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8/10/2011
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Lycos Does Brand Triage Using Customer Service

Tripod and Angelfire customers once had to wait months for a response to a support query. Now they even have a number they can call.

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Lycos has tried a lot of things to make its business work over the years, but only recently has it taking the radical step of trying better customer service.

Joe Pranevich, director of technology and operations at Lycos, recalls that when he was given the responsibility of looking for ways to improve operations, the way Lycos treated users--including paying customers--really stood out.

"To be blunt, we had something that resembled laughable customer support, where people would wait months, as opposed to hours or days, to get a response," Pranevich said in an interview. Although Lycos offers many free ad-supported services, it also runs services like the Tripod and Angelfire website builders that also include a paid tier of service, which includes services like domain name registration and upgrades for embedding e-commerce and other functions. Part of the point of these tools is that they are self-service, do it yourself options for people and businesses that want to create a website that they control and can update, without the need to hire a consultant. Despite that desire to be self sufficient, these customers would often get stuck or confused.

"We had a lot of people crying out for help--and the reasons they were crying out for help were the very reasons we want them as customers," he said. These were people who wanted to be self sufficient, but they also wanted to know that they could get help when they needed it, he said.

Lycos also has been on the comeback trail for several years, and quelling the complaints of disgruntled customers was one of the things it needed to do to repair its brand, Pranevich concluded.

Founded 1994 with an IPO in 1996, Lycos was one of the leading stocks of the "Internet bubble," operating a Web portal and search engine and buying up other companies left and right. In 2000, it agreed to be acquired for $5.4 billion by Terra Networks, the Internet business of Telefonica. Lycos faded in the post-bubble years, falling behind Google and other competitors, and changed ownership several times as it struggled to refocus. Most recently, in 2010 Lycos was purchased for $36 million by India's Ybrant Digital.

Lycos has been profitable since the end of 2009 and is seeking growth on the basis of hot properties such as Gamesville and revamped, more drag-and-drop design versions of Tripod and Angelfire, Pranevich said.

Initially, management was inclined to think Lycos should stick with a low-cost "Google style service," where users would be directed to a support forum and were presumed to be "smart enough to figure things out of themselves," Pranevich said. Instead, Lycos hired Advantage Communications, a call center operator based in Canada, adding phone support as a customer service option for the first time.

At the same time, to minimize the number of support calls, Lycos began offering a knowledge base and live chat as alternate service channels, based on service and support technology from Parature. Customers are channeled into the knowledge base first, with chat, email, and phone supports as backups.

"The end goal is not for them to have to email us, not to have to write a ticket, but for them to find their answer in our knowledge base," Pranevich said. Web-based and email support are all that's available to non-paying users, so it's important to make those service channels as efficient as possible.

The effect seems to be positive in terms of renewals and new home pages being created on Lycos services, although it's hard to distinguish the effect of better customer service from other changes Lycos has been making to its business, Pranevich said. "We have no expectation that next year we're going to be Google or Yahoo, but we want to be the best company for our users and be a sustainable company," he said. "We may be a small company today, but we're still a big brand."

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