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Customer Self-Help for the 21st Century

Customer Self-Help for the 21st Century

BEA Systems, Inc., the makers of the WebLogic Server for which this magazine is named, empowers its customers with comprehensive online self-help services.

The introduction of BEA's WebLogic Server product into the marketplace produced a dramatic growth in the customer base that resulted in increased demand for customer support. Over the last few years, the explosive growth of WebLogic Server has helped BEA achieve market leadership in the application server space. Sales people are happy, executives are thrilled, and developers beam with pride. But what about technical support?

How can any support group possibly support 10,000+ customers with the same focus, technical expertise, and personal touch as it did when there were only 100? Clearly, scaling the number of engineers by two orders of magnitude isn't the answer. Therefore, in order to scale the organization and better serve its customers, BEA looked for an innovative way to extend support to this customer base. BEA turned to self-help on the Web as a way to allow customers to help themselves address technical problems. AskBEA, the company's powerful natural language processing engine, provides an efficient and fast means for Web-savvy customers to find the answers to their issues.

Customers desire information in an efficient, fast, and reliable mode. Early on, as the knowledge resource base for BEA products was being built, access to this information was spread across various site locations. This required customers to search the various sources separately in order to find all the information they were searching; not an easy and convenient task for customers. In an effort to provide a centralized, efficient, fast, and one-stop solution that addressed customers' needs, BEA implemented the AskBEA service.

AskBEA, available at www.bea.com/support is an online self-help service with a natural language processing engine that focuses on getting accurate answers to customer queries through a single platform that searches a number of resources containing the wealth of BEA product knowledge. Using AskBEA, customers can often find answers to their questions without filing a support case. We're not just talking about simple questions either. Imagine asking about an EJB-deadlock situation and getting an answer directly from the developer who implemented the EJB container. Of course, BEA's technical support team is stronger than ever, so if your AskBEA search isn't fruitful and you file a support case, one of BEA's highly skilled DREs (Developer Relations Engineers) will be able to assist you in a timely fashion (see Figure 1).

Implementation and Challenges
AskBEA started in July 2000 using the AskJeeves conventional search engine functionality. It was soon obvious that a less maintenance-intensive technology with an advanced natural language processing engine was needed to better manage the process of updating rapidly changing content and result in improved answer performance. BEA embarked on improving AskBEA by using answerFriend's advanced natural language processing software.

Phase I
The phase I implementation of AskBEA based on AskJeeves technology proved beneficial to customers as well as to BEA Systems. It allowed users to find answers to their questions online and covered product documentation, a support knowledge base, newsgroups, and white papers on the developer center and bea.com sites through a single interface. It also resulted in a decline in the number of queries coming into BEA customer support from evaluation customers.

However, the phase I implementation had its share of challenges; primarily due to inefficiencies in providing fast turnaround of dynamic content. It required labor-intensive steps to create predefined questions that were stored in a database and linked to sections of product documentation that contained possible answers. This resulted in enormous amounts of manual work and hindered the publication of new content every day, including newsgroup postings and solutions in the support knowledge base. Incorporating a new product release also required a laborious process of framing predefined questions and answers. Therefore, the phase I solution did not scale. Additionally, the integration for newsgroup articles was not an easy and seamless process.

Perhaps more importantly, the engine worked more like a keyword search engine than a true natural language processing engine that understands semantics and variations of word meanings. This resulted in answers that were less precise than desired. Because the implementation required excessive person-hours, the AskBEA phase I rollout was limited to BEA's WebLogic Server and WebLogic Commerce and Personalization Server products only.

Phase II
Soon BEA identified answerFriend, Inc. as a better match to address the challenges at hand. AnswerFriend's technology offers an advanced natural language processing engine that understands the meaning of a user's query and results in precise, highly accurate answers that take the user to the source of the answer in just two mouse clicks.

BEA became answerFriend's first large-scale customer to use the technology in a production environment. Due to this, the initial implementation and deployment stages of the application faced some challenges and required customizations to suit BEA's needs.

