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Live help is on the way

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In the rich-media environment of the Internet, customers are not only demanding top-notch service, they want it instantly-and across multiple media.

"Customer service is probably the No. 1 thing on the minds of Global 2000 companies in the online environment today," said Gunjan Sinha, president and co-founder of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based eGain Communications Corp., a provider of Internet services such as text messaging, Web collaboration and e-mail management. "The difference between success and failure is linked to customer service, which allows companies to build a relevant, profitable relationship with their customers."

In an effort to build those relationships, marketers are turning to Web-enabled technologies, such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and text messaging, to help them respond to customers faster and better. Voice, or "click-to-talk," technology allows agents to talk with users in real-time through their computers. Text messaging, or interactive chat, allows users to have instant written conversations. Experts say the technologies have the potential to build customer loyalty and close sales because immediate human contact is established.

"People mistakenly view the Web as a replacement for your customer service," said Jeff Gaus, VP of e-commerce marketing for Princeton, N.J.-based ITXC Corp., which provides its Push-to-Talk Service to businesses such as Hilton.com and Autobytel.com Inc.

"Companies thought you could do this completely without people," Gaus said. "One of the dirty little secrets of the Internet is that Amazon.com has a massive call center with 1,000 representatives. Nothing replaces the emotional bond of a human voice."

Voice over IP technology sends audio packets over the Web or through a private network using Internet protocols. To receive the phone call, users must have a computer equipped with a sound card, speakers and a microphone. Companies that host this service must be prepared for enormous demands on their bandwidth, especially if they are receiving many inbound calls at the same time.

Rob Veschi, president-CEO of Zeroplus.com Inc., a provider of Internet-based long-distance services, said the chief benefit of voice over IP is the ability to keep customers glued to a Web site, especially when they may be tempted to flee because they're confused or frustrated. For users with a single phone line, it's easier to leave a site than to disconnect and dial a number to find help.

"If people need to walk away from that site and literally pick up the phone, there's a great chance that you've lost the sale," Veschi said. "You need to convince them at the point of sale."

Zeroplus is building a technology that will allow companies to create voice-enabled Web sites to connect with their suppliers and vendors over a nationwide private voice over IP network. Pointing out one of the drawbacks of voice over IP, Veschi said the private network is necessary to ensure that voice streams aren't broken up by clogged traffic on the open Internet.

Text over tech?

Besides the sometimes-spotty connections, voice over IP also is hampered by its tech requirements. Hence, text messaging is being adopted much faster than voice over IP. Text costs less to implement and doesn't force the end user to add hardware, such as a sound card and a microphone.

"Voice over IP, as good as it sounds, depends on high bandwidth," said Esteban Kolsky, senior research analyst at Gartner Group Inc. "Packets can get lost. There might be some delay there. It's not the best use of technology if people are connecting at 2800 baud. VoIP implementation will be a lot more expensive currently" than providing text messaging.

That's why companies are beginning to turn to application service providers, such as eGain or LivePerson Inc., which can provide voice-enabled tools for about $1 to $2 per call and text messaging for $300 to $750 per month per customer service representative.

Text-messaging provider LivePerson charges a one-time set fee of $2,000 and $350 per month for each agent. Among its 800 customers are several online exchanges, such as MetalSite.com, SupplierMarket.com and Marex.com.

Larry Wasserman, VP-marketing for New York-based LivePerson, said text messaging is more efficient than traditional call centers because reps can serve up to four people at once.

LivePerson's technology also allows the agent to "push" Web pages to customers so they can fill out a complicated order form together or share applications. And because representatives can identify the caller's profile and history instantaneously, they're able to make sales pitches as well as solve problems. Meanwhile, the caller might be sent related interstitial advertising on his desktop.

From service to sales

"Traditional customer service reps were reactive," Wasserman said. "When you start adding live chat, they can now up-sell and generate leads. You're turning them into a sales staff."

EGain's Sinha said businesses can begin to see huge benefits when they create a suite of services that integrates the spectrum of customer-service touch points, from a simple "frequently asked questions" page to a robust voice over IP function. For instance, using eGain's self-service and knowledge management software, DaimlerChrysler AG said it decreased waiting time at its call center for auto technicians threefold, from six minutes to two minutes.

"If you put together the right self-service strategy and can elevate that into a live text chat or voice over IP session if necessary, you have built a really powerful customer service package," Sinha said. "From the companies' standpoint, this allows them to manage the entire range of customer interaction."

Still, technology requirements may slow the widespread adaptation of high-level customer service-at least for a couple of years.

"The ability to leverage existing [IT] investments and provide a low-tech solution faster has pushed interactive chat into the lead," Kolsky said. "I do expect VoIP to gain more acceptance within the next one to two years, with an increased implementation rate in the two- to five-year period. Meanwhile, I don't expect interactive chat to slow down, but rather be improved over the same time. Ultimately, all sites will have these two being as ubiquitous as the e-mail link today."

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