Of all the software categories currently purchased by marketers, interactive customer support systems come closest to traditional operations. Certainly conventional customer support ­ that is, providing customer service and technical assistance by telephone and mail ­ is a classic operational task. Interactive customer support is a marketing system only because it runs over the Internet, which has been a marketing responsibility.

At least, it started out that way. In the year since these articles began, an increasing number of organizations have stopped treating the Internet as a marketing project and started integrating it with their regular operations. Today, interactive customer support systems are likely to be purchased by the customer support group, not marketers. Within the technology itself, this is reflected in a trend toward systems that combine e-mail and Web with traditional telephone and field channels. This makes perfect sense in today's environment, where the ultimate goal is to ensure consistent treatment of customers across all points of contact. How better to do that than by using the same system for all of them?

It also makes perfect sense because the functions of interactive and conventional customer support systems are quite similar. Both kinds of systems are organized around service requests or cases which must be received, tracked, resolved and reported. Broad requirements include classification schemes to organize new cases; customer and case history lookup to identify who is calling and their previous experiences; routing rules to assign cases to the appropriate resources; prioritization schemes to treat the most important cases first; knowledge bases to help identify correct solutions; workflow, scripts and form letters to provide consistent treatments; escalation processes to ensure cases are resolved in a timely fashion; service level reports to monitor performance and backlog; and tracking data to keep a history of how each case was handled. As with most operational systems, each of these areas has a stack of specific requirements needed to operate efficiently.

Both kinds of systems must also help manage internal resources. This requires reports to track the speed and accuracy of customer support agents, tools to forecast workload and schedule staff, databases of agent skills to help with routing, queues to assign cases to specific agents and reassign them if necessary, and options to make outbound marketing calls when inbound workload is light.

Still, interactive customer support systems do have their own nuances. The most obvious is that they are more automated than conventional support products which are primarily oriented toward telephone call centers. For e-mail systems, this automation is generally limited to parsing of inbound messages to classify them and choose an appropriate response. The capabilities of such parsers are still quite limited, as anyone who has received an inappropriate robo reply already knows. Most parsers just scan for a list of key words either in the subject line or body of the message itself. Some apply more intelligence, looking for combinations of words or assigning replies based on automated learning algorithms that look at previous interactions. But most vendors today recommend their automated systems be used only to route messages and identify suggested replies with the final message reviewed by a human agent before it is sent. Even this limited form of automation can more than double agent productivity.

It's fairly easy to insert a human agent into an e-mail support process, where acceptable response is measured in minutes or even hours. But Web site visitors will not wait for a human to receive and process their request. So interactive support systems also encompass self-service facilities that give Web site visitors direct access to knowledge bases and search engines. This is generally based on the same technology used by service agents to look up responses, although the interface must be simplified for untrained users and new data capture formats such as Web forms must be added. As with parsers, much work remains before this technology offers consistently useful answers.

This is a major issue, since visitors will require expensive human support if the self-service system fails to solve their problem in a reasonable period of time. The problem is somewhat mitigated by the hybrid options that let a Web site user chat with a live customer- service agent by telephone or instant message. But it is still important to test the accuracy of a self-service solution before making a major investment.

Ideally, one knowledge base would serve telephone agents, e- mail and Web self-service support systems. These systems usually rely on humans to define the broad structure of how information is organized. This is typically a hierarchy of key words or patterns connected by questions and rules. Some systems also include self- learning algorithms that can identify patterns in behavior ­ such as which answers are most successful in which situations ­ and adjust the rules accordingly. Even those that don't should provide reports on how often different rules and pieces of information are being used and with what results.

Interactive customer support products are evolving rapidly, even by Internet standards. The most ambitious vendors are seeking to make them the foundation of a complete relationship management system, extending not only to conventional communications channels but also to functions including e- commerce, sales automation, campaign management, data analysis and even management of the consolidated customer database. Kana Communications (www.kana.com), with acquisitions or alliances in all these areas, has been particularly aggressive. Other major vendors include eGain, Quintus and ServiceSoft. In turn, these firms face new competition as vendors from other sectors extend their own functionality in the race to offer a truly complete customer management system. Eventually, the distinction between marketing and operational buyers will become irrelevant as companies purchase large integrated customer management suites to serve the needs of both groups.

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