Hot Bots And Customer Service

Are your customers satisfied?

You may not actually know. While every site inevitably has its share of disgruntled surfers who seem to be on a mission from God to find every flaw and notify you of every bug, many people who are dissatisfied with their experience simply go somewhere else.

And why not? With the millions of sites on the web right now, I know that I certainly won’t stick around and mess with an unfriendly, hard-to-use site. You can bet your customers are the same way. And its probably costing your e-commerce ventures a good bit of money.

A recent study from Creative Good points out just how expensive bad customer service can be. Its “Holiday ’99” study puts a total figure of $6 billion (yes, with a “B”) dollar figure on bad customer service.

Arriving at this figure by comparing functionality on some of the top e-commerce sites, Creative Good found that 39 percent of users never completed the buying process because the sites were “too difficult.” Even more frightening, over 55 percent of users couldn’t find what they were looking for in their attempts to search for products — an expensive problem.

“If just half of them had resulted in a purchase,” states Mark Hurst, author of the study, “the online retail industry would stand to earn another $7.9 billion this holiday season.

Scary stuff. And nothing new.

Since Forrester released a figure a few months ago stating that nearly 70 percent of online shoppers abandoned their shopping carts in mid-buy due to site frustrations, we’ve been aware of the financial impact of bad sites and poor customer service. Yet, despite these dire warnings, no one’s really done anything about it yet, and the looming Customer Service Crisis has yet to get the media attention it really deserves.

Why?

It could be that customer service just isn’t sexy enough. After all, when IPOs make mega-millionaires out of college student hackers and…ummm… questionable technologies such as iSmell grace the covers of magazines such as Wired (this month’s issue), something as analog and as basic as actually focusing on functionality just doesn’t seem to stir the bowels of the cyber punditry.

But the real reason, I believe, that customer service issues haven’t moved to the fore is because they force us to confront something that goes against e-biz conventional wisdom: that you just can’t slap up a bunch of HTML, a good e-commerce server, get some funding, make a big media splash, and get rich with three employees.

Customer service means dealing with customers. And dealing with customers means call centers. And call centers means employees. And employees means…ugh!… overhead. The e-biz starts to look a lot like the old-biz.

Or maybe not. While there’s no substitute for a real, live human being when someone’s calling with a complicated tech support question or wants assistance with a complicated purchase, there are technologies that can stand in to handle routine inquiries.

Now these technologies won’t solve all your problems — if your site sucks and it takes people 20 minutes to purchase a widget, it’ll still suck — but they can help users feel as if they can get the answers they need in a natural, free-form fashion. Instead of having to figure out how you organized the answers they need, they can ask questions naturally by typing them into a chat-like text field and getting an answer or a helpful link.

While they do conjure up visions of the Jetsons, chatterbots are real and they do work. Tracing their lineage back to the mainframe game “Eliza” and through early experiments in artificial intelligence, chatterbots are programs with appropriately limited vocabularies that behave like real, live customer service agents.

Customers can engage in simple conversations about your products, ask questions about your site, and the chatterbot will respond with the information they need. The secret is that they work because their realm of knowledge is limited — they can have pretty coherent conversations with your customers about your products or the site but they usually act puzzled if your customers want to chat about their children or the cunning antics of their pets. But that’s a problem with human reps, too.

Neuromedia has been building virtual sales and service representatives for over a year now, and their vRep technology represents a great example of the state of the art in virtual customer service.

Having the ability to automatically load web pages, answer a wide variety of questions, and provide data on customer feedback, vRep is a great way to add value and service to your site. Recently, recognizing the importance of live, real-time customer support during e-commerce transactions, Neuromedia has also rolled out its Neurocommerce system which interoperates with electronic commerce systems.

Best of all, Neuromedia’s programming system is simple enough for content creators to use – you don’t have to be a programmer to create a realistic virtual sales assistant. If you haven’t clicked on the link above yet, do so now and have a conversation with Red, their own vRep — it’s pretty cool stuff.

The Big Science Company takes the virtual sales representative one anthropomorphical step forward with its Klone Server technology.

Building on the same base as Neuromedia’s product — a live, natural language, chat-based interface — Klone Server can even integrate pictures of real people with various expressions into its feedback, giving an uncanny impression that your chatting with a live person.

Using a case-based reasoning system, Klones can adapt and learn from your customers by having the ability to ask questions that help the customer clarify her question. Especially useful for complex tasks involving integrated systems, the Klone Server can even send emails, query databases, or submit dynamically-generated forms to remote web sites such as search engines. Based on Java 1.1, Klone Server works on any platform that supports Java, helping head off potential compatibility issues.

Sure it sounds like science fiction. But who would have believed today’s Internet 10 years ago? Check out the leading edge of today’s chatterbox technology and see what they can do for your customer service quandaries. You may not be able to afford not to.

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