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Y2K call-center crisis

December 29, 1999
Web posted at: 9:54 a.m. EST (1454 GMT)

by Dan Briody


(IDG) -- As the eyes and ears of any organization, customer support desks are going to be more important than ever when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. Throw in holiday gift returns and the expected surge in online sales, and companies of all shapes and sizes are staring at a monumental effort ahead as they gear up help desks and call centers for the new year.

As if finding the necessary staff to handle the onslaught of anticipated year 2000-related calls wasn't hard enough, training those staff members for this unprecedented event with no historical reference is even more challenging. Add to this the melodrama, TV movies, and alarming comments from politicians fueling year-2000 paranoia, and analysts are anticipating that a high percentage of the calls coming into support desks will actually have little to do with year 2000 and more to do with panic. Deconstructing months of year-2000 mythology in one phone call is likely to be more difficult for IT professionals than fixing an actual year-2000-related glitch.

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Even if companies can successfully talk year-2000 crazies down from the ledge, many real year-2000 failures will be accompanied by finger-pointing and legal maneuvering between business partners. That will place customer service representatives in the unenviable position of identifying the hot spot, notifying all the companies affected by it, and solving the customer's problem. No one will be a more accurate judge of year 2000's true impact than your front-line customer service representatives (CSRs).

"The call center is pivotal to doing a good job and collecting information, because the call center is the interface to customers serving variety of purposes," says Donna Fluss, an analyst at the Gartner Group, in Stamford, Conn. "[The call center] is very good at collecting information and letting companies assess what is real and what isn't. Information has to flow back to [the] call center."

All of this will create an insurmountable challenge for IT professionals who are staffing, training, and running these critical call and customer-support centers for their companies.

Never before, never again

Because the year-2000 changeover represents a great unknown, companies are taking a variety of strategies to prepare CSRs for both handling calls and feeding information throughout the organization. But most support-desk scripts are based on problems that have occurred in the past, which leaves service reps handling year-2000 calls in completely uncharted territory.

"This is even worse than a product launch, when you can't put the answers to bugs and things into the knowledge base because you don't know what the questions are," says Jeff Tarter, executive director of the Association for Support Professionals, in Watertown, Mass. "This is a terrible problem. Any Y2K problem that a company knows about today, they have probably fixed, so there certainly will be some answers. But the staff is almost useless for the same reason, because they don't know anything more than the knowledge base."

The lack of prior experience in year-2000 problems will heighten the need to disseminate information quickly and efficiently throughout the support staff as well as to the rest of the organization. To make that process easier, some companies are deploying a variety of online support solutions that take some of the burden off understaffed help desks and encourage customers to solve problems on their own online.

Right Now Technologies, in Bozeman, Mont., is focused on delivering so-called e-support solutions that build knowledge bases in real time, adding to the number of questions that can be answered online without staff intervention.

"If someone gets to the point where they need to send an e-mail to a customer service rep, the Web site has failed," says Greg Gianforte, CEO of Right Now. "We've realized that the 80-20 rule applies: Twenty percent of the information will answer 80 percent of the questions. That is what a Web-based customer-support system does well."

Right Now uses an integrated Web-publishing system to route the answers given to customers by CSRs immediately to the Web site, in the hope that the next customer with the same question can answer it for him-or herself. In addition, the technology uses artificial intelligence to prioritize answers on FAQ sheets by their usefulness. Making the proper information easy to find is key to online support sites, according to Gianforte.

"We know the path people take through the site," Gianforte says. "The good stuff goes to the top, and the rest falls off the bottom."

Real vs. perceived problems

Even the best-laid plans will become useless when support desks are dealing in more fiction than fact. Because year 2000 has remained in the media spotlight for so long, panicked users are expected to be calling customer support for everything from toaster malfunctions to burned-out light bulbs.

In situations like these, support representatives need to be understanding but firm in dealing with misguided requests for help, according to Jeff Burke, director of technology at, an online sporting goods retailer in San Francisco.

"There are people out there whose computer clocks aren't set correctly, and those are issues that are completely out of our control," says Burke. "We aren't going to get into a let-me-help-you-run-your-computer situation, but we want to give a sense of comfort to the audience. We want to answer intelligently and steer them in the right direction, whether it is our problem or not."

