Calling For Help

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When an accountant contacts his software vendor with a support question, it usually isn't resolvable with a simple cut-and-paste response. So instead of relying on a service representative for help when he encounters out-of-the ordinary tax situations, Marshall Sacks contacts the people he knows can help him-other Lacerte users.

Especially in the heart of tax season, he knows there will be a wait if he calls a toll-free number. But if he posts a message to his Lacerte Users Group, "day or night, someone will be watching, and I get an answer," says Sacks, a sole practitioner. "You get people who have dealt with the same thing you're going through."

One common difficulty is trying to simultaneously process forms from several different states that have different electronic filing rules. Talking to someone in that state resolves issues faster.

Partner Insights

"With technology, a tax practitioner is no longer confined to the geographic area he or she serves," says Sacks, who operates Marshall Sacks CPA, in Harrisburg, Pa. "If I have to do a tax return in Colorado, I might not know how to handle that. I can put it on the list."

Although Lacerte usually helps him resolve his technical problems, he prefers getting feedback from multiple sources and choosing the best advice to follow. "You're not just limited to the person who happens to take your call," he says. "There's not only one answer to a problem. There are multiple ways to get where you want to be."

That's why it is important for those companies to staff their phone lines with knowledgeable people and break away from the trend of driving customers to email and self-support when the customers do choose to seek their assistance.

"Accounting applications are two times more complex than CRM applications and four times more complex than a simple operating system," notes James Dantow, vice president of worldwide support for NetSuite.

 
As financial applications get more robust, being able to talk to the customer nearly doubles case resolution and increases customer satisfaction, says Dantow, who continues that getting users to phone in can result in the resolution of 76 to 80 percent of incidents in 20 to 30 minutes on average.

Eighteen months ago, NetSuite thought customers wanted email as their primary support method. Today, the company handles more than double the amount of phone call inquiries than email.

This approach actually cuts average time to handle problems by about 50 percent, because it eliminates the back-and-forth exchanges and follow-up questions that occur with email-based support.

"We're working with larger organizations and they're expecting more corporate-like service levels," Dantow says. "It's a high-touch, high-value approach that's allowing us to have much better productivity and much better customer satisfaction."

NetSuite will have more than 100 reps by the end of the year and 24-7 phone support for the first time. "Our objective would be to help our customers as much as we can over the telephone," Dantow says.

Going Online

But the reality is that use of online support is increasing every year in a variety of forms -email inquiries, live chat, and Web self-service-and the uses have a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent, according to JupiterResearch, a research firm.

Jupiter found a 42 percent first-contact resolution rate in online self-service, compared to 64 percent in email and 72 percent with live phone support. Although average call volume is reduced by roughly 26 percent through Web self-service, calls typically increase after six months, cautions Zack McGeary, an associate analyst at JupiterResearch.

The problem is that most companies misinterpret what online support entails.

Even though about 40 percent of organizations offer email support, only 10 to 15 percent handle it effectively, says Esteban Kolsky, research director at Gartner. Roughly 46 percent of emails never get answered, 26 percent get answered after three weeks, and only 30 percent within two days.

"It's obvious to me that in the case of doing your taxes you don't want to wait," Kolsky says.

That's the case with Seth Abrams, tax manager at Atlanta-based Gifford, Hillegrass & Ingwersen, who says he has used only telephone support since he began using Creative Solutions UltraTax in 1997.

"We're billing clients for our time, [so we] try to pick up the project and get it done," Abrams says. "It's easier to sit on hold for five minutes than sending an email with the promise of a response within 24 hours."

CSI offers extended phone support from January to April, but sometimes even that is not enough.

"We have people here approximately 20 hours a day, with people staying late and coming in early," Abrams explains. "We'd love it if they were open 24 hours a day, but we realize that's not always feasible."

The ultimate goal should be six to eight hours for email response, but most companies fail to meet a 24-hour turnaround time, according to McGeary. E-service vendors like Kana, Talisma, RightNow Technologies, and ATG provide email automation and other applications to support customer service inquires across all methodologies. Natural- language capabilities and automatic search can determine the consumers' questions and route them to the most appropriate agent by areas of expertise.

"You'll have a more efficient operation rather than to dump all the inquiries into one inbox and then cherry pick off the top," McGeary says. "When you're dealing with a large variety of questions, the pull method is not very effective. Most companies are handling email with their homegrown solutions, which is crazy."

The Knowledge Base

Like many other vendors, Sage Software provides an online knowledgebase for customers to help themselves, while allowing them to send email inquiries.

However, that tends to be an indication that the question is not that dire or urgent, according to David Horn, vice president of technical support for Sage's mid-market division.

Users with urgent concerns can create an electronic "incident," which serves as a virtual phone call, and the company attempts to get back to them within one business day.

Intuit started taking a different approach in November 2005, letting QuickBooks' ProAdvisors tell the company when they want to hear back. Professionals can fill out an online Callback Request Form and submit a technical question to Intuit's support team, which will attempt to reply within 30 minutes or at a more convenient time indicated by the client. New for QuickBooks 2007, the service will be available 24 hours a day for small businesses and accountants with a QuickBooks Support Plan.

But traditional telephone support has its fans, including Lynn Kerr, administrator at Thomas P. Kerr, CPA, in Camp Hill, Pa., who has used Intuit's Lacerte tax software for 20 years.

 
"As the tax laws are becoming more and more complex, they've made that something they're very aware of, so when we call them they have answers," Kerr says. "They have a floor walker who is like a supervisor. Tech support will try their hardest to help you with answers until they're totally stumped. Then they come back with something [the floor walkers] told them to try. I don't ever feel like I hang up and get an inadequate answer."

Right Answers, Right Now

Companies that highlight their customer support as a differentiator, regardless of the channel, must ensure customers get the right answers quickly. That requires a combination of the right talent, training, and technology.

Speed is a featured benefit on Drake Software's Web site, which boasts a nine-second response time during the peak tax season.

"If you concentrate on putting out a solid product to begin with, you're not going to have the amount of calls coming in to clog up your line," says Alan Keling, vice president of customer service, noting Drake's 94 percent customer retention rate. "We strive for first-call resolution. One call should get you what you're looking for." Drake reports it had an 86 percent first-call resolution for the 2005 tax season, an 8 percent improvement from the previous year.

This season, the tax software company will have 158 reps, including some programming and development staff manning the phones and discussion forums.

"It's important the staff are involved in the support. It keeps them with their fingers on the pulse of what's going on with the customers who they're developing the software for," Keling says.

That's where the talent comes into play.

"It's more than critical that if an accounting person phones in they need to absolutely talk to someone who's at a CPA level or working toward the designation," Dantow says. NetSuite tried a pilot program with people who weren't as qualified and found it took three times longer to handle calls and produced lower resolution rates.

"It costs us more money to hire them, but we have very few complaints from our customers that the person on the other end of the line doesn't understand accounting and can't help me," he says.

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