|Sidebar: FAQs Are Stubborn Things
By David R. Butcher, Assistant Editor,
Customer Inter@ction Solutions'
A section for FAQs (frequently asked questions) is novel, beneficial
and efficacious for Web sites' customer self-service ' if it were
still 1993. But at present, we habitually ask questions and expect them to
be clearly, distinctively and promptly answered. So why not allow
individual site-, application- or company-related questions to be
immediately answered on a specific and individual basis?
Conversagent (called Active Buddy until eight months ago), a
conversational software solutions provider based in New York City and
Sunnyvale, CA, enables companies to deploy natural language applications
to solve problems that occur in businesses. Targeting the automated
customer service market, it generates resolve as represented in
improvement of customer service, rise of employees' productivity and
increase of marketing effectiveness.
Employing its new 3.0 version of the Automated Service Agent (ASA)
System, Conversagent users type questions in their own words using a
text-chat interface and receive immediate and accurate responses to their
natural language inquiries. The interactive agents are software
applications (often referred to as 'bots' or 'robots') that
interact with users. Conversagent's new service uses a single ASA
deployed simultaneously over multiple communication channels, including
any interface that supports two-way messaging, such as the Web, instant
messaging services and wireless. ASA does not require client software to
be downloaded for interaction.
Whereas traditional online self-service has companies attempt to
discern customers' intentions by analyzing a click stream or other
rudimentary measure, companies that adopt Conversagent can capture
customers' actual intentions by exercising the ASA. ASA is Web-based and
secure reporting and analysis tools allow companies to view customers'
most frequently asked questions, among many other items. Companies can
also track detailed traffic information.
Coversagent Server will integrate with existing CRM systems, running on
Linux (Red Hat version 7.3 or greater) or Windows 2000/XP/Windows Server
2003, and its technology smoothly complements and integrates with
'full-circle' support solutions. ASA systems can be installed on the
company's premises or employed as a managed service. In both cases, they
can be integrated with back-end systems to access customer-specific
information or to resolve more complex issues involving external data. Its
scripting language provides means for authenticating customer identities
and delivering accessed information in a unified, conversational way to
The genesis of this interactive agent betided as a demo called
Smarterchild, which Conversagent still uses as the foundational basis, and
was released via Instant Messenger (IM) in 2000, adapting to shorthand
text and 'IM language,' by which words are not necessarily spelled out
but understood through the use of symbols and cryptic, receded language
(e.g., how many emails im allowed 2 keep?). Because Conversagent's
origins manifested through IM, it is not built of a lexicon or a
painstakingly precise arrangement of words (i.e., a stock of terms
This, therefore, allows users to ask questions without having to ask in
a specific tone or style, or with a meticulously chosen phrase the company
has designated. Whereas FAQs and search techniques typically are
predetermined and require customers to describe issues in words familiar
to the company, Conversagent allows customers to use vocabulary and
phraseology familiar to them. In other words, users ask questions in their
own words, for accurate answers translated to their personal speech. It
can also acclimate to any Western language, and can be customized to other
languages for the company by Conversagent.
Unlike other virtual agent technologies of a similar sort (Ask Jeeves,
etc.), Conversagent compasses its mission in responding to questions with
specific answers, rather than with links to possible answers. It does so
with immediacy, as opposed to with the delay that can come when requesting
information through e-mail or possible lengthy holding on the phone. The
immediacy of this ASA session provides a level of personalization
generally associated with live agent help. It does so at a significantly
lower cost, as well.
Often, the user finds irrelevance in the search engine's list of
results to a question posed, and the customer then escalates to a live
agent customer service channel. As well as invoke frustration on the
customers' part, this dilemma also drives up costs to the company.
However, because interactive agents are programmed to answer inquiries
rapidly and accurately, higher-cost support channels are able to handle
more complex transactions, allowing for both financial and time savings
for the company that employs the software. Freeing the support
professionals so they may focus on higher-value customer cases is one of
the attempts to minimize costs, and hitherto, enables Conversagent to cost
20 cents (average) per ASA session versus the four-plus dollars per
session for attended service.
