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Sales Odyssey
Simulated people offer customer service online, fostering self-service and enhancing the customer experience.
For the rest of the September 2001 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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It's 2001. It's about time artificial intelligence got in on the game. NativeMinds offers a product suite called Virtual Representatives that allows organizations to build the perfect customer support agent: one who is knowledgeable, available and ready to answer questions, doesn't require breaks or vacations and is never grumpy. These Virtual Representatives, or vReps, live on an organization's Web site, and they're smarter than your average FAQ list.

vReps can engage in natural, two-way conversation with customers and can access a variety of information systems to answer questions, including CRM programs or other customer-facing databases. When it can't find the right answer, the vRep knows to send the question to someone who can.

"There are a lot of self-help tools out there for customers and a lot of ways people can go find information," says Andrew de Vries, NativeMinds vice president of marketing. "The problem is each of these tools, particularly search engines, treat customer questions the same, and basically all you're going to get back is the same list of results. For self-service to be effective, you need to step it up to the next level, [which means] having an intelligent agent living on your Web site whom the end user goes to and speaks to and, based on what is being asked, decides the most appropriate response."

Users who log onto a NativeMinds' Web site see a picture of a real person. Using a dialog box, a customer types natural language questions, and the vRep engages the user in a conversation in real time.

"I think the strongest benefit is being able to create an engaging interface for your customers that really emulates the best of live customer support," de Vries says. "Other self-help programs are very impersonal and not very engaging. Customers often don't get the response they need. The ability to have this engaging interaction that delivers two-way conversation and an immediate response is great for the customer."

Building Blocks
The NeuroServer Product Suite contains components organizations need to build a functional vRep. The suite includes the Server Engine, a product development and authoring tool to create the vRep, reporting and analysis tools for monitoring customer success, and integration modules that allow the vRep to interface with existing applications.

Server Engine is the vRep's brain. This patent-pending software application manages interaction between the vRep and the user. It matches patterns, understands context and selects actions based on natural language questions from the customer. Server Engine integrates with existing Web servers, offers a context-sensitive, pattern-matching engine and has a scalable fault tolerance to power thousands of simultaneous user conversations.

The NeuroServer Development Environment provides the tools to produce, implement and maintain a vRep, and the average time needed to create a vRep is between 8 and 10 weeks. The product development environment allows organizations to produce a repository of knowledge for the vRep in the form of scripts, which is how the vRep converses with customers. The product offers templates for script creation, and the application includes a Contributor Interface, which makes it easy for authorized users to send new content to the vRep. An administrator can program new items with clicks of a button, resulting in no downtime or consulting fees.

The suite also includes reporting and analysis tools that monitor and evaluate customer interactions, including conversation analysis. The suite includes a set of 15 reports, de Vries says, for tracking items, such as customer resolution, satisfaction and complaints.

A number of modules, called Faceware Modules, maximize existing back-end sales and support infrastructure and help to provide a unified interface for all customer service interactions. Through the modules, vReps can be configured to relay customer information to and from a variety of information systems, including CRM, e-commerce and call center platforms. Modules currently available include ODBC, HTTP and e-mail connectivity.

The benefits of the system are many, according to information compiled by NativeMinds. For example, analysts predict that vReps can save as much as $33 per customer inquiry by offloading live agents, and some companies have reduced inbound customer e-mail by as much as 50 percent.

Meet Ernie
Ford Motor Company has reaped the benefits of NativeMinds' technology. In October 2000, the car manufacturer launched its "online personality," giving it the moniker Ernie, the name of a real lead service support engineer at Ford who agreed to have his image put on the Web page. "Ernie", who has met with rave reviews among Ford dealerships, is an expert in Ford's Worldwide Diagnostic System and shares his expertise with mechanics at some 5,400 Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealerships throughout the United states.

"We were really looking to expand our support service to dealers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," says Vic Nagy, hotline operation manager with Ford. "At the same time, we wanted to contain support costs. The product NativeMinds offered really lent itself to both of these [concerns]. One of the nice things about it is the natural language interface, which means no real training is necessary for our technicians. They can just access 'Ask Ernie' on a company intranet and type in their question just as if they're talking to a support engineer."

Nagy says Ernie's round-the-clock availability is popular with Ford technicians. "They don't have to wait in line to have a question answered, as they may have to from time to time on the call-in line," he says. "They can call in directly, get their answers and move right along with repairing vehicles. Another nice benefit is that if 'Ask Ernie' cannot answer their questions, it will give them the option to automatically sequence their calls into a support center so [the technician] doesn't have to pick up the phone."

The ROI has been very positive, Nagy adds. "Ernie's value increases greatly as technicians migrate to the Web and realize they have a couple of different processes through which they can get support," he says. "For dealers that are making that migration to the Web, a tool such as Ernie becomes very powerful."

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