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June 1999

Dara Bloom Chatterbots: The Future Of Web-Based Customer Service And Support


Web modules have become standard in call center software: your customers expect to see full-fledged Web integration in knowledge management, self-service and customer relationship applications. At the very least, they expect to see a plan to incorporate online functionality.

Now, a Yankee Group survey confirms this trend. In "The Users Speak: Current and Future Plans for Web-Based Customer Care," released in April 1999, Yankee Group spoke with 100 customer care executives at Fortune 1000 companies and found that 57 percent of respondents currently use the Web for customer support. Of those that do not, 55 percent plan to use the Web for support during the next year or so.

If that's not enough evidence of trend, Yankee Group also reports that by the end of 2001, two-thirds of these companies plan on handling between 25 and 30 percent of all their support requests on the Web. One way they'll do it is with chatterbots: software that simulates conversation with consumers to carry out customer service, tech support, sales and other call center functions online.

Ask Jeeves is perhaps one of the best-known chatterbots, and was originally used for more targeted Web surfing than popular search engines were able to provide. Now, the company licenses its technology to companies such as Dell Computers, which has integrated the chatterbot into its own "Ask Dudley" online technical support product. Ask Jeeves bills its product as a "natural language question-answering service." The solution uses proprietary natural language technology to match a user's question to one of the program's "question templates" and researched links in its knowledge base - you customize the knowledge base for your application. Ask Jeeves becomes "smarter" as more questions are asked and more answers are mapped in the knowledge base.

Other companies creating chatterbots for customer service applications include Neuromedia  and Inference .

Neuromedia's NeuroServer solution automates customer service with a bridge between online and traditional call center-based support. NeuroServer gives call center managers the tools to develop and deploy what Neuromedia calls VSRs (virtual service representatives), which interact with both your customers and CSRs in real-time by combining a natural language interface with your existing Web content. The VSRs have the ability to answer simple, FAQ-type questions, but they can also lead customers through a "flip book" or flowchart-style procedure for problem solving. You needn't be a programmer to customize the VSRs for your specific application; call center managers can "train" the program similar to the way they would train agents; through exposure to your knowledge base.

Inference's chatterbot suite can be used for even the largest service and support needs - the company counts America Online as one of their k-Commerce Support solution customers. Inference attempts to recreate the experience of a customer dealing with a company's best CSR in their k-Commerce suite. The suite of products enables questions and answers to be culled from the entire call center, including Web, e-mail, IVR and text chat. k-Commerce also uses a conversation-based approach to problem resolution. Customers enter their questions in a natural language format and then engage in a question-and-answer "conversation" with the chatterbot to find a solution. This conversation with the online virtual agent captures the knowledge and experience of a company's best agents in a comprehensive knowledge base, and helps provide consistent answers across the call center.

Robert Mirani, senior analyst in the Customer Relationship Management Strategies practice at the Yankee Group, noted that the cautious response to the newness of Web-based customer support technology is abating. "Attitudes are finally shifting now, as the continued growth of Internet users, their demand for electronic interaction and the increasing sophistication of electronic customer care solutions becomes impossible for customer care managers to ignore."

Indeed, the proliferation of Web-based customer service and support applications is the best evidence that this online extension of the call center is here to stay.

The author can be contacted at dbloom@tmcnet.com.

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