Marketers say the software can lead to more sales by reacting quickly to consumers while they're in a purchasing state of mind.
"You can view it as an easy way to answer questions, and that's terrific," said Sean Marsh, VP-sales and marketing for Access National Mortgage (www.discountmortgages.com), which is in the final stages of installing Advice Agent and Answer Agent software from Brightware, Novato, Calif. He said the real goal is not just answering questions, but increasing productivity and moving people to the next step in the sales process.
"As much as people are asking something, they're also telling you something about themselves, which helps you to sell them," Mr. Marsh said.
Other companies that have recently added or are in the process of adding the Brightware intelligent software include: Software developer Egghead.com; banks including Chase Manhattan Bank, Wells Fargo and Bank of America; traditional mortgage company CountryWide; and high-speed Internet service provider MediaOne.
Brightware CEO Chuck Williams said his system allows customers on a site to ask questions or seek advice and, in most cases, receive an instant e-mail response. The system is individually tailored to each client with certain keywords or frequently asked questions prescripted into e-mail.
"The problem is the Internet is not a satisfying experience for customers right now. There's too much content and a lot of [users] are getting frustrated and leaving," he said. Brightware software "can help [sites] pull customers into the sales funnel."
WebAnswers -- with clients including iCat Corp. online catalog vendor, Fuji Photo Film USA and Telepost Web communications service -- offers a more hands-on variation with instant answers within a pop-up window right on the site, so customers don't even have to check e-mail.
Eric Ornas, president of WebAnswers, said he has seen great growth in demand for this kind of service, especially in the past six months.
"People are starting to understand how important customer service is," he said. "I believe it's tied to e-commerce becoming a hot topic, but also the evolution of the market. People are starting to realize all the pieces needed to transact business on the Web. First you have to have the e-commerce system in place, but next comes the sales experience, and that's where we fit in."
MediaOne, which sells Road Runner high-speed Internet access service, uses Brightware as a support tool for its own staff. Instead of automatically sending responses directly back to customers, the system sends potential or prequalified answers to MediaOne's technical support staff for review. The staff then determines the appropriate answer and forwards the e-mail on.
Still, Dave Temlak, VP-customer care for MediaOne, said the software effectively develops answers for about 40% of the e-mail traffic.
"That translates directly to money savings and we expect that to go to 60% of our e-mail before the end of the year," he said.