Charter Taps SupportSoft For Online Customer Aid

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Charter Communications Inc. has tapped SupportSoft Inc. to provide its current and prospective cable-modem subscribers with online support assistance.

"We're excited the way it's going," said Charter director of advanced services, corporate customer care Dave Siebold. The MSO has rolled out the SupportSoft system to about half of its subscriber base.

"In the long run, all support calls should be very long and very complex and very infrequent, because all the easy things the customers are going to be able to fix on their own" using Charter's online self-help Web site, Siebold said.

More MSOs are turning to online help centers to provide customers with better customer service and deflect thousands of calls from call centers.

In fact, SupportSoft — which had been supplying Corp. with online help software prior to its bankruptcy — picked up many of those affiliates after the service went under.

SupportSoft director of product marketing Gary Zilk said AT&T Broadband, Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc. all use SupportSoft, as do SBC Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp.

"They all bought our solution," he said.

Charter's move to SupportSoft began with the conversion of its 140,000 Corp. customers late last year, Siebold said. Those subscribers had access to an elementary online self-help site, and Charter wanted to keep that service alive after the conversion to its in-house Charter Pipeline service.

"We needed to ensure that we extended those tools to those customers to the majority of Charter Pipeline," Siebold said. SupportSoft allowed Charter to switch out software and save the customer's key electronic-mail and browser settings during the conversion, should anything fail.

Charter then expanded the SupportSoft suite of services for the former subscribers by using the vendor's suite of broadband-resolution products.

Pipeline subscribers can click on the Charter customer-care portal icon and tap into "knowledge-based articles on how to fix things," Siebold said.

A second area allows customers to troll through automated solutions, such as clearing the cache and history files that tend to slow computers down once filled. With one click, users can go through automated functions that otherwise might require 10 to 12 steps, Siebold said.

A third area helps users to troubleshoot major problems, such as an inability to access the Web or e-mail functions.

Connectivity questions account for between 40 percent and 50 percent of all calls, Siebold said, followed by e-mail-related questions at 20 percent.

Charter has rolled SupportSoft out on about half its systems, led by the larger properties in Louisville, Ky., and Vancouver, Wash., said Siebold. The company is about halfway done with training the more than 1,000 high-speed-data customer-service representatives.

For example, a CSR can access information about a subscriber's PC, once that consumer gives permission. The representative can then see the amount of hard-drive space or memory on a customer's PC, or the operating system they're using. That allows a CSR to diagnose problems more quickly, especially for nontechnical users.

"The feedback is real positive," Siebold said. "It shortens the call-cycle time."

Siebold said Charter is moving closer to the day when it begins promotional campaigns to showcase the online help center.

"We are starting to change upfront greetings, on-bill messaging, by saying: 'Go utilize these tools,' " he said.

Is it all worth it? "There are a lot of moving pieces to that question," said Siebold.

The portal's usage rates are increasing, and there's some evidence that call centers have received fewer high-speed-data related queries. "We're feeling the payback," he said.

SupportSoft's technology does not yet allow users to provision services, upgrade or downgrade on their own, but Siebold said those functions will come in the future. Also on the drawing board: A redesign of the SupportSoft experience that'll make it more user-friendly, he said.

SupportSoft also allows subscribers to get help from CSRs without going to the Internet, Zilk said. That's important, as many consumer problems are connectivity-related, and there's nothing worse than finding a help section on a PC that instructs users to a Web site when they can't get online to begin with, he said,

SupportSoft's software also allows subscribers who can't find answers online to reach CSRs quickly to resolve problems.

"You need to get them seamless escalation to live support, if they can't solve problem themselves," he said.

SupportSoft uses a subscription-based licensing model. MSOs typically sign a three-year deal for the company's software, with subscribership-based payments made yearly, Zilk said.

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