Your Business Online | Professional Jeweler

April 4, 2001
Smarter Searches: Part 2
Using search technology to enhance your online customer service

Online shoppers use searches for more than just locating products. Some shoppers want to find information, such as how to make a special order, without clicking through the store's entire help or customer service section. Regular search engines aren't always efficient at finding answers to customer service questions, so most online shoppers have to turn to the site's frequently asked questions page, if there is one at all. However, these pages rarely cover all, or even most, of the questions customers have. The result is more calls and e-mails from customers with questions or more lost sales. Two software companies, though, have found ways to better serve customers with questions while reducing the number of e-mails and phone calls made to customer service.

AskIt, an application service provider started in 1999, sells a service that searches a company's database for answers to customers' online questions. The system first creates a database of common questions and answers. When customers submit questions, the system uses natural language technology to determine if the question matches one asked before. When matches are found, the search returns a page with the answer. Otherwise, users get a page of similar questions and can click on the closest match for an answer. If none of the similar questions are close or if no answer is found, the question is routed to a real person, and the answer is e-mailed to the customer and filed in the database for future inquiries.

The payoff from using AskIt's software can be incredible. The CEO told the Peppers & Rogers Group, a management consulting and media company, his company was able to cut payroll costs by more than 50% because the software drastically reduced the number of customer service related e-mail and phone calls from customers. also reduced costs and boosted sales as a result of the improved customer service enabled by AskIt. AskIt isn't for every company, though. It's designed for those that deal in high volume and get a lot of questions. Companies that sell few items or have a variety of constantly changing products wouldn't benefit as much from the software.

Ask Jeeves, the same company that runs the popular site, also offers customer service search technology. For its customers, Ask Jeeves compiles a list of 80 to several hundred common questions, taking into account variables in spelling, grammar and word usage. Then customers are able to search the company's site like they search – by typing in a question. The software will take the question and direct the customer to the parts of the site that most closely match the answer. The software will even alert the company when users consistently ask questions that suggest the site's design or content are lacking.

Ask Jeeves' technology does not come cheap. It can cost from $100,000 to a seven-digit figure per year, depending on the features and the amount of customization. Cheaper alternatives are available from some of its competitors.

Because the cost of this new search technology is so high, not every company should run out and buy it. Only companies with Web sites that generate a large amount of customer-service inquiries or have a shortage of customer-service staff should consider the investment. Other online companies should save the money and instead analyze customer comments and questions to determine if better customer service is needed. In many cases, companies with smaller online stores will be able to boost their online customer service by adding more information to their help sections or reorgainzing the way the information is presented.

- by Julia M. Duncan