Immediate E-Mail Response: A Novel Idea

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Just when you thought you couldn't get more e-mail, a recent report by the Bureau of Business Practice, Waterford, CT, predicts that online users will receive more than 7 trillion messages next year. With that magnitude of e-mail use, businesses need to stay on top of their customers' messages, the Call Center Manager's report said.


One problem is that marketing and sales divisions don't include customer service when deciding on an e-mail system, according to Anna Maria Trusky, editor of the report. Customers who send e-mail expect instant results. Companies need to send instant messages saying they've received the e-mail and will have an answer in 24 hours.


Another study by Jupiter Communications, New York, found that only 24 percent of leading retail shopping sites surveyed responded to questions for information within one day. That's down drastically from third-quarter 1998, when 54 percent of the sites responded within one day. More troublesome is that only 56 percent of those sites ever responded.


When customers place an order online, they don't want to wait days for confirmation or to find out when the product will be delivered. Online customer service is a sore spot for many online customers. According to a report from consulting firm Cognitiative Inc., San Francisco, the following is needed:


• Web users need customer support before, during and after the purchase process.


• Customers' expectations must be set properly at the outset, i.e., the site should state how soon it will respond.


• Same-day response times to customer queries are acceptable, but people prefer responses within a few hours.


• Slow response time negatively impacts customers' impressions of the business behind the site.


The three leading types of systems in the field that address this problem are the hard-coding type, the self-adjusting type and the hybrid-technology type. They are distinct from base-level e-mail management systems, often sitting on top of the base-level e-mail managers as a smart layer. All three are inherently different:


• The hard-coding system uses text-pattern matching, which looks for the keywords in an e-mail and then determines the issue the customer is referring to. The system uses keywords to provide automatic replies to incoming messages by tracking the top questions asked and then letting their client companies set up automatic responses for common questions and answers. The system effectively hard-codes the rules of interaction, which are readable and reflective of the company's message system, making sure that corporate policy is carefully followed.


• The self-adjusting type uses less hard coding, relying more on adaptive behavior. It parses every incoming e-mail message and analyzes the language to determine where it should route the message or which automatic reply it should send. This system is based on neural-network algorithms, which compares different bodies of unstructured text and learns relationships between words through repeated use.


• The hybrid-technology type allows for both self-adjustment and hard coding. Using a large database approach with data mining and phrase-level information, it can use both knowledge entered by human analysts and rules it discovers by itself. Hybrid technology offers a fresh approach that promises to change the way online relationships are built.


As the pace of e-commerce increases, more companies are discovering the need for smarter e-mail management. As Charles Piller said in the Los Angeles Times, "Communicating with the customer is fundamental to retailing - and on the Internet, people expect instantaneous responses. Yet e-commerce communication is shockingly poor."


Although the ability of customers to send e-mail to businesses potentially poses a problem (some companies report receiving as many as 10,000 e-mails a week), at the same time, this presents unique opportunities for Web-savvy companies to create new business.


Smart response systems, such as those mentioned above, are likely - and probably necessary - to help e-commerce companies get ahead of their competition.


Chaz Austin is an independent writer and Web consultant based in Los Angeles. His e-mail address is chaz@chazaustin.com.
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