies to support call prevention programs, AKA training and documentation. In the real world of customers' learning to search, customer support often serves as a "format" or "media" choice. Just as some audience members prefer visual presentations and others verbal--right brain, left brain sort of thing--some novice searchers prefer personal coaching over class-plus-textbook. Gender gap considerations may operate in this area. As so many T-shirts proclaim these days, real men don't ask for directions, but women may feel more comfortable in talking through the learning process. Many professional searchers still come from the female-dominated profession of librarianship.

Bottom line, search services and CD-ROM database producers should factor in the costs of customer support, training, and documentation when they evaluate how many resources to allot to search engines and interface design. If you design it right in the first place, customers may not need to call you to figure out how it works. If you design it really well, you may not even need training sessions. If you design it perfectly, you might not even need documentation.

Do I have any research to prove this? No, unfortunately. I suspect gathering the data might prove a complicated statistical research assignment. Customer support expenses in firms with "perfect" products would probably show exponential growth because of product perfection. The rapid growth in users by itself would increase the demand for customer support. You would have to find some way to factor out the exponential growth. Not a problem with the traditional database industry.

Nevertheless, the premise seems logical. Look at your favorite word processing software package. Isn't it a lot more complicated than database searching? Aren't there a lot more variable functions available to the user? For example, does any WordPerfect user know the meaning of every term or command in the software without ever looking any of them up--redlining, font size, tables of authorities, concordances, etc.? Yet, though I use the WordPerfect software daily, I can count on my fingers the number of times I've called Orem, Utah--WordPerfect's home base. I can count on fingers and toes the number of times I've cracked their printed documentation beyond the first self taught session and installing upgrades. And no one ever gave me a training class.

The Oftener, the Easier

How do WordPerfect and other software developers get away with it? First, they identify what customers want to do most of the time and how they want to do it--the old 80/20 rule (people use 20 percent of a program's functions 80 percent of the time). Good software developers make high-use functions as simple and automatic and inevitable as possible.

Translating such an approach to today's database services, would mean looking at key functions customers use all the time. For example, database selection. Obviously everyone who searches has to choose one or more databases every time they search. Good design would make the process as effortless as possible. …