Technology Analysis

Analysis of Applicability of Electronic Discussion Groups

at Applied Innovation Inc.

MBA 682 – Information Technology in a Global Environment

Andy Gruenbaum

July 7, 1998

  • Description of the Technology
  • Benefits for the Company
  • Application Area
  • Pre-Sales Support
  • Post-Sales Support
  • Cost Analysis
  • Conclusions
  • Implications
  • References
  • Exhibits

 

Description of the Technology

Although the purpose of this assessment is to review the present opportunities for electronic discussion groups within Applied Innovation (AI), it is helpful to know what has been used previously for similar purposes. Over a year ago, a mailing list, commonly referred to as a LISTSERV, was used as our engineering staff was collaborating with Cisco Systems in the development of a new product. By sending an email to one email address, all of the members of the group received the email. All follow up messages were also posted to the group which allowed all members to provide input. This collaboration involved Cisco and AI engineers working together to allow Cisco’s software to perform effectively on AI’s product. This method was limited and required a lot of maintenance by the system administrator. Regardless of the maintenance, a true benefit was observed because the mailing list was implemented.

An electronic discussion group or forum differs from a mailing list in a few ways. As shown in Exhibit A, forums use terminology not used when describing mailing list. In addition to the terminology, the following differences exists:

  • An electronic discussion group is proactive. If the user wants to participate, they must go to the correct Internet address. They will receive no mail and probably few reminders that the discussion group exists. Involvement is completely voluntary.
  • It is much easier to follow a thread within an electronic discussion group. When a forum is visited, a graphical representation appears to define how messages are related to each other. Within a mailing list, the only indication of this may be the “FW:” or the “RE:” that precedes the message in the subject field of an email.
  • Information can be sought on particular problems the user has. When participating in a mailing list, every email that is sent to the mailing list is then sent out to all subscribers. If a user checks their mail box, they may find the mailbox full of many messages of which they have no interest in. The limited interest might be because of no time or the topic is outside of the user’s area of knowledge. When the user wants to find information within a forum, a search is done on all of the existing messages within the forum. The results received provide a much narrower range of results than those received when participating in a mailing list.
  • Forums can allow for more narrowly defining group discussion. Many mailing list are defined using rather broad parameters. This causes the range of topics to be much greater than many participants may be interested in reading. The electronic discussion group allows for the maintenance of an archive of the more narrowly defined topic. Thus, when a user wishes to receive an answer, the user can post a message or search the existing archive within the more narrowly defined area.
  • The forums can be moderated or unmoderated. Although the unmoderated forum allows for a much freer flow of ideas and for less work by the owners of the electronic discussion group, it can allow the circulation of incorrect or inappropriate information.
  • An archive is created when using a forum. This is especially beneficial for someone who is very new to the technology. Likely the question they would like to ask has been asked before. By searching an archive, they are able to benefit from questions that have preceded them. If no viable solutions can be found, the option to start a thread is still available.

The software available for providing electronic discussion groups has been available for more than 2 years. Just as the rapidly evolving browsers helped develop the phrase “internet years”, many areas of internet software have also made rapid improvements. Some of the products are only forum type products. Other of the forum products are applications that run using existing server products. Although both types of software will be reviewed, special emphasis will be placed on choosing software that will most easily fit into the current internet server structure.

Just recently, the customer service department at AI has been pushing very hard to provide as much information on the internet to benefit the customer. Although the customer service department is not now prepared to take on all of the challenges of their original plan, they are continuing to work on their inner processes to allow the full plan to be implemented. The use of an electronic discussion group might allow customer service to begin the process of developing a true internet-based support center.

Additionally, because of the growing AI product lines, the issue has been raised whether there should be some method to provide pre-sales support to possible AI customers. As more companies and countries are finding a need to more effectively manage their networks, more companies are possible AI customers. If an electronic discussion group could be made available on the Internet to address the presently unforeseen needs of these future customers, AI might rapidly swell its customer base.

