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When 3-D Web marketing software provider Viewpoint merged last July with video streaming solutions company Metastream, the floodgates of e-mail and phone inquiries burst wide open.

Upon hearing the news of the merger, Viewpoint's customers inundated the firm with hundreds of e-mailed questions about the company's plans, the future of Viewpoint's technology offerings and pricing.

Lars Olson, product manager at New York-based Viewpoint, recognized the absolute necessity of answering all of these customer inquiries. Yet he and Scott Krinsky, director of product management, found it impossible to promptly reply to the deluge of requests and questions. After a couple of months of giving it their best effort, Olson and Krinsky determined that they needed a more sophisticated customer response tool, one that would provide customers with the information they needed.

"Essentially, we knew that instead of answering these questions over and over, we had to channel them," Olson says. "The e-mails that didn't get answered were my main concern. If you don't have the time to answer them, it doesn't look good for your company."

Olson started the company's search last January for a bulletin board system (BBS) that provided universal access to important information at a cost that wouldn't break the bank. He researched three BBS vendors that offered hosted solutions and about 40 others that offered a BBS software package. Eventually he chose San Francisco-based Centerwheel (formerly CoolBoard.com) to host a BBS that allowed customers to see the latest company and product information posted by Viewpoint on a "bulletin board" on its Web site.

According to Olson, the solution he chose was affordable, effective and low-maintenance. "To us, it was a no-brainer. It was well worth its weight in gold," he says.

You've Got Mail

To fully understand why customers might have so many questions, one must first understand Viewpoint's futuristic product line. Viewpoint offers enhanced 3-D and super-rich visual solutions that create an interactive experience on Web sites. This "experience" is achieved through Viewpoint's hyper-realistic digital effects and animation. The technology allows a Web user to view and explore new products interactively. Visitors can click on a 3-D image of, say, a razor scooter at The Sharper Image or golf shoes at Nike. Then they can drag the product on the screen causing it to zoom in and out and swirl the image 360 degrees, viewing it from all angles.

"People then tend to interact with the product for a long time, so they're able to brand the company for a longer time," Olson says of Viewpoint's technology. "This is a good way for companies to differentiate their product lines."

Viewpoint provides its solutions to e-businesses, interactive agencies and Web developers for 3-D modelers--solutions that visually enhance the interactive experience. Entertainment and gaming industries, as well as film producers, advertisers and commercial production houses buy the company's products. The company's client list includes Sony, Eddie Bauer, Universal Pictures and Chrysler.

While technology of this sort will normally generate a fair amount of user questions, news of the merger with Metastream and the possibilities for and impact upon Viewpoint's offerings inspired clients, subcontractors, product developers and potential clients to contact the company with even more queries.

During the time that customer questions began to pile up, Olson was dealing with new transformations in the company, such as identity changes and technology name changes. He and Krinsky could not find time to answer every inquiry. Nor did they have the expertise to reply to every question.

"That was our concern. We have to provide these people with enough information to deploy our technology," Olson explains. "We were losing customers based on the fact that the questions they sent by e-mail weren't being answered."

Josh Duhl, chairman and co-founder of Centerwheel, says Viewpoint needed a more efficient way to communicate with customers and the support community. The company was relying on a traditional e-mail and phone-based support environment. "There was no way for them to be proactive in giving feedback to customers. They also wanted an environment in which to create new insights instead of responding to a particular problem a customer isn't happy with."

Getting The Message

During his search, Olson narrowed the field of BBS vendors to two: InfoPop and Centerwheel. But at the time, InfoPop didn't offer a hosted solution, a feature that Olson determined was a necessity. His company was in the midst of change, and he didn't want to hire additional technical support, nor did he want to spend his already precious time on a lengthy implementation.

With this in mind, Olson chose Centerwheel. "We didn't have to employ anybody. That's the beauty of an ASP," he says.

Centerwheel Business Solutions is an enterprise-class ASP-based BBS discussion application. It features message boards and Q&A solutions, as well as data analysis tools. Companies can create customized discussion applications from an integrated Web site. And businesses can offer specialized discussion publishing features, as well as fully integrated user registration and profiling systems.

Founded in June 1999, Centerwheel employs roughly 50 people with six sales reps and three support staff. More than 200,000 Web sites use the vendor's small business offerings, and 15 companies signed on to deploy the Business Solutions tool.

Business Solutions features an interactive support network, which fuels interactive content, promotes richer site material and integrates user discussions. The collaborative marketing feature enables companies to sell products through discussions, product placements or customer discussions. The reporting tools within the marketing component help companies to understand better customer preferences. Additionally, with the Partner Relationship Management component, companies can build secure forums to collaborate better with their business networks. "Instead of limiting interactions to one-to-one, we wanted communication that was shared with other people," Duhl says.

