New Software Improves Online Customer Service

With all the excitement about e-commerce during the past few months, a lot of companies rushed to put up Web sites that could take advantage of the new sales medium. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for most of these companies to realize they had forgotten to consider one of the most important aspects of sales -- customer service.

Almost as soon as their sites were live, these companies were flooded with e-mails and phone calls from customers asking questions about the status of their orders, the location of information on the site, or problems they experienced while online, according to Shanta Puchtler, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research’s commerce technology strategies practice.

To help companies resolve this problem, a number of small vendors have created software to help manage and improve the online customer service experience. The market -- which Forrester expects to grow from $11 million in 1997 to $658 million in 2002 -- is so new that it doesn’t even have a consistent name yet. Some call it "online customer relationship management," "commerce site customer service," or even just "enterprise relationship management." "These all mean slightly different things with overlapping circles," Puchtler says.

Whatever it’s called, the market seems to be breaking down along a few key lines. Almost all of the vendors say they’re concentrating on business-to-business customer service, rather than business-to-consumer. Consumers simply lack the bandwidth needed by these applications, and the variety of browsers and platforms running in homes makes it difficult to create one solution for all users, according to Frank Galdes, chief product officer and co-founder of netDialog Inc. (Menlo Park, Calif.,, which recently announced its iCare System suite for online customer service. "The more you start to distribute, the more you need to rely on infrastructure, and the more you lose control," he explains.

While many vendors are focusing on supporting online sales, others, like netDialog, are concentrating their efforts on connecting Web surfers to live tech support specialists. With iCare, companies can add a button to their existing tech support Web pages. By clicking on the button, the customer sends a request to a customer service representative to initiate a real-time conversation via phone or chat.

Since the software stores information about all interactions with customers, and even tracks the pages a customer has visited that contain an iCare button, the customer service rep can answer questions more quickly than if they had to respond to each customer’s e-mail individually. "We believe on most maturing Web sites, the information is usually there, you just can’t find it," Galdes says. Also, because the product tracks information, it can help companies re-engineer their Web sites to avoid future confusion.

iCare takes advantage of its integration with existing call center management products from companies like Remedy Corp. (Mountain View, Calif., and Clarify Inc. (San Jose, Calif., to provide workflow and other features. "We’re looking for companies that have processes in place," Galdes says.

Not all vendors in this space agree that tech support is the best use for this type of software, however. SiteBridge Corp. (New York,, which recently announced version 1.1 of its CustomerNow software, is targeting its products at capturing sales leads from the Web, according to CEO Wendell Lansford. "For tech support and general customer support, call avoidance is critical," he explains, adding that companies looking to improve their online tech support might be better off revamping their Web site rather than using tech support reps to answer questions from Web surfers.

CustomerNow contains a collaboration component for connecting sales reps to customers over the Internet, but it also contains a qualification module, which helps determine whether the surfer is a good sales prospect. "Based on where the customer is on the Web site, what they’re doing and a set of questions they answer, you can route them the way you want to," Lansford says.

Companies can use CustomerNow even if they aren’t yet selling their products on the Web. "Whether or not they can purchase online is potentially a separate issue, but you may have qualified leads on your site that you want to connect in with a salesperson," Lansford explains.

The SiteBridge and netDialog applications are only two examples of the many products now available in this market, according to Forrester’s Puchtler. Other vendors are selling software to manage incoming e-mail, automate e-mail responses, enable conferencing and collaboration, and push content to users.

To Puchtler, though, the most interesting applications deal with customer service proactively, rather than reactively. "To meet buyer needs and reduce the cost of service, firms must shift from a reactive service approach, like phone calls and e-mails, to proactive communications and systems that empower customers to help themselves," Puchtler wrote in an August report entitled, "Commerce Site Customer Service." Puchtler considers netDialog iCare to fall into this category, because it facilitates constant updating of the information base available to customers, and it enables information to be filtered to meet specific customers’ needs.

For now, online customer service software is being adopted by high-tech firms, financial services companies and other vendors that sell complex products. It’s also targeted at large companies because of the high price tags of many of the applications. For companies that don’t want to or can’t afford to spend $50,000 or more to solve their online customer service problem, however, there are alternative solutions.

For example, Dell Computer is using WebBoard, a Web conferencing application from O’Reilly Software (Sebastopol, Calif.,, to provide a tech support forum for customers, according to John Blaber, software sales and marketing manager at O’Reilly Software. Tech support reps regularly log on to the discussion to answer questions. WebBoard isn’t as focused on online customer service as the other applications, but at $699 it provides a low-cost alternative.