Despite the early challenges, answerFriend's technology did not require BEA to expend many person-hours defining preframed question/answers and, therefore, gave BEA the ability to roll out support for its products in just two months. As new products are released, the existing database of BEA concepts (ontology), along with other high-tech and English language concepts, can be utilized to provide good performance with minimum tuning. Concepts unique to the new product features can then be added to fine-tune the engine performance. This implementation has a tighter integration with newsgroups and is based on Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP). It gives the user the ability to go to the specific article within a news thread that contains the possible match to the answer, lets the user post new queries and replies to existing articles from within the interface, and browse other posts and newsgroups. New articles on the newsgroups and other new documents on the site are picked up on a nightly basis, resulting in access to the most up-to-date information.

The answerFriend implementation of AskBEA is hosted in-house by BEA, runs on BEA WebLogic Server, and provides an easy-to-use interface with scalable, reliable, and fast access to the most accurate and highly relevant information from a single portal.

Customer Usability
AskBEA is a one-stop solution for searching disparate knowledge sources including extensive BEA product documentation, BEA customer support knowledge databases, the entire www.bea.com Web site, and the highly active BEA Usenet newsgroup community. With AskBEA, users can choose to search all of the information sources or restrict searches to only the sources they select. Customers have the opportunity to ask questions simply, such as "How do I set up connection pools in WebLogic Server?" or "What platforms does WebLogic Server support?" or "How do I update my license in WebLogic Server 6.0?" and be immediately directed to highly relevant answers.

Finding What You Want
To ensure that the engine returns precise answers to the user's query, questions must be phrased appropriately. If you don't really know what you're looking for, or you don't know much about the content beneath the engine, you will receive a smattering of superfluous techno-substance. For example, if you go to Google at www.google.com and search for "computer help," you will notice that a search like this doesn't yield many useful results about computers. Also, how many clicks will you need before you really find what you're looking for? By combining a good question with the right keywords and specific data sources, you will be able to take advantage of BEA's always-improving knowledge base.

Using The Knowledge Sources
AskBEA supports the following knowledge/data sources: Product Documentation, White Papers, Newsgroups, and Support Knowledge Base/FAQs. Each has a checkbox on the main AskBEA page. You can search as few as one or as many as all data sources. Let us briefly examine each source (see Figure 2).

You can use AskBEA to search all available WebLogic documentation (the same documentation available at http://e-docs.bea.com.) If you have a question on a core function of WebLogic Server, the answer is usually in the documentation. In addition, a documentation search is especially useful if you are looking for help on a feature/topic that has changed extensively between the various versions of the product, as AskBEA will return documents from multiple documentation trees.

White Papers
These are the white papers on the Developer Center, http://developer.bea.com/docs/wp.jsp. This section currently has only a small set of documents, but it is getting bigger every day. All of these documents are indexed.

As you probably know, there are more than three dozen WebLogic-specific newsgroups available at newsgroups.bea.com (http and news protocols supported). AskBEA indexes all of these posts as well since newsgroups are often monitored by WebLogic developers, product managers, and DREs. These folks answer complex WebLogic questions as well as questions related to application architecture, industry topics, and miscellaneous J2EE issues.

Support Knowledge Base/FAQs
BEA's Support Knowledge Base (SKB) for WebLogic Server is comprised mainly of "Solutions" authored by DREs. DREs are charged with creating Solutions based on recurring customer issues and commonly misunderstood topics involving WebLogic Server. A team of knowledge engineers verifies the correctness of these Solutions and, once accepted, they are published to the Web.

Internally, a Solution is also used to connect a customer support case to an engineering change request (CR). When a CR is fixed, or a workaround is discovered, the DRE fills in the resolution field of the Solution and sends it to the Knowledge Engineering team for review and publication.

In addition to Solutions, this Knowledge Source contains other FAQs maintained by BEA as well as product updates and news available only to customers with a WebSUPPORT ID (if you do not have a WebSUPPORT login, you can get one here: www.bea.com/support/Web.shtml), This is the probably the most valuable knowledge source since Solutions are the direct result of a previously-solved problem involving both support and development.

When choosing which Knowledge Sources to search initially, you might think that it's best to just leave the "Entire Site" box checked. Frequently, though, searching specific sources is the better way to go. The following examples illustrate this.

The Right Questions
As explained on the Tips for Asking page, www.bea.com/support/askbea_tips.shtml, the easiest way to ask customer support questions is to use simple English and AskBEA will provide relevant answers. Other basics include: keep questions concise; include only relevant concepts; don't use boolean operators. By combining these techniques with proper WebLogic-specific keywords, you can hone in on the knowledge you seek.

