In this exclusive interview with Jeffrey Tarter, executive director of the Association of Support Professionals (ASP), you’ll discover what it means to be one of the “10 Best Support Websites” and learn how the Association of Support Professionals can provide you with a free evaluation of your current support website. Find out what you’re doing well—and what you can improve with a little help.

TCW: Jeffrey, thanks for agreeing to chat with us today. For our readers who don’t know who you are, tell us a little about yourself and your organization.

JT: The Association of Support Professionals (ASP) is a membership organization for managers and professionals who work in services and support roles in technology companies. We’ve been described as “a little think-tank,” and that’s actually pretty accurate. Much of what we deliver to our members is research into leading-edge topics–one of which, not surprisingly, is Web support.

TCW: For purposes of clarity, what is a “support website” and how does it differ from other types of websites?

JT: Support sites are a moving target in terms of definitions. Originally, most sites were simply self-service versions of the same knowledgebases that a company’s in-house tech support people were using. Now, it’s more common to find that the “Web support” pages encompass virtually the whole post-sales relationship–tech support, incident tracking, training, consulting, user communities, follow-on sales, tools, publications, customer profiles, license management, and anything else a company offers to its installed base. As you can imagine, sites like this are very rich, very complex to build, and–usually–very successful at generating traffic.

TCW: What is The Ten Best Web Support Sites of 2007?

JT: Ten years ago, we thought it would be interesting to look at “best practices” in Web support, which was just beginning to show up as an interesting way to deliver support. Since we had no clue who was doing a good job, we ran a contest for the “ten best Web support sites.” It was a hit, and we uncovered all kinds of fascinating inside stories about what the top site developers were doing. A little light bulb went off (metaphorically…) and we’ve been conducting similar “star searches” for the past decade.

To the ten winners, of course, the award is the gold ring. But the book is really the ultimate goal every year, because that helps literally hundreds of people see what lessons the top site developers have learned. Everyone who enters the awards competition has to submit two essays–one on how they handled a major challenge, and a second “guided tour” of key features (with screen shots). Basically, the book pulls all this material together so that the reader can see what he developers did and, just as importantly, *why* they made basic strategy decisions. It’s always wonderful stuff.

TCW: Why is it so important to move customers toward self-service and away from telephone support? What metrics can you share with us to help us understand the financial implications for businesses?

JT: Well, most people start with the basic economic issue. At least for mass-market products, one-on-one telephone support has always been a terrible model. It’s expensive (typically, $20-$50 per call) and there are inherent access problems that frustrate the hell out of customers. Worse, it doesn’t really scale–the more users you have, the more calls you have to answer. And a lot of these calls are incredibly repetitious. In most support centers, the classic 80/20 rule usually applies: a very small number of “frequently asked questions” generates the vast majority of calls. Shifting at least the repetitious issues to the Web is a win all around–it saves money, and customers generally get faster, more complete answers.

But the so-called “call deflection” savings are really only a starting point. It turns out that the real payoff from Web support comes from establishing stronger relationships with customers over the whole lifecycle of product ownership. They get involved in forums, sign up for training and continuing education, offer feedback on new products, hear about new services products–there are all kinds of ways to open up the traditional vendor-buyer relationship and create a sense of community (to use an overworked word) with users. If this is done right–that is, with sincerity and honesty–the result is amazing customer loyalty.

TCW: Has there been any research into what customers actually want. Oftentimes, poorly designed web solutions really irritate customers, but they seem to hate telephone support problems even more. What does the research say consumers want?

JT: I’d argue that traditional research is a useful tool for measuring fairly tangible things–say, navigation paths, the quality of a new feature, he usefulness of a tech note, and the like. But surveys and statistical tools are very weak at answering big-picture questions about what customers “want,” especially when the answer is something like “trustworthiness” or “making me look good to my boss.” To get this kind of insight, you really have to spend serious time talking to customers, persuading them to open up about the issues they worry about in the middle of the night. Not many support people do this, of course.

If I had to distill down what much of this kind of informal research shows, I suspect the common answer is that most people want a vendor who is committed to a long-term partnership with each customer. The classic hit-and-run sales process in technology certainly doesn’t build any sense of this relationship, and neither does telephone support when every call you place goes to a different rep who treats you like a total stranger. One reason Web support builds loyalty, I suspect, is that customers can see the whole array of post-sales services in one place. That certainly suggests long-term commitment.

TCW: Designing websites is important work. But, many software developers are not designers (they lack proper training in art, color theory, interaction design, etc.) and often don’t have the business domain knowledge to understand the customers as well as marketing, sales, and support folks. As a result their work often is less successful than those who have the background. Can you help us understand the importance of collaboration (between various roles) when building the “best” websites?

JT: So far, the issue is mostly one of budget constraints. Marketers can hire all kinds of Web talent because (supposedly) they’re “building the brand” and “generating sales.” Support people have to jump through hoops to get any money for outside expertise, and it doesn’t help that their primary ROI metric–call-deflection–becomes increasingly hard to demonstrate as you move into fits-and-finishes issues.

But even when the budget is open-ended, I’m not sure many outside experts have that much to contribute to good Web support design. Yes, they can help create better page templates and clean up navigation. But they rarely understand the *depth* of solutions that Web support has to deliver. In effect, Web marketers have a simple problem: selling the company’s current set of products to active prospects. The support problem is to provide all relevant information on all products the company has ever sold, to its entire customer base. Getting your arms around this kind of problem (and managing a full-scale makeover project) takes a lot more experience with support sites than you generally find in outside consulting firms.

TCW: Of the “best” sites, what percentage are actively engaging their visitors and providing mechanisms for them to participate (interact with the site)? And, of those that are engaging visitors, what percentage are including user-generated content and other web 2.0 technologies?

JT: In fact, we just updated our scoring criteria to put more emphasis on interaction and user content. It’s hard to pin down percentages, but clearly the best sites now have very active forums and all kinds of interactive features–for instance, the wiki model for knowledgebase content is becoming popular. But there’s also a certain institutional reluctance to admit that a user community might collectively know more about a product than the company’s own in-house experts. Who knows where that idea could lead…

TCW: How can our readers enter next years contest and be considered as one of the best support sites?

JT: Entering is easy–everything you need (entry instructions, scoring criteria, FAQ, schedules, etc.) is on the ASP Awards site. Incidentally, one of the points we emphasize is that you get a lot of value even if your site isn’t one of the top ten. *Everyone* who enters gets a customized site evaluation based on 25 scoring criteria and scores from five different judges. This is a very powerful tool for measuring a site’s specific strengths and weaknesses against industry averages. A good many people enter just to get this analysis.

TCW: Thanks so much for your time today. We really appreciate learning more about your organization and the annual 10 Best Support Websites project.

JT: My pleasure, Scott. Thanks for inviting me.