Site Reduces Call Center Load With Self-Help Service, Fort Lauderdale, FL, is using an automated self-help service that continually learns new questions and answers to reduce its customers' need for assistance from a live customer service agent.

After several months of using the technology, BabyUniverse President/CEO Neil Closner said the service saves him from having to add at least one more call center agent to his inhouse staff of five representatives.

The company installed self-help software from, New York, several months ago and connected it with Web-chat technology from HumanClick that allows customers to transfer into a live chat session with a BabyUniverse agent if they cannot find answers to their questions using AskIt.

The AskIt service, which is designed as a low-cost, easy-to-use alternative to larger solutions such as Ask Jeeves, allows customers to type in questions in natural language. The system analyzes the wording of the question and looks for similar questions in its database. It then displays four or five questions it thinks are most similar to the one that is being asked. Customers click on an icon next to the appropriate question to read the answer.

“We've probably got 200 questions in the database already, and a good 15 percent of them have been asked over 500 times,” he said. “So that's thousands of phone calls that would have been added, so I basically would have needed another person to handle this kind of volume, if not more.”

The call center receives about 200 calls per day, and the agents also handle e-mail queries and live Web chat to support the site, which offers products for expectant families and infants and receives about 400,000 visits per month.

BabyUniverse loaded the database with about 20 questions and answers before the system was deployed, Closner said, and more questions and answers are added as more questions are asked.

When customers cannot find an answer using the automated AskIt function, they are given the option of either clicking a button to send their e-mail queries to a service agent or clicking the HumanClick button to launch a live, text-chat session with an agent.

Once an agent answers a question through either of those means, the agent decides whether to add the question and answer to the AskIt database.

“If the question is very specific about a certain product and it probably won't ever be asked again, then we don't put it up,” Closner said. “But if it's a generic question that will probably be asked again, we add it to the database.”

The site is set up so customers who seek assistance while shopping are steered toward the AskIt self-help section before they engage a live agent. A “customer service” button on the lower left of every page connects shoppers directly to the AskIt page, which is separate from the BabyUniverse Web site but sports the site's logo and graphics.

Customers then are prompted to type in a question or choose from a displayed list of frequently asked questions. Only after customers first try to use the automated, self-help Q&A are they prompted to initiate communication with a live agent via e-mail or Web chat.

“It saves my people time because they don't have to sit there and answer the same question every time,” Closner said. “There are, literally, questions that have been asked hundreds of times, and some that have even been asked over 1,000 times.”

He said the service tends to work best for questions about using the site, while customers generally have an easier time finding answers to product-specific questions by communicating with an agent.

Experimentation with the site showed Closner's assessment was accurate. General questions, such as whether the site provides gift-wrapping service, were easily answered by the AskIt technology, while more complex questions, such as whether it carried bibs with babies' names, were responded to with a request to enter an e-mail address so that the question could be answered later.

Closner said the call center attempts to answer e-mail queries within 12 hours.

AskIt is positioning the technology as being easy to use and affordable.

“You can learn how to use the interface within 20 to 30 minutes of playing with it,” said Ken Shapiro, president of AskIt.

The price for the software ranges from a free standard version to $500 a month for a premium version. Closner said he pays about $50 per month for the service at BabyUniverse, which was one of the beta test sites for the software.

Shapiro said most clients report that AskIt answers about nine or 10 questions for every one that gets transferred to an agent, although that ratio can vary widely depending on the situation. He also said he is preparing to add marketing features to the service, so that offers for products and services can be displayed to customers along with the answers to their questions.

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