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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein
APRIL 18, 2000


Tracking Down the Right Call-Tracking Software

You'll find plenty of options for this key customer-service product. Here's what to consider

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Q:  We are trying to select some software that will be used by our customer- support group. As customers call to report issues, we need the software to track their calls and record resolutions. Additionally, we would like to be able to track such things as enhancement issues, problems, and bugs. Do you have any suggestions? Price is always an issue with a startup.

--M.N., New York City

A:  If your customer-support logs are overloaded, and your help-desk staff is overwhelmed with calls, you probably need an automated call-tracking system. Software for this purpose sorts and documents incoming telephone calls. It can also produce reports on how well-received your product is, which clients want you to add features or have problems, how long it takes staff to respond to requests, and which products generate the largest volume of calls and why.

Some sophisticated systems will also allow you to route calls on particular issues to specific people so they can track them and make sure someone responds.

A number of call-tracking software packages (some are available online) are now on the market, or you can use a standard database program and have someone customize it to suit your business needs. Customizing is a good solution for those who have very simple or very complex needs. A standard product may have more features than you want to pay for (or master), in which case adapting a basic database program may be sufficient.

GET REFERENCES. Conversely, if you have specialized needs and very heavy call volume, it may be worth extra money to a design a custom system. Be sure to ask other business owners you trust for references before you engage anyone. Creating your own system can run little as $1,000 -- or more than $10,000, depending on how many staffers use the system, the call volume, and analytical features.

Commercial software packages are priced "per staff seat." Costs also rise with the number of users and features. A budget-model call-tracking system costs about $1,000 for up to five users. A middle-of-the-road package is about $1,000 per user, with a minimum of three users. And high-end packages can run $1,800 per user.

If you opt for a customized solution, you can start with an inexpensive database program, such as Microsoft Excel or Access (which comes bundled with MS Office or can be purchased separately for under $300), then tweak it to suit your needs, says Jim Kelton, president of Software Unlimited, a computer consultancy in Irvine, Calif. "If you are going to customize, it's best to use a program that's backed by a company that's going to be around," says Kelton. "The advantages of customization are that you can have the system designed exactly to your specifications, and it will be flexible enough to suit your needs as they change in the future."

QUIRKY? One disadvantage is that designing a system takes time. "A customization project could take a month or two before it's all set up and running, where an off-the-shelf package may be installed and running inside of a week," Kelton says. Another potential pitfall: The person who designs your system will probably build in quirks that could be difficult for someone else to master quickly, especially if the original programmer takes off for greener pastures without much warning.

The advantages of commercial software are straightforward: The manufacturer provides updates, enhancements, and maintenance reports. If enough customers ask the company to add features, most software companies will seriously consider doing so in future versions, which you might be able to get at reduced cost as an existing customer.

A few packages that Kelton recommends are: FootPrints (www.unipress.com/footprints), Online SupportCenter (www.innovate.com/products/osc), and BridgeTrak (www.kemmasoftware.com). Note: We haven't reviewed these packages, so you need to do your own due diligence here.


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