Licensing costs for Business Solutions are $20,000 per year and up, depending on the number of seats and the type of package. Low-end packages don't include installation from the Centerwheel staff. Companies that choose the less pricey package usually employ sub-contractors to deploy the ASP solution.

Business Solutions appealed to Olson, not just because of its ASP feature, but because Centerwheel handles the server site, offers free upgrades and charges nominal monthly fees. But what really caught his attention was Centerwheel's promise to automatically change the bulletin board once it becomes full and the posted answers outdated. "I've got bigger fish to fry than trying to deploy another bulletin board," Olson explains.

Duhl says the basic premise of his Business Solutions suite is to enable companies to share knowledge and to collaborate on the Web. Also, Duhl wants to make the process as effortless as possible.

Viewpoint chose Centerwheel, Duhl says, to create a desired discussion environment which the customer and developer can use to communicate. They can also examine existing support information and receive internal company information.
"They use it as a way to respond to a problem and gather information and insight as to what's happening with the products," Duhl says.
Olson says Business Solutions provides the message board technology, as well as modules, connectors, the integration model and analysis tools. "It's a set of core capabilities that tie in with the message," he says.

The Next step

Elise Olding, vice president of knowledge, e-learning and collaboration at the Emeryville, Calif.-based Hurwitz Group, a consulting company for e-business and IT initiatives, calls this type of communication tool the next step in revenue generation.

"They're sharing knowledge. These are things that create loyalty within your customer base," Olding says. "I really believe that organizations' boundaries are disappearing. They're finding out that knowledge lives in and out of the organization."

Olding says technologies that facilitate the sharing of knowledge help remote users overcome challenges when using Viewpoint's, or other companies' technologies. "It really helps to break down the islands of being geographically dispersed," Olding says.

One of the most appealing features about Centerwheel, Olson says, is that no training or implementation is necessary. "This is pretty hassle-free for us."

According to Olson, last July Viewpoint paid a set-up fee and received a message board template from Centerwheel. A few connections and adjustments were made, and three days later, the company was up and running with a new bulletin board system. "There was no training necessary," Olson says. "It's as easy as typing in a box and hitting 'post.' Everybody--both end users and the company--have been very receptive at the end of the day because it saves a lot of time."

Silent Phones

Olson reports that almost immediately after deployment, his stress levels fell. "The phones stopped ringing, and e-mails no longer came to our direct mail boxes."

Now the product managers or clients can simply scan the message board to find an answer to a question. "People really want to solve the issues by themselves," he adds.

One business partner immediately saw improvement in his interactions with Viewpoint. Che Metcalfe, with Adelaide, Australia-based Web design firm Kukan studios, resells the Viewpoint product in the design firm's packaged offerings. Metcalfe says if Viewpoint didn't feature Centerwheel, he would have spent a lot of time and money making international telephone calls to the 3-D company. "Technically, it has helped a lot and saves time...They keep up with the demand," Metcalfe says. "Centerwheel has a community feel. If it weren't there, and everyone was on their own, the knowledge wouldn't be here."

He adds that when they started using Viewpoint a year ago, he contacted the company daily with questions. And still, he accesses the system about twice a week. "Early on, when we got on the message board, it helped to get to know everyone because Viewpoint responds quickly," Metcalfe says. "I've used other forums, and no one has ever answered that fast, and you usually just hear from other people on the user board."

The numbers show that Metcalfe is not alone in his use of Viewpoint's new communication tool. In July 2000, when Viewpoint first implemented Business Solutions, a built-in tracking mechanism recorded 216 page views, 84 messages and 44 user sessions (unique visitors) at the Viewpoint site. During September 2000, the site received 20,059 page views and 229 messages and tracked 3,851 user sessions.

Since implementing the solution, Viewpoint has already established 2,848 searchable pages of content that include information about development methods and FAQs. More importantly, it implemented them quickly and easily. "Now I don't need to talk to the MIS guy to change forms. I can do it on the fly," Olson says. "I don't have to step through anybody internally, and I always have access to it."

Olson says without the new system, Viewpoint would have been forced to hire a staff of four, with each person earning approximately $40,000 a year. Add computer equipment costs, health benefits and possible client losses, and Olson says the company would have spent a bundle. As it turned out, Viewpoint paid a $5,000 start-up fee and rents Business Solutions for $500 a month--a significant savings over the alternative. "I can't imagine four people sitting there answering phones. There would be a couple thousand e-mails and phone calls. It would be a nightmare," Olson says.

And although he won't divulge sales numbers because he says many factors within the company contribute to a boost in sales, Olson affirms they have risen significantly. "The bottom line is, we're selling more licenses."

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