Cahoots Becomes Latest Entrant in Live Customer Service Arena

Cahoots Inc. is trying to change the way e-commerce sites assist their visitors by introducing technology that’s one part live customer service representative, one part Web-wide instant messaging.

The Brisbane, CA-based company today is expected to announce free downloadable software that puts Web surfers in instant touch with other people visiting the same sites. Unlike typical instant messaging technology that lets people quickly chat back and forth with people they know, Cahoots’ product is designed to let strangers talk about sites’ content or products.

Like other entrants in the online service realm, the company wants to assuage the frustrations that impede both Internet users and the merchant sites that market to them. Quick assistance is hard to find online, meaningful conversation is rarer and a smooth flow of communication is almost nonexistent. The results for e-commerce sites are dumped shopping carts and missed opportunities, said John Rizzo, Cahoots’ president and chief marketing officer.

A handful of companies make “companion” technology that rides along with Web surfers as they use their browser, letting them “talk” with others at the same sites — providing, of course, that they’ve downloaded the same companion technology. Other firms working on some variation of the concept include, Hypernix and NovaWiz.

The world of general instant messaging — a sort of instantaneous e-mail where people reach out and zap a line or two to friends anywhere online — is dominated (and viciously fought over) by giants America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp. and AT&T Corp.

Cahoots’ technology allows either public posting of messages or private communication between individuals. Messages are transmitted as text or flow audibly through the a PC’s speakers like a phone call. People have the option of making themselves unavailable for conversation.

The company’s chances for acceptance hinge upon the hope that people who don’t know each other will want to talk back and forth with strangers, either to share ideas, ask for help, or recommend products to each other — just as they might do while browsing through a bricks-and-mortar store.

E-commerce comes into play when the sites join the conversation. Unlike the live customer service chat capability sold by companies such as New York-based LivePerson Inc., Cahoots’ pop-up-box-like technology hovers “above” the browser rather than within a specific site. When maximized, the small box remains above every application on the desktop. As surfers move from site to site, it shows the names of others at the same online destination.

E-commerce sites can buy the right to make inhouse staffers official representatives for their site. Reps can post messages themselves or act as site moderators similar to those found on message boards. Perhaps more important, they can become a customer service contact or function as a greeter. Virtual stores don’t have to maintain the conversation on their own servers.

That’s where Cahoots makes money. The company charges merchants between $50 and $250 per month, depending on how many employees will have access to the system.

The Cahoots window displays two main boxes. One shows the names of other users at a given site. The other has tabs that let users peruse their recent browsing history, link immediately to favorite sites or reconnect with people they contacted in the past. The box lacks advertising, though certain “favorites” come pre-installed in the window. Those sites are Cahoots partners.

The company this week said Ferrari North America began using Cahoots at; the sports car firm also is slated to distribute Cahoots CD-ROMs in its print magazine. Cahoots will push its product at the Earth Day 2000 Web site in April, and it made the technology available at the downloads portion of technology information site ZDNet this week.

Cahoots will spend $6 million promoting itself over the next three months. The firm plans to advertise online, over the radio and in magazines relating to music, sports, entertainment and technology.

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