Let's take three real-world WebLogic server examples, from simple to complex, so we can see how useful AskBEA really is. I will try to come up with a good question and identify the proper resource(s) to search and take you through my thought process. Note: These searches were performed in May 2001. AskBEA searches may return different results now.

Example 1
User wants end-of-life information about WebLogic. He's using 4.0.4 (uh oh!) and he wants to know when his support will run out.

The right question: clearly "end-of-life" is the important phrase here. Should we include "4.0.4" as well? Probably not necessary. If we find the "end-of- life" section, we'll probably find information on specific versions. "4.0.4" might clutter up the result set with 4.0.4-specific stuff. How about: I need end-of- life information for WebLogic Server (note that the question doesn't have to be a question, nor does the phrase "end-of-life" need to be in quotes.)

The right knowledge sources: chances are, product documentation isn't going to talk about this, but it might. You might find people talking about it on the newsgroups, but you probably want the official BEA answer on this one, so let's use the Documentation and Support Knowledge Base/FAQs.

The result? The first link in the SKB/FAQ section is the one we want. It's labeled, "BEA Product News Updates: Product News Update: BEA WebLogic Server and WebLogic jDriver End-of-Life Information". The link takes us to a Web page (behind WebSUPPORT) which outlines the end-of-life for WebLogic Server and jDriver products. Note that this user is in trouble: 4.0.x was retired in April 2001.

Example 2
User has a question regarding the feasibility of proxying to multiple WebLogic servers with IIS. She hasn't been able to figure out how to set it up, so she's also considering using multiple instances of the IIS plug-in. She's tried to get that going too, but IIS keeps crashing.

This question has actually come up several times, and it turns out that there is a Microsoft limitation. Neither of the things she wants to do is possible (a workaround is to use Apache, which supports virtual hosting, or NES, which allows proxying to different WebLogic Server instances). Let's go through the process of identifying the right question so we can see how AskBEA can be of service.

The right question: any question will do as long as we get the right keywords: multiple IIS instances. The word multiple could match either case (trying to proxy to multiple WebLogic Servers or using multiple instances of IIS.) So we could use: What are the known problems with multiple IIS instances?

The right knowledge sources: the answer could really be anywhere. If there is a known limitation it should be in the documentation. If it's not, there's probably a newsgroup discussion about it, or perhaps there's a Solution in the SKB. Let's search the documentation first.The result? Not much.

Try the newsgroups next. The result? A nice thread: "Subject: Re: Multiple WebLogic instances using IIS to proxy the requests" was returned. This post is especially enlightening:

We tried to do this & WebLogic doesn't support this config. We opened up a support call with them regarding this, but there is a problem with the way that IIS & NT proxies .JSP pages to the WebLogic servers. It's very unstable this way & I wouldn't recommend this config. We switched to Apache with virtual hosts to do this & it works fine.

It's probably not the answer you want to hear, but it works very well.

An SKB search returned nothing, so it looks like the newsgroup posting was the winner here. A support engineer will probably write a Solution for this though.

So you still might be thinking, "Why not search all the resources at once?" While you can always search "entire site," there are two main reasons not to, assuming you have an idea of the best resource:

  • The more resources you include, the slower the search. It's often quicker to search one source, click back to your browser, select a different source, and search again.
  • The more resources you search, the fewer results are displayed per resource per page (three for multiple resources versus five for a single resource). This will affect the next example.
Example 3 User is experiencing a LockTimedOutException and deadlocking with EJBs in WebLogic 5.1.

The right question: Why do my EJBs deadlock with LockTimedOutException?

The right knowledge sources: you could make a strong argument for newsgroups as well as SKB. Let's try the latter this time.

The result? The fourth link is: "WebLogic Server: S-06714 This deadlock is detected and after a certain timeout (five minutes by default), the deadlock is removed and one of the clients gets a LockTimedOutException." This Solution (anything in the form of S-0#### is a Solution) is exactly what we want. It contains an in-depth explanation of some of the problems that can occur because of the pessimistic locking scheme of EJBs in WebLogic Server 5.1. It also gives some good tips, workarounds, suggestions, etc. Note that if we had included additional resources in the search S-06714, the fourth result, would not have been shown on the first results screen. You would have had to click "More >>" to see it. In this case, three (duplicate) FAQ items (from various docs trees) were returned before the solution.

The answerFriend questionEngine on which AskBEA runs understands the meaning of the user's question and serves up precise, sentence-level answers with a single click that leads to the source documentation. This is a sophisticated, fast, and easy-to-use tool that gives customers the ability to get answers to their questions quickly, accurately, and painlessly. To further facilitate customer access to the final solution to their question, AskBEA includes three important features:

  1. It returns convenient download icon locations for users to recognize the availability of downloadable software including service packs, etc.
  2. Answers that display '*' indicate to customers that access to this information requires WebSUPPORT login.
  3. Answers for multiple versions of the product are made available through a drop-down list.
For details on features and tips on using the service, please see: AskBEA helps to resolve most of the common issues customers run into and provides appropriate references on other issues. However, there may still be a need to obtain expert help from customer support. Some of the steps you take as an end customer before opening a case with BEA customer support will ensure a fast, efficient, and effective resolution process to your issue. How long should you search before deciding to contact customer support? The recommendation is that you search three distinct questions per problem - and make sure to search all of the knowledge resources. If you do file a support case, give the DRE a head start by telling him/her what questions you have already asked AskBEA. Frontline support is actually tasked with asking AskBEA as its first means of finding a solution to your support case. Your specifying the relevant details will eliminate further lag caused due to DRE searching the AskBEA engine for results.

Increased AskBEA Usage
Today, the AskBEA online customer self-help service enables over 10,000 BEA customers (an estimated 250,000 developers) to efficiently access, from one place, precise and relevant answers to their questions. Since its initial launch in July 2000, AskBEA has shown significant results in the usage of the site and the impact on call volumes in customer support. Site activity is increasing steadily with the total daily number of queries on the site for weekdays ranging from 300 in July 2000 to nearly 3,000 in April 2001. The number of weekday queries averages around 2,500 per day. The total number of monthly queries has ranged from 11,000 in July 2000 to over 56,958 in May 2001, a 518% increase in usage of the site!

Positive Impact on Support Resources
As BEA has grown, the number of visitors to www.bea.com and other BEA Web sites has risen dramatically and the Web downloads of BEA products have also increased rapidly. However, the number of cases coming into support from customers evaluating BEA products declined from 20% in June, 2000, before the launch of AskBEA, to 8% in May 2001.

As user experience has grown with AskBEA, so has BEA's ability to improve the engine's performance. By capturing information on questions that return limited or no answers to the user, BEA knowledge workers are able to focus on and analyze those identified knowledge gaps and make continuous improvements in its knowledge sources. Combined with quick turnaround of rapidly changing content that occurs from newsgroup posts and documentation on new product versions, customers are viewing AskBEA as a very reliable source for their support needs.

Site Locations
AskBEA can be accessed through the BEA Customer Support portal (www.bea.com/support/index.jsp), the Developer Center (http://developer.bea.com/index.jsp), and the BEA Product Documentation center (http://e-docs.bea.com/).

The Bottom Line... 'Improved Satisfaction for BEA Customers'
AskBEA has been featured in many industry reports, including Information Week, Network Computing, and ServerWatch. This service is based on a solid foundation of scalable, reliable, and J2EE standards-based BEA WebLogic Server technology. AskBEA, along with other online services including the Developer Center and WebSUPPORT, offers user-centered features such as ease of use, speed, efficiency, and reliability to access the various information sources. Customer feedback is also solicited, with customer input used to continuously improve the support process, support sites, and BEA's products. Use of these services has improved customer satisfaction, reduced call volumes from evaluation customers, and stabilized the incoming rate of customer cases through increased use of online self-help service. This solution has proved an effective and efficient self-service strategy for BEA's customer support to handle the increasing demand for BEA products while continuing to provide world-class support.

More Stories By Kala Jarugumilli

Kala Jarugumilli is currently working as a Manager in the Customer Support Organization in BEA Systems, Inc. She is responsible for Customer Support’s Knowledge Management Strategies at BEA Systems, Inc. Kala has over 4.5 years experience working in Customer Support organizations.

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