FRAMINGHAM (03/10/2000) - The Internet lets companies stay in touch with their customers but at a cost: It can make information technology managers rue the day they launched their corporate Web sites.
For years, customer communications have been funneled into well-staffed and highly automated call centers. Online, however, customers can swamp service departments. But rather than purchasing the licensed software that would help them automate responses to customer e-mail, companies are turning to application service providers (ASP).
"We were getting 4,000 e-mails per month, with two individuals responding - or not responding - to each message," said Ed O'Brien, webmaster at golf club manufacturer Ping Inc. in Phoenix. Adding to O'Brien's frustration was the fact that the answers to most queries were already posted on the company's Web site.
Ping created a series of answers to typical customer questions and gave them to RightNow Technologies Inc. in Bozeman, Mont. RightNow converted the answers into a form its autoresponse software could use. The software analyzes the content of incoming messages to pick the right answers from the knowledge base.
Sharon Nash, operations manager at Allentown, Pa.-based Day-Timers Inc., said she understands why customers use e-mail rather than look for the answers themselves. "E-mail lets people manage their own time better," she said. But they still expect a level of service similar to what they would receive from a technical-support call center.
That's difficult to do when a technician can effectively handle 80 e-mail queries per day but is receiving 500, as was the case at Day-Timers, Nash said.
The company's initial solution was to hire more technical-support people. But Nash said she knew that was only a stopgap.
Her staff tried to write a simple autoresponse application, but Nash wanted detailed reporting capabilities that would have bogged the project down. Nash said she considered buying software to solve the problem but decided she could live without another product to maintain. So she hired IslandData Corp., an ASP in Carlsbad, Calif. "With an ASP, we've been able to respond as a 24/7 operation, even though we certainly don't staff as such," Nash said.
Similarly, O'Brien said he chose RightNow Technologies because of its around-the-clock capabilities, but his main concern was getting the response system up and running quickly.
But cost also mattered to Nicole Sudberg, director of member services at Internet service provider Juno Online Services Inc., an IslandData customer.
"We needed a cost-effective yet literally effective service," she said.
Sudberg's biggest concern was the ASP's software rules engine. New York-based Juno has more than 8 million members, many of whom get their e-mail and Internet access for free.
"We had to have a rules engine that lets premium members go directly through to a live agent" while automatically identifying and answering questions from free-use customers, she said. The autoresponse software analyzes incoming messages and compares them against a database Juno provides to identify premium members.
In addition to wanting a carefully designed rules engine, Sudberg also wanted to have clear expectations for the knowledge base that's used to answer customer questions.
"Automated response is useful for a certain subset of how-to questions," she said. But for more complex technical questions about issues such as compatibility or connectivity, live technical support is still necessary.
"What happens when a customer who has had e-mail communication with you suddenly arrives on the call center phone line?" asked Tim Hickernell, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.
"You have to make sure the data is linked so that the call center knows about the customer situation on e-mail," he said. With an ASP, data resides off-site and could be more difficult to integrate with overall customer support operations, according to Hickernell.
Katrina Menzigian, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said that even dot-com start-ups that use ASPs for automatic responses to e-mail will need a call center. "A Web site needs people to back it up," she said.
That's because even the best-thought-out knowledge base won't answer all questions, said O'Brien. "Five to 10 percent of the questions we respond to come back as being unresolved," he said.
Nash said that about 40 percent of initial e-mail queries get escalated to Day-Timers' call center. She said the more complex the product is, the greater the chance for escalation.
Hickernell advised, "If you have [a return on investment] based on reduced call center staff, you'd better revise your plan."