December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

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

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Crone is merging the two worlds with SupportCity, which set out to solve an age-old business problem: giving customers both good information and good technical support for what they buy. The problem, hardly unique to online stores, is amplified by the fact that physical stores typically carry several thousand products, while many e-retailers sell tens of thousands. Yet Crone says the Internet also offers novel ways of solving technical support troubles. SupportCity’s information is almost all Web-based, and it’s shared over the Internet.

Customers find SupportCity’s services both easy to access and easy to understand, says Buy.com executive Franny Kirchoff, whose superstore uses SupportCity to back up the lines of computer hardware, software and consumer electronics it sells.“It would take us a considerable amount of time to gather the information that SupportCity provides,” she says. Buy.com previously referred customers to the manufacturer, using a list of toll-free phone numbers. But now, says Kirchoff, “our customers have better information, and that’s eased the burden on our customer service department representatives.”

In these still-early stages of SupportCity’s development, Crone has worked closely with retailers to identify the information they most want to give consumers. Along the way, SupportCity’s products have evolved. Retailers that sign up for the basic version give their customers a list of manufacturers, coupled with a long list of information on how to contact the company or link to its Web site. A newer and more sophisticated version gives consumers a third option for narrowing down their request-product type-and they receive a much shorter list of information targeted to the product.

SupportCity’s latest and priciest version lets consumers select a manufacturer, product type and form of support. They can head directly to a manufacturer’s technical support site, link up with a service center, browse a list of term definitions, check out third-party links or scroll through information on parts and accessories. If Crone can convince manufacturers to give him data on all of their products, SupportCity also plans to add that.

Along with technical support features, SupportCity allows consumers to create a personal “supportfolio” that keeps track of their searches as well as the goods they have purchased.

Retailers pay fees that range from $1,000 to $8,000 per month to incorporate SupportCity services into their customer service and technical support features. The price varies according to the number of manufacturers listed.

For all these advantages, signing up with SupportCity doesn’t allow retailers to set themselves apart from the competition, says David Cooperstein, research director at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. Though it is a good way to connect customers to technical support, he adds, each online store using SupportCity is giving customers the same information. “It doesn’t give retailers differentiation based on the content they’re providing. Some retailers will want to build their own content.”

That’s just the problem, says Crone, who wants to make technical support a more unified and consistent experience. Customers seeking technical support generally aren’t happy customers, he explains, so original content may do more to frustrate than engage them.

Nor does assembling the site’s technical content-and keeping it up and current-come cheap. Crone employs three full-time staff members and also brings in freelancers when needed to keep SupportCity up to date. The information his staff assembles isn’t in itself a competitive issue, he says.

“Consumers are increasingly using the technology surrounding them, and it’s becoming much more important in their lives,” maintains Crone. “A cell phone is much more than a toy-it’s a critical communication tool. People really just want it to work.”

Mark Reed Crone

- Experience

June 1997 to present: Founder and CEO, SupportCity.com, New York City

August 1993 to May 1997: Manager in the logistics and supply chain practice, Andersen Consulting, New York

August 1989 to August 1991: Mechanical engineer, Ford Motor Co, Dearborn, Mich.

Organizations: National Association of Purchasing Managers, International Center of New York (language instruction for immigrants), Association of Support Professionals.

Education 1989: B.S. in industrial engineering and economics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. 1993: MBA in corporate finance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.

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