The focus of the remainder of this paper will be to go into detail as to how realistic the deployment of electronic discussion groups is for customer support and for pre-sales support. Specific recommendations will be made for both areas. The necessary tools will be suggested, and the financial and personnel costs will be noted.

Benefits for the Company

  • The primary benefit is an additional level of customer service and support. Instead of having to call AI, the customer can go to the internet support center and possibly receive an answer without having to talk to any AI personnel. It would reinforce the fact that they are number one at AI. A recent survey conducted by an outside group listed AI at approximately 80% customer satisfaction. Along with the other process changes within the customer service department, the customer perception of an internet-based support center might help raise the satisfaction level.
  • Due to the nature of customer service personnel, there are often times when the phones are slow. A project of this type would allow the personnel to continue to stay occupied. Not only occupied, but occupied on something that will benefit the company and customer.
  • This project would provide a collecting of all of the varied AI resources. Presently, sales engineers and other AI staff save very important information in documents on their local hard drives. A project of this type would allow answers to specific questions to be posted to the forum. If anything happened to the document the answer originally resided in, the information would still be preserved.
  • Often installation engineers are at customer locations. Allowing installation engineers to gain answers to their questions rapidly and effectively by searching the forums archives would improve their efficiency in the field.
  • A knowledge base would ultimately be developed. If a question asked by an AI employee or an AI customer only has to be asked and answered once as opposed to once every 6 months, the level of questions answered can grow in complexity. Eventually, this might lead to better anticipating and solving of user concerns.

Application Area

Because of the two areas being analyzed, post-sales and pre-sales, the concerns they share will be addressed first. The concerns that are specific will be addressed separately.

General Concerns:

    1. Although we do not know for certain how much our customers would use a forum, it is believed it may have merit. Unfortunately, due to a variety of circumstance within our customers locations, it may be difficult for them to use the forum. By implementing a firewall, many companies will not permit any of their employees to use the internet. For this project to be effective, AI would have to have assurances from its customers that its employees would be granted access to the AI forums if they indeed are implemented.
    2. If forums are implemented, access will need to be restricted. Although we want customers to get information on AI, we do not want our competition to find out about problems we have had with our products. Selective, secured access is a must for a forum to be implemented.
    3. Do to the responsibility AI would have for the information posted within the forum area, any forums would have to be moderated. This would mean no information would make it out on the internet site without the moderator of a particular forum approving it. It also would mean the information that made it on the web site would be accurate.
    4. Moderators will have to be committed to the forum. Without the buy-in of managers and all sales and customer service employees, the success of a forum project will be very limited.
    5. DataWorks is the company ERP system (Enterprise Resource Planning). As the name

implies, it looks at and manages all resources for the company (ie. finacial, sales orders, people….etc.). The tools it uses to deliver this planning are the application DataWorks and the database engine. All customer service calls are logged within DataWorks. Because of the importance of this information, a practical and secure method will need to be devised to allow this to be done effectively.

  1. As the information within the forum develops into a KnowlegeBase, the way to display this information needs to be addressed. If only certain information graduates to the KnowledgeBase, those standards need to be determined up front. Certain responses within the forum may graduate to being a part of a special FAQ section within the AI internet support center.
  2. AI has a legal responsibility to its customers. It would be responsible for information that ultimately causes damage to a customer’s equipment. If accurate information is in the forums, it would ensure AI would not in anyway be responsible for a customer destroying AI equipment. At this point, the legality of the information AI has placed on the web has not been reviewed by attorneys. Before this project moves forward, AI’s lawyers will have to provide guidance in creating statements that tell customers the information is a resource, but for truly complex problems they should call the 800 number.
  3. If spelling and grammatical errors exists within the responses that are provided to questions posted within the forums, the searching of the information will be greatly compromised. A decision will need to be made as to whether it is acceptable to allow these as responses to customer questions. Additionally, since writing a response to an issue is much different that talking someone through an issue on the phone, decisions will need to be made as to what the most effective format should be for responses.
  4. Since all postings to the forum will need to be assigned to specific people, developing a method to do this effectively is very important. At present, there is a gatekeeper for customer service, but that person is not necessarily the best person to assign responsibility for inquiries from the Internet. At present, customer service uses a “round robin” approach to assigning personnel to customer inquiries. Whatever method is chosen, it will need to be one that gets the best answer from the most qualified person within the shortest period of time. The introduction of the internet changes the paradigm normally associated with customer service responses.
  5. Clear guidelines need to be made as to what information will be collected from participants within the forums. Additionally, how the information will be used and how it will be disseminated are also important things to determine.
  6. If a forum is not used to provide security, the project will be seriously jeopardized. The creation of the extranet, which will include the necessary security, will not take place until the end of 1998 or the beginning of 1999. Many other projects have been waiting a few months already for the deployment of the extranet. Due to the priority of other projects over this project, it would likely be over a year before this project could even be realistically scheduled.