To determine whether a problem is caused by a year-2000 bug or an unrelated event, CSRs need all the information they can get -- the sooner, the better. Knowing as much as possible before reps actually take calls gives them a better chance of successfully solving a problem, and that's where Silknet software comes in.

Silknet, which outsources integrated electronic-business solutions, ties marketing and sales information into the customer support desk, allowing CSRs to access full profiles of customers before they even answer the phone. Armed with both the data on which products the customers own and where they have already searched for answers on the Web site, CSRs can narrow down problems faster.

"The goal is not to cover ground that has already been covered," says David Fowler, vice president of marketing at Silknet, in Manchester, N.H. "The agent knows exactly what you've done to date, and they will know whether or not you have downloaded software that is year-2000-compliant. And they don't have to ask you questions that you may not know the answer to."

  InfoWorld home page
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Whose fault is it, anyway?

Further complicating year-2000 cleanup is the fact that a significant year-2000 failure in one leg of the supply chain will have an effect all the way down the line. Complex electronic-commerce partnerships that rely heavily on data exchange will be difficult to sort out when pinpointing the source of a problem.

"One of the problems is the fact that solving Y2K may be a multicompany problem," Silknet's Fowler says. "Diagnosing that when three companies are struggling will be tough."

Silknet's software also allows customer support or IT departments to perform real-time Web collaboration with business partners to identify the problem and solve it together, much as a CSR would do with an end-customer.

Companies are also coaching CSRs not to admit fault or point fingers in situations where blame may be spread across several parties. For a company such as eSupportNow -- which specializes in outsourcing customer support solutions, including the actual bodies that answer phones -- CSRs may not be as familiar with the big picture as the companies they represent would like. In this scenario, providing corporate guidelines is crucial.

"We do the scripting for the agents -- tell them what to say and how to say it," says Renan Levy, president of eSupportNow, in Boston. "We teach them how to respond to different types of questions, and we help our clients with the scripts. We train our reps to use the decision tree."

Some companies feel the best customer service is to own the problem, regardless of its origin.

"Who knows what is going to happen on Jan. 1, 2000? But we're bulking up our staff anyway," says Patrick Rafter, director of communications for, a toy retailer in Waltham, Mass. "We want our customers to know they can come to us for anything, and if there is a Y2K problem, we'll be up-front about it. That is our responsibility."

But not all companies will be playing by the same rules.

"There are two ways things are going to happen," Quokka's Burke says. "There will be professional courtesy that says, 'There is an issue, let's find out where it is.' But there will be smaller shops -- not as professional -- that will whip out the finger. We are already working with our partners so that the way things get handled is by us. There will be people that do it very dirty, but we are setting ourselves up to do it cleanly. I'm going to give you a solution or find out where the solution lies," he says.

Coaching, scripting, and owning up to problems aside, having someone there to answer the phone or an e-mail will be challenging in itself. And combining temporary staff with an already overtaxed and undereducated support staff can create customer service nightmares.

In the end, the key to solid customer support over the new year will be no different than before: Patient, friendly staff members who are willing to help.

"I've suggested that you give the staff 'touchy-feely' training," says the Association for Support Professionals' Tarter. "The sensible defense is to have really friendly support technicians over that weekend, trained to very clearly make the customer understand the issues."

Maybe history has taught us something about the future after all.

What's in store for the Net in 2000?
December 28, 1999
Y2K: A never-ending story
December 28, 1999
Pentagon issues final Y2K alert to commanders
December 28, 1999
Feds won't stand for Y2K Samaritan hackers
December 27, 1999
IT managers plan fewer Y2K system shutdowns
December 27, 1999
Chicago Mercantile Exchange wrestles with Y2K
December 27, 1999
Pentagon confident Russian nuclear plants will withstand Y2K
December 24, 1999
Y2K hype shows our fear of out-of-control-world
December 24, 1999
Y2K teams: 'We're ready'
December 23, 1999
In making Y2K preparations, don't forget your home computer
December 22, 1999

Year 2000 World
(Year 2000 World)
Good, timely information will be at a premium
Why we owe our thanks to the Y2K problem
Bracing for year-2000 rollover dominates the year in IT
Infoliant does your Y2K leg work
Global survey cites good and bad Y2K news
(Network World)
Y2K: A never-ending story
Pentagon issues final Y2K alert
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