The conversational application paid for itself in less than a month at
Comcast, the first company to use Conversagent's product, according to
Conversagent CEO Stephen Klein, although he was unable to offer numbers to
Customer Inter@ction Solutions' about the implementation with Comcast.
Comcast, a cable and broadband communications provider, employs
Conversagent ASA to apply the software to a tool called Ask Comcast, which
allows customers to ask questions in the aforementioned conversational
language (although Comcast does still offer a FAQs directory, as well as a
search engine). It also provides a link to live chat so that if it fails
to answer a question, customers are immediately elevated to live support.
If the customer does require intervention of a live support
professional, the ASA can seamlessly escalate the customer, along with
detailed information regarding the inquiry. It can also recognize customer
statements that indicate frustration, automatically escalating
particularly bristly questions. While many FAQ virtual agents attract
off-topic questions or abhorrent statements due to user chagrin,
Conversagent has the ability to retort with professional diplomacy or
humorous reciprocation, depending upon the company's marketing goals and
audience. For instance:
Off-topic/frustrated customer question: 'Do you dress in ladies'
muumuus and bathe in Spanish rice?'
Possible response 1: 'That's mean. Apologize or your original
question will not be answered.' (Referring, of course, to the inquiry
prior to the inappropriate inquest.)
Possible response 2: 'I don't understand the question, and you will
now be connected to a live agent.'
However, one quirk occurred when I engaged in an arbitrary conversation
with 'Chat Bot,' the other side of conversation of the chat demo on
Conversagent's Web site. Chat Bot asked what type of food I liked (after
I inanely asked it what snack food it liked ' I did say arbitrary), and
I replied 'animal crackers' (I prefer frosted over plain or iced). To
this, the ASA inquired (and I am not making this up): 'They r people.
What are your feelings about white people?'
Klein's response to the anomaly was that it was due to the
company's 'processing of the word 'cracker' in response to people
'teaching' Smarterchild that 'cracker' means white person.' When
SmarterChild encounters usages that it's unfamiliar with, it often asks
users what a word means. Or if SmarterChild has some knowledge about a
word or topic, it asks users for further information on the subject (as it
did here, asking my opinion about white people because of the word
'cracker'). Conversagent's Web site uses the chat domains from
SmarterChild and features much of what SmarterChild has learned from its
'We score these 'learnings' very high, as they represent topics
that are highly used by SmarterChild's audience, and we like to reveal
the technology's brains-that-learn more than its sometimes boring
existing knowledge,' Klein continued.
In its IM logs ' handling about 250,000 IM sessions a day ' there
occurs objectionable language. SmarterChild has reporting features that
alert the company to new knowledge that the program incorporates into its
speech. The knowledge about 'crackers' that SmarterChild learned was
likely not deemed offensive and was, therefore, permitted to go live in
So should the chat demo that runs on the Conversagent site feature this
learned information? Or should it stick to built-in responses only? (The
drama here lies in my not answering the question.) Conversagent, for its
Web site, opted for the full-learning approach, as it 'makes for a more
dynamic product.' However, it is rare, Klein said, when someone using
the site ' less engaged users than the IM crowd ' hits one of the
Despite Conversagent's one kinky conundrum, the ASA's ardor
ostensibly substantiates its conjecture ' I found the solution to be
The unspecific and impersonal way in which the acronym's
customer-serving page (FAQ) has traditionally been presented in other
solutions, and the search techniques' often vague labyrinth of elusive
ambiguity, both may call to mind a Talking Heads song, which laments:
'Facts are simple and facts are straight/Facts are lazy and facts are
late/Facts all come with points of view/Facts don't do what I want them
Facts-searching. Or FAQs. The lyrics are apt in both miens. And now
there's a new alternative to make them do what you want them to.
[Return To The August 2004 Table Of