Jabber, Virtual Personalities Link Up

Imagine chatting with a computer instead of punching a series of numbers in an automated telephone response system. Neither sounds like much fun. But instant-messaging technology vendor Jabber and automated-response developer Virtual Personalities are betting that online chatting is the wave of the future. The two vendors announced this week that they've teamed up to give companies a faster and cheaper way of handling simple customer queries. Specifically, Virtual Personalities has created a Jabber front end for its automated database. If a customer wants to find directions to offices or prices of particular products, then the customer only needs to go to the company's customer-facing portal, ask questions in an instant messaging forum, and receive answers in real-time. "People don't want to go through voice-response prompts," says Don Bergal, vice president of marketing at Jabber. "They want to phrase questions in their own way and get answers immediately." Jabber's open-source, XML-based technology, called Jabber WebClient, also works with CRM vendor Kana's customer-service software. So when a question becomes too complex for the automated database to handle, the question is routed to another source, such as a customer-service representative. Not everyone is convinced that chatting with a computer is better than dealing with a voice-response system over the telephone. While companies may realize cost savings, the other bottom line is that customers want to get in touch with real people. "I'm not sure of the value to the customer," says Rael Dornfest, researcher at O'Reilly and Associates. "I hated those [automated-response phone systems] to begin with because you weren't able to get to somebody. With [the announcement], it sounds like I'll be typing instead of saying but still trying to get to somebody to talk to." Jabber WebClient is extensible, meaning the customizable solution can be built into enterprise portals and integrated with existing CRM databases. But it's unclear how deeply Jabber WebClient can be tied to CRM software suites; Kana is the only CRM vendor that has a strategic partnership with Jabber. "Today, we don't have integration with Siebel or PeopleSoft, although we're in talks," admits Bergal. "It's still an open issue as to what degree Jabber has a place among the big CRM software vendors." Will CRM meet IM? Already customer-service representatives conduct online chats with customers, up to five sessions simultaneously, according to some estimates from industry watchers. It's cheaper than one-to-one conversations on toll-free (read: company-paid)telephone calls. Jabber customers include such diverse American icons as Walt Disney, AT&T and Hewlett-Packard. Tom Kaneshige also writes for Line56.com
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