Self-Help on the Web Comes Right Now

Getting customers the help they need online is no easy task. Most companies tuck the customer service phone number deep inside the Web site, making sure whoever uses it absolutely, positively cannot find their answer online.

The goal is to develop a comprehensive self-help environment, and in the process reduce call center costs. Companies hope eventually customers will ask all their questions and find all their answers online, without having to pick up the phone or fill out a form that gets dumped in an e-mail account at the same call center.

"When Ben & Jerry's ( went live, they put up a Web page that said 'You have questions, we have answers' that was just a form," says Greg Gianforte, CEO of Right Now Technologies Inc. ( "That tripled their customer inquiries. When you put up a form for customers, they're going to respond."

Gianforte says this does not achieve the goal of cutting down call center costs, but rather it increases it because you’re presenting more paths for the customer that lead to human intervention. Gianforte explains the final stage of some good self-help solutions still lead to a live human being. "If someone goes to a Web page and is unable to find an answer to a question, at that point if someone picks up a phone to call you, then the next time they have a question they're just going to call you," he says.

Right Now released its Right Now Web 3.0 last month. The product takes a different approach to building a knowledge base for self help, or what Gianforte calls organic knowledge collection. Instead of spending days, weeks or months building a collection of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and keyword-searchable answers, Right Now Web generates the answer to questions based on previous customer interaction that has been collected.

There are four components to Right Now Web. The first is a user interface that consists of dynamic FAQs, a keyword search engine and support for Web forms. The second is a helpdesk function that monitors the process of end users submitting questions and then the questions being answered so both can be indexed for the FAQs.

The third function is a stable of management reports that give administrators an idea of what kinds of questions are being asked and answered and how visitors are using the Web site. The final component is an e-mail gateway capability that tracks e-mail the same way Right Now Web tracks Web forms so those questions and answers can be indexed for later reference. The gateway supports multiple messages between the user and the helpdesk and threads it to one incident.

"More and more companies are taking self-service and assisted service very seriously because it's the only thing that stands between them and the next click though," explains Erin Kinikin, industry analyst with Giga Information Group ( "This type of technology doesn't replace the call center but it is the ideal to deliver routine information that would otherwise require an agent."

New capabilities in Right Now Web include Right Now Surveys, which automates the survey process and automatically tabulates the results and graphs them to a Web page. Also new is Right Now E-mail Response, which gleans concepts from the knowledge base and responds to users with suggested resolutions. If that answer does not resolve the problem and the system detects further inquiry from the user, the subsequent message is sent to the helpdesk.

Right Now's Gianforte says there will be new functionalities to come for Right Now Web. One of those will be a contract module that administers customer service contracts and can be edited and viewed on the Web. The system currently supports German and French and will be updated to support all European languages. Next there will be a component called Right Now Live that supports chat and Web calls and pushes content to the user's browser while chat is on-going. Finally, there will be a software developers kit that is a set of C libraries to allow customers to customize the Right Now Web system.

"One of the cellular phone providers did a study and found that 25 percent of their call center contact was just inquiries about billing and how many minutes were left on their plan. Just by answering those questions on their Web site, they reduced the call center costs by 25 percent and they believe will pay for their whole e-commerce investment," Giga's Kinikin says. "So you use [self-help] appropriately, but not everywhere."