The Soul of the Machine?

At first glance, a company or sales Web site could seem to fulfill all communications and marketing needs. If customers need information or help, all they need to do is come to your site, and it's all there in front of them.

But what if they can't find the information on your site? They're not going to stick around long enough to look at a site map, and they probably won't read more than the first two lovingly compiled FAQs. For customers seeking advice about your company, an exhaustive site can appear just exhausting. You may as well have handed them the 12-volume Encyclopedia Britannica in response to a simple query about delivery times.

What are the options available to companies that want to hand information to site visitors so that they don't click on to a competitor? Obviously, you can install a search engine on your site. However, most search engines are notorious for being “dumb.” They search for only strings and keywords and can bring up some alarmingly irrelevant results, which will have your guests furrowing their brows and moving swiftly on.

You can do it the old-fashioned way and have a user phone or e-mail a representative. But face facts: If customers pick up the phone, your site has failed its purpose. Anyway, resolving an issue by phone costs the company as much as $45 per incident, much more than it would have cost had the issue been resolved online.

E-mail? New technology, old costs. You're still going to need a bank of live, expensive humans to answer queries. In fact, when Jupiter Communications LLC, a leading e-commerce market analysis firm decided to test the live e-mail capabilities of top Web sites, 42 percent of them took longer than five days to reply to inquires, never replied or didn't even have a contact e-mail address on their site. Death of a salesman? Death of sales is more like it.

Recent advances in natural language processing software can provide a cost-effective solution to this problem. The culmination of a science dating back to the 1950s, virtual customer service representatives can carry on a conversation with a customer in everyday language. Virtual representatives work by a process of pattern matching. When a user inputs a question or comment, the “bot” compares it to its extensive database of phrases and offers a response.

Natural language bots designed for customer service are now sophisticated enough to recognize words in context, unlike a search engine. They also “know” that “How much does it cost?” “What is its price?” and “How many dollars?” all mean the same thing — and they will return the same, pertinent information. Misspelled words, grammatical quirks and other inconsistencies do not confuse a good natural language bot, and if more information is needed before the relevant information is returned, the language bot knows to ask for it.

Although artificial intelligence dates back more than 50 years, the Internet revolution has given the science a business boost. Developments allowing nontechnical copywriters to create bots for their sites have come about. Much in the same way that a “wizard” works on a word processor, current design interfaces with extensive support allow even nonprogrammers to create fully functional bots for their sites. With the technical difficulties removed, the process becomes more akin to writing a good brochure than writing an application. Any creative worker in a company now has access to this powerful technology. A virtual representative can be endowed with a “character,” a sense of humor and an animated face. In a sense, your logo or mascot can come alive.

Bots can prove themselves handy around your site in other ways as well. They can act like a tour guide, bringing up relevant pages of the site as they carry on a conversation. If a customer does not input recognized patterns, bots can open a dialogue box allowing the customer to e-mail a live representative. In short, the interface can keep a customer satisfied, engaged and, ultimately, on your site.

While language bots can ease the load placed on your customer service departments, to replace one with the other would ignore another valuable asset of the technology: Transcripts of site visitor conversations provide a unique look at what your customers really think. Freed from the need to be polite, the exchanges between language bot and customers can be analyzed and the bot constantly updated according to their needs. Customer transcripts will likely have implications for your marketing plans and your product as well.

Yankelovich Partners, a leading Internet research firm, found that 62 percent of surfers will not buy anything until they are assured of more human interaction on the Internet. Given that humans have off-days, need sleep, require pay and can be rude, perhaps interaction with a virtual service rep is the answer to their question — and yours.

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