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Dara Bloom Remote Control

Editor, TMCnet.com™

[July 29, 1999]

Tapping Synergy Between Chatterbots And Live Agents

Meet Andrette. She's your ideal customer service representative: smart, helpful, and demonstrative. She likes "knock knock" jokes. She's also a software robot, or chatterbot.

Chatterbots, as defined by Tom Rearick, the president of Big Science Company, are software robots with a conversational, text-based interface. They're programs that can "converse" with humans through text chat.

Regardless of her droid status, Andrette can take you on a Web site tour, answer questions about company history, and point you to product specs. But what if your next question stumps her? You want immediate help, and you don't want to talk to a software program. What you want is to speak to a real, live call center agent. Enter, FaceTime Communications.

This week, Big Science announced a partnership with FaceTime that combines automated customer support through Big Science's Klones (chatterbots like Andrette) with live operators using FaceTime's flagship product, Message Exchange.

Big Science Lets Klones Do The Chatting
The brain behind Andrette is Big Science's Klone Server. Klone Server is middleware that works with any operating system supporting Java 1.1 and a Web server with support for Java servlets. This includes Windows NT 4.0, Unix (Solaris, HP-UX, SCO, and Linux), Netware, Mac, OS/400, OS/390, OS/2, and AIX on RS/6000. The list of Web servers is equally expansive, including Apache, Microsoft IIS, Lotus Domino, and Netscape. Just one Pentium II processor in a server can power more than 500 simultaneous conversations.

Klones, which can be thought of as knowledge worker avatars, can:

  • answer simple questions across subject domains as broad as your company's knowledge base;
  • apply process knowledge to infer customer goals and accomplish them;
  • access back office processes on the customer's behalf;
  • solve complex problems within narrow subject domains; and
  • escalate problems (including the question and answer session that's already transpired between Klone and customer) to a call tracking system, telephone call-back, instant messaging client chat, or e-mail address.

All end users need is a frames-enabled Web browser. By default, applications don't necessarily set cookies or download embedded script, although they can. Each interaction with the Klone typically involves a total end user refresh of less than 12 K worth of HTML code and .gif or .jpg graphics.

The operation and performance of chatterbot applications can be monitored in real-time via the Web by call center managers or Webmasters. You'll have transcripts of Klone/customer interactions, a list of the top 20 questions asked, and other traditional call center performance metrics at your fingertips.

For more information on the technology behind the Klone Server, read Big Science's white paper. To talk to Andrette, the Klone on Big Science's Web site, go to www.bigscience.com/.

FaceTime's Live Interface To The Web
FaceTime is an ASP, or application service provider. There are a number of benefits to using an ASP as opposed to buying the technology outright and hosting the solution yourself: lower capital outlay, lower risk, and much lower maintenance. Scott Sherman, a FaceTime sales rep, sums it up: using an ASP "takes all the fear out of something like this."

The FaceTime Message Exchange has two services, which can be purchased separately or together:

Instant Messaging
FaceTime Instant Messaging allows customers to click a button on your Web site to initiate a text chat with a live call center agent. During the interaction, both the agent and customer can exchange text messages, and can embed active hyperlinks within those messages. Agents can also pop open the customer's browser and direct them to a particular Web page that's relevant to their discussion. FaceTime's messaging is compatible with all Yahoo!, AOL, and MSN's chat systems, too.

FaceTime Instant Messaging comprises three components: the FaceTime Messenger that the customer uses, the FaceTime Agent Workstation which manages conversations between the agent and customers, and FaceTime tools to administer, monitor, and report usage of the instant messaging.

E-mail Management
FaceTime E-mail Management services are similar to the offerings of other e-mail ACD programs on the market. With FaceTime Message Exchange, all incoming customer e-mail is tracked, routed, and catalogued for later retrieval. You can eliminate lost or languishing e-mail by setting specific routing criteria that automatically re-directs unanswered messages after a set time period based on your settings.

This module covers four basic areas of e-mail management:

  • Sends customers an automatic receipt acknowledging their e-mail
  • Routes incoming messages and maintains conversation "threads"
  • Manages service levels so you can prioritize replies and set alerts when service level objectives are not being met
  • Catalogs all messages in a database for easy reporting.

For a demo of FaceTime's Messaging Exchange, go to: www.facetime.net/Products/demo/demo.html

Tapping Synergy
There are two scenarios in which Big Science and FaceTime are positioning their partnership. In the first case, live agents are the default and Big Science's Klones pick up the slack during off-hours (after live agents have called it quits for the night) and during peak traffic times. In this way, customers have an immediate, interactive   interface that goes beyond self-help menus to get answers even when live agents aren't available.

In the second scenario, Big Science's virtual agents are on the front line of customer service. Customers go to the chatterbot first to find answers to frequently asked questions and general information. If the Klone is unable to help the customer, it escalates that interaction to a live agent through Messaging Exchange. This eliminates much of the strain on call center agents, as they are relieved from answering repetitive basic queries and information requests. The costs go down, too, as fewer agents are utilized for service now being handled by the chatterbot.

Both solutions meet common company goals: reducing costs (with fewer call center agents) and keeping customers happy (by giving them multiple contact options). The ink on the Big Science/FaceTime deal is barely dry, so it will be interesting to see actual deployments of this joint solution in the coming months. Expect to see similar partnerships in the industry announced throughout this year as customer support via the Web grows and matures.

Dara Bloom welcomes your comments at dbloom@tmcnet.com.

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