Pre-Sales Support

  1. Presently, their is no structure in place for pre-sales questions to be answered. An effective process to address these issues would be difficult until this issue is resolved.
  2. The forums offered here would likely be the same as those offered in the post-sales area. The one exception might be a forum for Network Protocols or Configuration. These questions would likely be directed through Josie Davidson, the Product Line Manager coordinator. However, until the processes are solidified, this is purely conjecture.
  3. The OSI forum would also be a nice addition. OSI is a protocol used by many of AI’s customers. This would be one of the few forums that could be unmoderated. Because of the expertise within AI, a forum should be available to all customers. This would allow much more intense discussion on the topic outside of AI’s narrow participation with the protocol. Additionally, the forum might bring visitors to the site, and then they might visit the rest of the site.

Post-Sales Support

  1. Forums offered:
    1. Applied View forum.
    2. 180/AIM forum.
    3. Access Products forum.
  2. Since the forum will be moderated, no AI secrets would be aired to the public.
  3. Just recently, AI’s customer service department has become a profit center. Previously, all AI products were priced with customer service included. Now, customers can buy additional levels of service for purchases made through AI. Depending on the level of service, a customer can buy the package that will allow for the meeting of their specific needs. The benefit to the customer is they can save money depending on what level of service is necessary within their line of business. The email/forum support might give an additional level of support as customer service grows into a larger profit center.
  4. The post-sales forums would likely be password protected. If someone wanted to be included within the post-sales forum, they would need to register and include all of their information. Once the information came into the moderator, the determination could be made regarding the persons admittance into the forum. An additional benefit is the email address is gathered. This would allow email addresses to be sent out to a customer or multiple customers if specific information were added to the support web site.
  5. Prior to Customer Service being able to incorporate the web into their support, the following concerns will need to be addressed:
    1. Turn around time
    2. Priority Levels
    3. Required response times
    4. Maintenance agreements
      1. These calls are often elevated above other calls. If the calls are not handled on the web as agreed to within the agreement, the customer is rebated.
    5. Customers often provide us files to help solve their problems. Whatever the preferred method is for receiving files, it must be determined in advance.
    6. Standards will need to be developed so when emails are submitted, the submitter has a list of minimum requirements to be included with the submission.

Cost Analysis (See Exhibit B)

  • Fifty dollars per hour was used as the average cost to AI for all personnel.
  • During recent tests, testing has been done to insure information can be passed from the DataWorks server to SQL. No additional programmer time will be necessary to achieve this part of the project.
  • Five weeks of programmer time will be necessary to make the modifications to the DataWorks database, the changes to the customer service input screen, the creation of the required Internet forms, and the overall analysis of the implications of the changes. Additionally, an automatic emailer will need to be written so that an email is automatically sent to the requester when a request is entered into the system.
  • The morning and evening gatekeeper will need to be trained in how this will work as it relates to their jobs. Both employees will need to work an additional half day, so that they can insure the gatekeeper role is covered as the other gatekeeper is trained.
  • The purchase of a Cold Fusion license and application software.
  • If 1 in 7 calls can be answered by browsing the web site, CS will have more time for other projects. The other projects would likely be focused around anticipating customer needs and addressing those needs.
  • If every call that is assigned takes an average of 2 hours to solve, this gives over 2 days of employee time back to the company for other projects per week.
  • The saved time will help balance out the additional time necessary from the V-Test and the Publication Documentation Group.
  • The value of the customer satisfaction and of the pulling together of all internal company resources would be invaluable.
  • The access to support information via the web will provide all installation engineers a resource without having to call a customer service technician. If the same ratio of 1 in 14 is used, the installers will be able to install more.

