Inference Unveils E-Commerce Automation Software

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Inference Corp. is working to build its reputation beyond that of a customer service automation company with the introduction of new Internet marketing software - technology that will factor heavily in the company's restructuring strategy announced last month.


The firm introduced k-Commerce for Sales version 2.0 last week and hopes the software will appeal to e-commerce players, many of which have more immediate concerns than how well their customer service works.


"Everybody's looking at the top-line number," said Willem Maas, product marketing manager for k-Commerce Sales.


Inference, Novato, CA, has long been in the customer support automation business, selling software that helps run customer contact centers. Last month, Inference said it will divide the company into two units, one that still specializes in support and another that concentrates on merchandising technology for Web sites.


"We have two very focused objectives for this business in the year 2000," Maas said of k-Commerce Sales, the merchandising technology division. "One is to raise mindshare for this side of the business. Inference is not known as a player in the e-commerce space." The other, he added, is bringing in $7 million in revenue from the merchandising product by year end.


It's an ambitious goal for a company that had revenue of $22.9 million last year - a drop-off of 26 percent from 1998. Inference slid deeper into the red last year as well, losing $12.7 million, compared with a loss $1.9 million in 1998.


Garnering its share of the e-commerce technology boom means serving the priorities of e-marketers, whose needs differ from bigger, established companies that want to automate their customer service centers, said Bob Tatemichi, vice president and general manager of the k-Commerce Sales division.


Despite much talk during this past year among e-businesses and Net industry pundits about the importance of shoring up customer service, Tatemichi has found that, for the most part, online marketers are preoccupied with revenue rather than customer support.


"That's kind of the short-term mentality of the dot-coms," he said. "Today they're saying, 'Forget it. Just help me sell something. Help me grow this revenue stream. We'll worry about support later.' "


So the company introduced the first version of its sales technology last year. K-Commerce Sales has about 15 customers. A few of them, including health site drkoop.com Inc. and virtual bridal registry WeddingChannel.com, are being upgraded to version 2.0 now. Inference licenses the software for prices starting at $100,000.


K-Commerce Sales is a "rules engine," meaning marketers can use it to design the way their e-mail campaigns flow and how their Web site responds to visitors. It examines information customers have entered into the site through polls and registrations as well as their previous buying patterns. Other factors come into play such as when customers last visited the site, how long they stay and whether they respond well to cross-promotions.


The technology is designed to let marketers set up rules that automatically generate particular promotions, offers or other responses on the Web site based on those consumer profiles. It generates reports as well.
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