Great Sites: Cisco Connection Online

Cisco is handling about 160,000 self-service and interactive support cases monthly on its Web site--and tech-support staffers' caseloads have dropped to less than half of what they were five years ago.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 24, 2001

6 Min Read

Ask a few IT executives which vendors they rate highly for online technical support and chances are that Cisco Systems will be at the top of their lists. Through its Cisco Connection Online and Technical Assistance Center Web resources, the company has long been delivering a refined solution to the vexing problem of handling customer support issues. Well-honed self-service features combined with escalating levels of interactive support are the site's hallmarks--as is Cisco's constant effort to address customers' requests for improvements and enhancements.

Customers and resellers use Cisco's online support pages to troubleshoot problems with its products, find out about new bugs, get security advisories, or bone up on upgrades and updates for its Internetwork Operating System software. Each month, about 160,000 self-service and interactive cases move through Cisco Connection Online, while 75,000 online cases are recorded with the Technical Assistance Center. Whichever way you slice them, those numbers are a far cry from the 500 cases a month Cisco was handling when it launched the TAC site in late 1990.

Cisco Connection Online cases are primarily self-service, but also include interactive features; users resolve most cases by using posted information and other online resources, such as chat rooms and a feature that brings instant online responses. Technical Assistance Center, which is a part of the CCO site, offers more interactivity for support issues. It generally can resolve Priority 3 and 4 problems, such as product-installation questions and impaired network functionality, on the site, while addressing Priority 1 and 2 problems, such as severely degraded or downed network operations, via phone support.

Though network and product complexity has increased, Cisco doesn't need to continuously staff up on technical engineers. In fact, tech-support staffers' caseloads have dropped to less than half of what they were five years ago. "It's almost hard to fathom what we would have done organizationally without the Web. Look at the numbers--you get a sense that almost 70% of support work is handled through the Web," says Joe Pinto, senior VP, customer advocacy, core engineering support.

Cisco Connection Online

Traffic: 235,000 cases a month

2000 Revenue: Not applicable

Business goals: To provide a self-service and interactive Web model for customers to address common and low-priority issues while freeing Cisco engineers to address higher-priority problems

Competitors: Not applicable

Strengths: Software Center for upgrades and information on Cisco's software products; bug reports; tool index; whiteboard feature

Weaknesses: Occasional search and navigation deficiencies

The secret to the success of Cisco's online support efforts is the same formula that drove Cisco to the point where it controls more than two-thirds of the global market for routers and switches: making customer satisfaction priority one. For instance, customers can use a form on the site to rate CCO and TAC documents for their helpfulness and suggest improvements. More than 80% of customers queried through Cisco surveys rate their experiences with the online services as satisfactory or very satisfactory.

"Our Web site's success starts with the people whose technical ability and knowledge of customers drives the information," says Pinto. Although the company doesn't specify the number of employees who staff the online effort, it says about 35% to 40% of the TAC engineers are certified Cisco Internetwork Experts--a designation so hard to achieve that it's granted to only one of six or seven people who seek it--and they contribute content regularly to CCO's knowledge base.

Customers have been very vocal about how Cisco can improve its support, Pinto says. He credits customers with the development of a number of innovative features over the years, such as posting bug reports and using a tool that pushes relevant information on new bugs to customers. Cisco says it was among the first to use the Internet to share bug information with users.

"I've sent a lot of requests" for certain enhancements, says Michelle Famiglietti, network manager at Financial Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Pentagon Federal Credit Union in Chantilly, Va. A power Cisco Web-site user from the start, Famiglietti says there's no comparison between Cisco's site and those of competitors, especially when it comes to keeping users up to date about bugs. But she hasn't been shy about voicing her opinion to Cisco that it should add explanations of more commands and error messages to favorite support tools such as the error-message decoder and output interpreter, which help users decipher some of Cisco products' more-esoteric feedback.

The site helps her in more strategic ways, too. Famiglietti says she visits it regularly to check on the latest issues being addressed, especially when it comes to new products. "I like to see what problems people are having so I know what to expect," she says. "It helps me as a manager to know if it's a product I want to use, and also to budget troubleshooting time."

Only about 20% of the cases opened on the TAC pages each month start out as issues that users first looked into via CCO's self-service capabilities. That's music to Pinto's ears, because it means customers are trying to solve their problems on the Web first, and most of them are succeeding there. It also frees up engineers to focus on the challenges of analyzing, supporting, and solving problems with the latest technologies, and then on populating the Web site with that new technical info, which ultimately helps Cisco keep head-count down.

Not every company that tries to move customer support to the Web has success. According to a recent Forrester Research survey of 42 large companies, 41% say they've seen no return on their self-service investments--and 17% say they've experienced an increase in call-center traffic after starting to offer self-service. Most companies don't do a good job of encouraging their customers to use their online self-service resources, and they don't think about self-service as a distinct part of their strategies, Forrester says.

But even Cisco needs to earn its stripes continuously, through site improvements. "The more customers have confidence that answers are on the Web site, the more they'll go there," Pinto says. They're also more likely to pick up the phone if they don't feel they've built momentum in the first couple of minutes of a search; customer complaints typically center on search and navigation issues or out-of-date data, he says.

But usually, says Alan Wang, corporate technology manager for The One Technology Group, a globalization-consulting firm in Irvine, Ca., visitors can find what they're looking for and, when they do, the answers are thorough. That's not typically the case with many other technical-support sites, he says. "Time is money, and the less time you spend looking for the resolution of a problem, the better it is for you. The shallow tools you find on some other sites don't do anyone any good."

Return to "Web Sites That Work."

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights