December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Mel Crone wants e-retailers to get technical---and he`s bet his savings on it

What makes Mark Crone tick is what isn’t ticking-or playing movies or sending faxes. That’s why the 32-year-old engineer turned consultant turned Internet entrepreneur has staked his career, not to mention his savings account, on a customer service business known as SupportCity.com. “Deep down, I am a problem solver.” says Crone, the New York company’s founder and CEO. “I like finding problems that cause pain for businesses and their customers, then coming up with creative solutions.”

For a customer who just bought a new DVD player from an online store, nothing causes more pain than making repeated and unsuccessful attempts to the site’s technical support area to find out why it won’t play movies as described. Without an answer-and soon-it’s likely the retailer also may feel the customer’s pain by getting the goods back. Crone, who considers technical support “the next frontier” for Internet retailers, wants to change all that. He believes that the experience should go something like this:

Unable to solve the problem by reading the instructions, the customer sits down at the computer and taps out the Web address for the site that sold him the product. He clicks on technical support, and up pops a page asking him to choose a manufacturer and product type from pull-down menus. That done, he chooses “Frequently Asked Questions.” And from there, he’s whisked off to the manufacturer’s site and to a page listing questions and answers expressly for that product-exactly where he needs to be. Browsing through the list, the customer finds the answer to the problem that has stumped him, grateful that others have “frequently” asked that question. Problem solved, the customer can sit back and enjoy the show.

This scenario illustrates everything the Internet promises to be: quick, efficient and better than interminable telephone calls to the manufacturer or a trip back to a brick-and-mortar store to search out a salesperson knowledgeable enough to offer any kind of help.

“Consumers are increasingly comfortable buying on the Web,” says Crone. “The hard part is using what they’ve purchased. It’s imperative that retailers focus more on helping consumers do that.”

Research proves his pilosophy. According to e-commerce rating firm BizRate, the 20% of shoppers who contact Web stores for customer service of any kind are 23% less likely to return to those stores, than those who don’t seek assistance. Yet no e-retailer selling electronics is equipped to offer technical support for the dizzying array of makers and models out there. Crone says he’s hit on the solution with SupportCity, which supplies Web merchants with electronic content that consumers access directly from retail sites. Customers who click on technical support at Buy.com-one of SupportCity’s dozen clients-never know they’ve left the discount retailer’s site until they land on the manufacturer they need. But Crone’s site has led them there, powered by a database containing links to 1,100 manufacturers’ Web sites, along with definitions for 9,500 technical terms, locations of 6,500 service providers, product descriptions and other relevant information.

Crone’s challenge is to build breadth and volume, and that means lining up a crowd of retailers and manufacturers behind his idea. “Getting SupportCity to a critical mass quickly is key,” says Robert Evans, a principal investor who’s president of Aspect Development, a Mountain View, Calif. firm that creates software and offers consulting services. “As the number of people who use the service increases, so does the number of retailers and parti-cipating manufacturers, so the value to all three parties grows exponentially.”

Keeping customers happy

Crone has the tenacity to make it work, says Evans, who was Crone’s boss when both worked in the supply chain practice at Andersen Consulting in the mid-1990s. That’s where Crone hit on the idea for SupportCity. “I worked with some of the biggest companies in the world and saw how they struggled with serving their customers, especially after the point-of-sale,” says Crone. “They wanted to know how to keep the customer happy, how to keep the relationship going.”

Crone decided SupportCity was the answer. After giving his idea a few years to gel, Crone ran it by Evans and a few others he respected. They liked what they heard, and in May 1997, Crone quit what Evans calls “an outstanding career in consulting” to write his business plan. He seeded the business with $100,000 in savings, later boosted by Evans’s investment.

The decision to strike out on his own came easy, Crone says. “I never wavered. I decided I could take my money and invest it in the stock market or I could invest in my own venture. I had confidence in what I was working on, so it made much more sense for me to plow my money into SupportCity.”

Leaving Andersen wasn’t the first time Crone stepped away from a solid job to try something new. Earlier, he had been designing engines as a mechanical engineer at Ford Motor Co. when he decided to quit and get his MBA, which led to his consulting job.

The analytical skills Crone developed as an engineer helped him succeed as a consultant, and he honed those skills working with businesses to solve logistics issues at Andersen. He used sales data and other information to help clients determine where they should locate their warehouses, for example-“classic industrial engineering problem,” he says.

The same skills come in just as handy running an Internet business. “The skill I’ve drawn on most often from my past life as a consultant is the ability to approach problems and communications very logically,” he says. Because ideas move quickly on the Internet and can spin out in so many directions, thinking logically is a survival skill, a way to keep the business on track. At the same time, Crone relishes the many surprises and solutions to problems that come his way. “No two days are ever the same,” he explains. “You have no idea who is going to call you on a given day and propose some really interesting idea that may turn your business in a slightly different direction. That’s lacking at more traditional industrial companies, where things are much more predictable and your time is spent in ways that are consistent across days.”

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