Most leading computer hardware and software companies now provide some online access to technicians as well as technical information and software updates via BBSs. Many now take their most frequently asked technical support questions and answers and post them on the BBS. Anyone using the board can see the answer.
Some have two BBSs, one for the public and one for advanced professionals. Large companies often use a support BBS as an after-hours backup. Even the smallest companies can buy the simplest PC system, connect a modem, set up a BBS, and offer 24-hour technical support. Minor questions are answered by the software developer personally or by a part-time tech person. When the BBS is open to all users, many of the questions are solved by other users of the product.
XyWrite of Billerica, Massachusetts, started a bulletin board for product support and charged $50 a year for access. The top 130 questions most often asked about applications and use problems, and complete answers to each, were put into the database and on printing drivers. Those inquiring could communicate via the BBS with each other and exchange experiences. There was more user satisfaction with the support. The cost of handling each inquiry was dramatically reduced. The BBS became a profit center.
XyWrite was also getting marketing advantages. It could conduct surveys, get product improvement suggestions, offer new products, get testimonials or recommendations, give commissions on sales. More new users of the support service increase marketing benefits. XyWrite then cut the price in half. The BBS still made money, and, even more important, the marketing advantages were significant. XyWrite then gave the service free because of the marketing benefits.
Ashton-Tate (A-T) software has a free BBS on TymNet for customer support. The caller pays for the modem call, but the BBS is free. Ashton-Tate's BBS is also a PR medium, and in-house ads appear on the screen for various A-T software items. Customer support BBSs serve as PR tools, order-takers, and software update distributors. These BBSs may also give database access, such as back-order status or part number cross-reference.
By using BBS's software, developers can poll customers, hold round-table discussions, and expand the usability of their products while increasing sales. Companion products or utilities can be cross-marketed if users can see the benefits of using the two together. Epson America, Sierra Online, and many software and hardware firms benefit from BBSs in some of these ways.
New technology is transforming the BBS into a far more desirable service. Service bureaus, including those operated by the phone companies, enable users to also set up a bulletin board as an extra service. Some can also print incoming orders or inquiries on a printer or printer station dedicated for this purpose.
Baud speed (the measure of computer data transmission) is leaping far faster. PC ability to handle high-speed modems will soon grow. Modems are on the verge of becoming standard equipment in average-price PCs, after which online use will skyrocket.
From the early days of videotext, through the growth of bulletin boards and electronic mail, Ogilvy & Mather Direct has been busy in these fields. I asked Martin Nisenholtz these questions about the future of online applications:
Q: What newspapers anywhere are succeeding with online services? Any with classified ads such as for real estate or help wanted?Virtually every field of business and special interest will support BBSs soon. Many will be start-ups. At the other end of the spectrum are the "super-BBSs" which have become information and entertainment networks. We'll discuss them next in Chapter 19. In Chapter 20 we cover catalogs online and via BBSs. And in Chapter 21, we describe marketplaces online and via BBSs. Should you consider your own BBS? Read all three chapters first.
MN: Gannett is now supplying Prodigy with classified ads. I think it's going well. America Online has recently formed a venture with Tribune Company in Chicago to supply online services.
Q: Will banking online revive?
MN: Home banking has not died. It has just gone underground. [Within days after Martin's answer, The New York Times ran a lead story in its business section headlined "A Renewed Bank Push for Pay-by-Phone."]
Q: Are far more people afraid to log-in online versus slipping in a disk? If so, will new easier-to-use software overcome this?
MN: This depends on the procedure used. AT&T SmartPhone is totally transparent. So are interactive TV systems. You shouldn't assume that the PC is going to be the only, or even the dominant, interactive device in home.