Conclusions

Although there are a variety of implications, the assessment still has value at AI. The greatest problem with setting up the forum is security and liability regarding the information that is made available. To get around these problems, I am proposing a solution that does not include any type of forum technology. Although it does ultimately provide an additional avenue for customers to get information, it is only a shadow of what I hoped might have been possible. Because of concerns with the network’s security, the forums that could have emerged would have been greatly compromised.

At this time, it is recommended that, at best, a FAQ for customer support be scheduled for implementation. A variety of issues limit the proposed deployment of the pre-sales forum as well. Until the processes are in place within all of AI, the gain from such a project would have limited success at AI. What follow are the steps necessary to address all known concerns.

  1. A visitor to the AI website wishes to submit a question.
  2. Depending on if they are a customer or interested in being a customer they have access to a different form.
  3. The customer form is secured by name and a password. This is assigned to them after they fill out a customer form and all the information is verified. Once this is done, they are granted access. With large accounts, there will be a name and password assigned to a group so that information will not need to be verified.
  4. Within each of the forms, information will be asked for to give the AI staff member the type of information necessary to answer the desired pre-sales or post-sales questions.
  5. Once the “Submit” button is pressed, the email will go to the appropriate email address. The emails will be set up so that a program will parse (Parsing is a term to describe the use of software to search a document for particular key pieces of information. Once the information is found, the information can be used by the program.) the email file and place the information within the desired fields of the DataWorks database. The program will automatically assign a call number and the call number will be emailed to the customer.
  6. After the call number is automatically assigned, the Gatekeeper will be prompted to assign the call to a customer service technician who will be responsible for resolving it. (See Exhibit C for present Customer Service Escalation Procedure.)
  7. Within CS, the case will be handled like any other case. The description field will now need to include more detailed information so that it can be verified by V-Test.
  8. Once a solution is arrived at, the status of the case will be set to “Awaiting Verification”.
  9. Once V-Test can verify the solution and publications approves the description of the solution, the case can become “closed”.
  10. On midnight of the weeknight when the case becomes “closed”, the DataWorks server will ship all newly closed call to the SQL server.
  11. The case will then become an FAQ or maybe an IFAQ (Infrequently Asked Question). If a Internet visitor has login privileges, all closed calls will be searchable from the Internet.

Because of many of the concerns mentioned, the form has been reduced to a recommendation for a FAQ. This base of knowledge would be the cornerstone for all further customer support projects on the Internet.

 

