Customer relationship management (CRM) involves many technologies, incorporating both solutions that help customer service personnel deal more effectively with the customer and solutions that enable the customer to help him or herself. The number of technologies, products and offerings in CRM is staggering. Nowhere are CRM technologies emerging more "out in front" or "on the edge" than in automated customer self-service.

Internet sites have utilized many kinds of customer self-service techniques to reduce the human customer service agent assisted interactions. Organizations are constantly seeking ways to improve the customer's experience and cut costs. It is a fact that self-service costs less than e-mail, and e-mail costs less than a telephone call. What next-generation technology can delight customers and reduce the expenses associated with Web customer service? It's a technology that builds on the utility of search engines and natural language search (NLS) to create a conversational dialog with a virtual agent.

Yes, that's right – a dialog with a computer! We first experienced such a thing (if you remember back to 1969) with "Hal" in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal was a computer that interacted conversationally with the astronauts in a futuristic space station, controlling their whole environment. It's 2001, and while we have come a long way toward using computers to simulate human beings, there is no Hal in the way Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick envisioned (operating in mainstream business, anyway!). Instead, conversational dialog agents now use artificial intelligence that runs on a server to engage with a customer, allowing customers to carry on a conversation with a computer "agent" just as they would with a human sales or customer service agent.

Surely you have been frustrated using keywords to find content on certain Web sites. (I know I have!) Keyword search is notorious for its poor results in finding all relevant content and presenting results in a useful interface. NLS allows the user to utilize more natural expression within search criteria. There are many NLS providers, but perhaps the best known is Ask Jeeves. The issue with NLS, however, is that many providers aggregate information and make it accessible via "confirming questions," which can be viewed as an overwhelming number of choices by the customer, requiring too many subsequent clicks to access an answer.

Conversational dialog agents, however, attempt to understand not only the words being communicated by a customer, but also the meaning and context of the user's questions so that they can generate an appropriate response. This results in the virtual agent becoming somewhat intelligent – helping customers find information, make buying decisions and resolve support issues. Virtual dialog agents can reduce the number of clicks and keywords customers utilize to get what they need. These agents can prevent the customer getting long lists of possible answers and having to wait in phone queues to speak to a human customer service agent.

Conversational dialog agents can be very engaging, bringing customers back to a site for repeated interactions. These agents include the concept of bots, which are robot-like assistants with programmed behavior and responses, as well as avatars, which are computer representations in a 3D world that can exhibit behaviors such as gestures, facial expressions or "balloon-style" chat. New conversational dialog agent providers continue to enter the market, but some current providers include Artificial Life, NativeMinds, LiveWire Logic and eGain. While potential downfalls of dialog agents include the expectation that a human is really on the other end and that an interaction may fall apart in a complex contextual setting, the fact is there are many customer service interactions that can be facilitated with these tools. It's a matter of determining which interactions are the most appropriate potential candidates for virtual agents and then moving toward automating them.

While these tools may seem "far-out," they are, in fact, being implemented as a part of total CRM solutions within companies willing to take a risk to potentially reduce the total cost of personalized customer support solutions. There is no silver bullet, however. There are always issues to be dealt with. In this case, conversations need to be anticipated and scripted. Transferring knowledge from customer service representatives' heads to the Web is certainly challenging. Integrating e-mail, dialog agents and the call or contact center adds a level of complexity to any total CRM solution.

It's 2001, and there are indeed odysseys involving space stations. Some concepts that were first introduced through the medium of science fiction are actually transferable to business. One such concept is artificial intelligence in the form of conversational dialog agents. These agents do indeed promote a "customer service odyssey" for organizations courageous enough to enter the brave new world of automated Web self-service. Is your company willing? Remember Hal's final commentary in the original movie, "Daisy, daisy, give me your!"

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