Get the Right Answer, Right Now

Oh, the curse of enthusiastic customers. If you can't respond to them right away, they quickly become angry customers. RightNow Web might be one way to keep them enthusiastic. It's a tool that automates building and maintaining an online knowledge base where customers can find the answers to their questions.

Start-up RightNow Technologies Inc. produces the software, and first indications are that the Bozeman, Mont.-based company may be on to a good thing.

At Specialized Bicycles Components Inc., a Morgan Hill, Calif., manufacturer of off-road and racing bikes and accessories, the curse of enthusiastic customers appeared in the form of dozens of e-mails per day from people asking for product specifications, dealer locations, troubleshooting tips, warranty details and so forth. Now, before you say, "My company should be so lucky to have such problems," consider this: Specialized didn't have the personnel to answer the inquiries, and it paid a price.

"It made people mad at us that we didn't answer," says Mike Regan, the company's senior manager for global electronic marketing. After a little digging, he found out that his customers were heavily wired: About 80% had Web access. So he married their enthusiasm for their bikes and their enthusiasm for the Web and purchased RightNow Web.

Specialized's situation is a familiar story to Greg Gianforte, CEO of RightNow.

"In most cases, e-mail is a black hole," says Gianforte. "If someone has to send e-mail, the Web site has failed at that point."

RightNow's flagship product, RightNow Web, works by expanding the knowledge base on a company's Web site as questions come in and answers go out. A few questions and answers seed the knowledge base in the beginning, but they won't cover the whole range of possible inquiries, so customers will continue to send information requests. A technician or customer-service person answers the e-mail and posts the question and answer to the knowledge base so the next person can find the answer on the company Web site. Essentially, says Gianforte, the customers themselves write the knowledge base.

This approach allows RightNow clients to get a list of frequently asked questions up and running quickly. In Specialized's case, quickly meant four hours. "We didn't have many questions to start," says Regan, but the company "added five to 10 questions a day."

RightNow Web also has a statistical component that allows users to measure a question's popularity. Frequently accessed questions rise in the hierarchy and get presented sooner, hopefully giving customers the answer sooner. It's a great feature from the standpoint of efficient customer service, says Regan, but he also found a way to use it for market research. He posts a Q&A list about an issue - say, what's better: supergloss color or anodized finish? - in order to gauge customer interest. If no one reads the Q&A, then there's a good chance that customers don't care.

A Growing Market

RightNow has expanded its product line with RightNow E-mail, an automated e-mail management engine, and RightNow Live, which adds an online chat component to Web support. It's part of Gianforte's plan to stake a claim in the nascent electronic customer relationship management market.

Those are steps in the right direction, says Chris Selland, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. RightNow has a good entry-level product, he says. It doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, but it's sufficient for about 80% of the company's potential customers. "They're a good choice if you're looking to get some support capabilities on the Web and get them up there quickly," says Selland, explaining that RightNow's products have a low cost of entry that has made them attractive to a large number of companies.

But RightNow needs to grow in order to maintain its momentum, says Selland. In the future, it will have to provide both inbound and outbound e-mail management - a direction that Gianforte says he agrees with. And RightNow Live has to evolve from a chat-based format to a telephone model, Selland says.

"They're a big success story so far," says Selland, "but the road gets harder from here."

Based in Seattle, Johnson is a contributing writer for Computerworld.

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