Implications

  • Until the MS SQL server is deployed, none of this will be able to occur.
  • Because the extranet is not yet implemented, the security will not be in place for quite a few months.
  • By the time all of the parts of the existing plan are in place, better options might be available for the implementing of a customer service FAQ.
  • Due to the recent loss of an application developer and the developer who was in charge of the SQL server deployment project, staffing will need to be increased for this project to schedule within the near future.
  • To verify a person is a customer so that they can be granted login privileges, the information to verify this will need to be accessible. This information is scattered and might be difficult to pull into one resource. It, however, is necessary to distinguish between customers and non-customers.
  • After this application is in place, all new manuals sent out to customers must include a login and password for the secured web site.
  • As information is sent by users from the Internet, the security issues will need to be addressed so that the information provided will not need to be retyped into DataWorks.
  • The present customer service system needs to have a status added prior to “closed”. The suggested field is “Awaiting Verification”. Once this field is added, information can be sent from DataWorks to the SQL server when a call becomes closed.
  • If none of the calls ever graduate from “Awaiting Verification” to “Closed”, nothing will ever go to the Internet. If, however, something is to difficult to verify, it will never be “Closed” and will thus never make it out to the FAQ on the Internet
  • An additional field will need to be added to the customer service screens within DataWorks. This field will be to allow customer service people to include much more complete descriptions than what they are presently doing.
  • Since the descriptions provided are another form of documentation, they will likely need to be reviewed by the tech writer responsible for the product which prompted the customer inquiry.
  • Since these descriptions will need to be Verified, all of these verifications will need to go through the V-test lab. This may involve hiring new individuals within that department to verify the descriptions provided by CS are accurate.
  • Because of the need to have a traceable path for assigned inquiries, the pre-sales FAQ should not be implemented yet. As they improve upon these processes, the pre-sales FAQ would have a greater opportunity for a successful introduction.
  • Recently, modification were made to the licensing with Microsoft. The licenses were modified so that SQL and Exchange licenses were all wrapped into a better price. Thus, this issue has already been resolved.
  • The gatekeeper for Customer Service will need to have the job description modified to include responsibility for incoming email as well as the incoming phone calls.
  • When the Sales processes are completed, the person who actually becomes the gatekeeper for the pre-sales area will also need to have their job description modified.
  • The steps that customer service technicians go through will have to change slightly. The changes will be to provide better descriptions as to how the customer solved the problems. Once this is documented and verified, it will become available to the logged-in customers.
  • At present, the Access Products group of AI has their own informational web site. It has also been suggested that this part of the organization will eventually become a separate company. Before time is invested to develop a support site for these products, this issue will need to be answered.
  • The AI attorneys will have to create a legal statement to be posted on the web site.
  • Before the service is released, it should be tested with one of our customers. Since AI has a very good relationship with Ameritech, I would suggest they be used as the test bed for the project.

 

References:

  • Class presentation led by Tom Welch from Symix Corporation on June 23, 1998
  • www.forumone.com
  • www.allaire.com
  • Interview with Greg Solt, Sales Engineer, on June 4, 1998
  • Interview with Jim Thornburg, Senior Technical Support Representative, on June 4, 1998 and June 17, 1998
  • Interview with Josie Davidson, PLM Coordinator, on June 17, 1998
  • Interview with Steve Leonhardt, Senior Analyst, on June 23, 1998

 

Exhibits

Exhibit A

Component

Description

ConferencesDefined by administrators, conferences relate to a broad topic,community, or business area.ForumsDefined by administrators, forums focus on individual topic areas such as a particular product or service.ThreadsCreated by end users to narrow discussion to aparticular topic in a forum such as a product feature, problem, or comment.MessagesEnd users post messages in reply to existing messages, to create new threads, or to add new messages to an existing thread.

Exhibit B

Set up Expenses
Training

Gatekeepers (8 hours)

$400.00

Customer Service Personnel (1 hour X 30 techs)

$1,500.00

Trainers from IS (4 days including preparation)

$1,600.00

Deployment of Forums (4 hours of time)

$200.00

Application Development Time (6 weeks of time)

$12,000.00

Purchase of new server for support.aiinet.com w/i 1 year

$10,000.00

Cold Fusion License (yearly)

$999.00

Allaire Forums License

$299.00

Total

$26,998.00

Ongoing Expenses/Benefits
Weekly Savings in Customer Service (8 x 2 x 52 x 50)

$41,600.00

Ongoing Application Maintenance Expenses (4 hours/week)

-$10,400.00

V-Test Testing and Closing Customer Service Calls (2 days/wk)

-$41,600.00

Publications Reviewing Notes From Customer Service Calls (1 days/wk)

-$20,800.00

Followup Meetings with Customer Service Personnel (4 hrs/tech/year)

-$6,000.00

Followup Meetings with Gatekeepers (4 hours/gatekeeper/year)

-$20,800.00

Providing support for Installation Engineers (12 installers/2 calls/52 wks)

$62,400.00

Customer Good Will Priceless
Gathering of Individual Employee Knowledge Nearly Priceless

Total Tangible Gain (Not including priceless issues)

$4,400.00

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