Turning customer service into self-service

RightNow Technologies Inc., which specializes in improving Internet-based customer services, has introduced a version of its Web eService Center software with features designed for agencies dealing with customers through multiple venues.

Web eService Center 5.0 brings together information gathered from customer interactions, especially from frequently asked questions, as well as e-mail, live online chats and telephone interactions. It compiles data on customer queries and tracks their resolution so that agencies can post that information online for future users to find.

The result is fewer calls and e-mails to the agency and better information online. "The No. 1 benefit for government agencies is higher customer satisfaction, and No. 2 is a significant reduction in operating costs," said Greg Gianforte, RightNow's founder and chief executive officer. The Social Security Administration, for example, saved more than $14 million last year by shifting some of its customer interaction to the Web, Gianforte said.

In addition to SSA, the Bozeman, Mont.-based company has more than 30 other government customers, including the U.S. Postal Service, the Air Reserve Personnel Center, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Colorado Department of Revenue.

Web eService Center 5.0 automatically generates an online "knowledge base" of frequently asked questions, making it easier for customers to find the information they need without sending an e-mail message or making a call.

The software puts that information into a hierarchical structure based on the search and query terms that customers use. This "use-driven" structure makes it easy for customers to immediately see what information is available online and lets them browse large knowledge bases to pinpoint the information they seek, Gianforte said.

Other key features for government customers include:

* "SmartSenseT," which uses intelligent language recognition technology to alert agencies when customers express anger or dissatisfaction, including using curse words. Agencies can then prioritize potentially angry customers and send their submissions to managers best suited to answer the query in a timely fashion.

* Multiple language support, which means the system automatically recognizes the language of customer inquiries, allowing them to be routed to appropriate personnel or responded to with scripted replies in the correct language. Content in all languages is managed as a single knowledge base, which includes English, Spanish, French, German and Japanese.

Lt. Col. Bud Bromley, deputy director for communications and information at the Air Reserve Personnel Center headquarters in Denver, said his office has used RightNow tools for the last two years and just finished testing Version 5.0.

"It has helped with customer satisfaction, big time," Bromley said. "We have reservists all over the world, and it helps them get the knowledge they need without any human interaction," although users can get a human response within "a day or two" if necessary.

Bromley also said that using RightNow's Web-based tools helped cut the number of calls to the ARPC in half, from 44,000 to 22,000 in about five months, and has been especially useful for reservists overseas in places such as South Korea and Japan who need answers during off hours.

Bromley said customers will not notice a difference interacting with Version 5.0 because the changes occur on the back end. He said it has become a "little more difficult to turn an incident into a question" with the new use-driven structure and should just take "a little getting used to...because it's a new way of thinking."

The product's pricing typically starts at $35,000 for a one-year license.

ACF example

Alice Bettencourt, acting team leader for strategic planning and policy at the Administration for Children and Families, said her office turned to RightNow Technologies Inc. last October for a pilot project after its Web site (www.acf.dhhs.gov) was getting hundreds of e-mail inquiries a week that were not being tracked or answered in a timely way.

ACF's Webmaster was forced to open each e-mail and then forward it to the proper person for resolution. "That link was [designed as] a technical address for people having trouble on the site, but people were sending substantive questions," Bettencourt said.

The pilot project resulted in questions being answered in 10 percent of the time it took before, a reduced e-mail load and more time for employees to do other things, Bettencourt said.

ACF employees, who now write questions and answers for the Web site, faced a learning curve under the new system, "but once on there, they love it," Bettencourt said.

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