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The rise of the "solution sell"

Prior to the Internet, tech companies pushed customer-service responsibilities off on the next vendor in the pack. In the coming months and years, new lines of customer-support responsibilities will be drawn.

About a month ago, while most of us were staring at our stock screens, Intel announced a new service: Intel AnswerExpress. When I read about Intel's plans to provide a subscription-based service to answer technology- and Internet-related customer service questions by phone within ten minutes, I was puzzled. Why would a chip giant such as Intel offer a general technology customer-support service for other companies' products and services? Why would Intel want to deal with questions and problems that are likely to have very little to do with its core competency?

I believe that, in the coming months and years, new lines of customer-support responsibilities will be drawn. Prior to the Internet, tech companies pushed customer-service responsibilities off on the next vendor in the pack. How many times do you remember being pushed from one company's customer support group to the next? When an application crashed, it was an operating system issue. When you spoke to the operating system vendor, it was an OEM integration issue, and so on. Why did these vendors push responsibility up or down the food chain like a hot potato?

Because they could.

Prior to the Internet, it was extremely difficult to blame any one vendor, or isolate the root of any one problem. Unlike today's increasingly networked world, corporate customers and consumers lived on isolated islands of automation, disconnected and distant from everyone. It was not only difficult to figure out what the problem was, it also was difficult to figure out how one vendor could be swapped for another.

With the Internet, this has changed dramatically.

As a result of the Internet, there is, in fact, very little separation between the vendor and the customer. Unlike any other medium, the Internet allows a customer to purchase and deploy a product in real time. Whether it's a trade, software, or ad banners, results are seen immediately, and consequently there is a much higher degree of transparency between the good that is sold and its deployment As a result, customers can swap one product for another extremely easily--hence the rise of the "solution sell."

As I've explained in my discussion of "In Companies," customers are demanding to buy an entire solution today--one that marries the software with the service, be it professional and/or Web centric.

Thus, vendors all are struggling to increase their mind share (and consequently market share) with Internet users. As a result of the Internet, we have moved from an environment in which vendors used to push responsibility away, to one in which the same vendors (and new ones) want to embrace responsibility well beyond the functions for which they may be directly responsible. While Intel may be one of the most innovative examples of this approach so far, I would suspect that the rush among vendors to become online service providers--building their own portals and customizing their own free email packages--points to this trend.

The question is: Is this a necessary evil, or is it an incremental opportunity for the vendor and for the customer? Well, the good news is that, in the short run, the customer will benefit. The balance of power will only change once the customers' switching costs do not justify change, and that will take a while. In the longer run, it is very clear that the vendors/ISPs who do not embrace the responsibility of taking care of the customer will be subsumed by those who do. As America Online has pointed out, its real-time customer support service is one of its most important levers in reducing subscriber churn.

The bottom line is that, when a customer has a bad user experience, everyone loses out, and Intel's new initiative recognizes this. Not only can Intel improve the overall user experience, it can have a bigger share in making that user experience a good one.

Danny Rimer writes regularly about the Internet in Marketwise.