While Internet-commerce systems sprout across the land, many merchants are finding that keeping customers happy in this new sales landscape is a difficult proposition. Recently, Chuck Williams, president and CEO of Brightware, sat down with IDG's Matthew Nelson to discuss why responding to Internet customers' needs is crucial.
IDG: Why is there a need for new customer service applications on I-commerce sites?
Williams: It's driven by two factors. First, both consumers and companies want to use the Internet as a medium for communicating and doing business. The second factor is that the current kinds of technical solutions that are available to facilitate customer communications online are woefully inadequate. They're creating lots of dissatisfied customers.
By our informal surveys, over 99 per cent of the people that hit a typical corporate Web site just look and leave. There's massive static content; they can't find what they're looking for. It's like a big online marketing literature pack or set of sales brochures. It's not effective.
Most communication is done via e-mail and you can read many stories and studies to see what a dissatisfying experience it is to send e-mail to most companies.
Customers wait days to get an answer back and then it's not very helpful.
So people want to do business online, but the support simply isn't there with current Web and e-mail technology.
Can you really provide good customer service by issuing automated e-mail responses to questions?
Automating e-mail response is a part of the solution; however, it's not the total solution. But can automated e-mail response be good? The answer to that is unequivocally yes. In fact it's better than doing it with people.
First, you get an automated e-mail response back in seconds.
Typically, for organisations' e-mails that are sent exclusively through people, 24 hours is considered a good response time on the Net today.
Maybe the leading organisations do it in four hours. I'd rather have my answer back in seconds, assuming it's an accurate, correct answer. You're getting the information you need, you're getting your question answered, and you're getting it back in seconds. That creates a lot of customer satisfaction.
What is the biggest problem I-commerce sites are having today?
You've got to break it up into three types of sites. Sites that are primarily marketing sites trying to create awareness of their products and services, I-commerce sites that are actually trying to get people to place orders online, and customer service sites that are trying to deal with after-sale service issues and automate that process through the Internet.
The problems in all three are different.
The marketing sites are losing people. People can't find the information and they don't see the relevance of the Web site content to their own need.
The I-commerce sites have a similar problem. That model today really only works for order taking, for products that you're so familiar with they can just put up a catalogue and take orders. Most companies are not able to take advantage of I-commerce as a business model yet.
And even among the ones that are order takers, there's a very high ratio of lookers to bookers.
There are many more people looking who are qualified buyers who don't actually complete the transaction.
At customer service sites, the problem is it's too expensive and they're getting deluged with e-mail - which is why they're so slow to respond and why the quality of responses is so poor. They need a more effective way to manage that's faster and gives better answers.
What are the important things for people to integrate into their sites to attract and keep customers?
First, you've got to create online agents that will interact with each customer, determine their needs, and dynamically compose the content required to show those customers how you can help them, rather than just having every customer browse the same amount of static content. Early attempts at that are personalisation technologies. Our approach is more sophisticated.
We actually put a virtual sales person or a virtual service rep on your site, interacting with your customer, composing content.
How realistic is the idea of automated agents?
If you mean a full-fledged, back-and-forth natural language dialogue where you're actually having a conversation and it's helping you out, the technology, from a practical business standpoint, isn't there yet. However, it probably will be within a few years.
But the point is, there are things that you can do now. You can do automated understanding of questions and requests. You can do back-and-forth dialogue with specific goals in mind like assessing a person's needs and selling them, if you will, or assessing their problem and finding a solution using more traditional structured form interfaces but still driven by an intelligent engine. Those types of agents are available today.
What will be the next wave of successful Internet sites?
What we've seen is mostly what I call low-end retail. These are products that you know very well because you frequently purchase them - books, CDs, wine, things of that nature. We haven't seen nearly as much success with products that are important purchases, that you make less frequently and therefore need more help on. That includes almost all your financial services products like mortgages, insurance, securities, investments, banking relationships.
It might include high-end retail products like cameras, computers and televisions.
Business to business has been most successful, where you're servicing repeat orders and you've got contracts and the like in place, where a lot of the selling has already been done.
I think with these types of automated customer interaction technologies, they're going to be able to take advantage of I-commerce and get into the game.