Techniques: Killer Tools

Flooded by E-mail from customers? A new breed of software can help you stem the tide

It's a common pattern: a company sets up a Web site and then expects customer-service reps, call-center operators, or its general staff to handle the E-mail inquiries that trickle in. That may work for a while--until that trickle swells to a deluge. "Call centers are completely unprepared for the medium," says Jack Rodgers, president of the consumer division of First Mortgage Network, in Plantation, Fla.

He'll get no argument from Wall Street on Demand Inc., a 70-employee company, recently acquired by Bridge Information Systems, that packages and distributes research reports for discount stock brokerages, banks, and other financial services institutions. When it launched its Web site, at the end of 1996, the company, based in Boulder, Colo., received about 10 messages by E-mail per day. The 24 customer-service agents working on the help desk didn't have any problem squeezing responses to E-mail in between phone calls. But the volume quickly grew to its current rate of 150 to 200 messages a day. "We couldn't give the same quality attention to each E-mail," says Sarah Stephens, the company's customer-support manager.

What's more, Wall Street on Demand had a problem common to many companies that receive E-mail through their Web sites: people wrote in with inquiries about a wide range of subjects and needed responses from a variety of departments. For Wall Street on Demand, it was critical that the company associate each E-mail inquiry with a particular institution, because it acts as the customer-service arm for a number of companies. "There was a lot of room for human error, like answering Company A's E-mail with Company B's label," says Stephens.

The solution: software that helps tag incoming E-mail and then routes each one to a specific customer-service rep.

For about $2,000, Wall Street on Demand purchased and installed the Internet Message Center, software that labels incoming messages by identifying the brokerage firm mentioned in an E-mail message. The system then routes messages to the appropriate workers--who are presented only with the E-mail queries they're trained to handle. Old messages are tagged and indexed for ready retrieval so that reps can look up a record of previous dialogues with customers.

A more efficient electronic mail room enabled the company to provide far better customer service, says Stephens. "We were not just answering people's questions and rushing it off," she says. "We were talking to them more about their different options with the company's service. We were able to take the time to give them more of a tour of the store."

It's difficult to overstate the need for efficient E-mail management. In a study issued last December, new-media research company Jupiter Communications, in New York City, reported that 42% of companies operating highly rated Web sites took five days on average to respond to incoming E-mail--when they responded at all. The staff at some sites never replied to Jupiter researchers who posed as potential customers.

Given that E-mail is the communication currency that transforms Web sites from billboards into centers of electronic commerce, the newly emerging E-mail-management software programs--sometimes called Internet response systems--will soon become indispensable tools for companies that communicate in volume over the Web.

Just a few years ago, such software didn't even exist; the rush of businesses into E-commerce sparked its development. "Until 1997 we had never had more than one vendor," says Mark Levitt, a research director for IDC, a technology-market tracking company in Framingham, Mass. About 20 producers now sell Internet response systems, with prices ranging from $500 to about $200,000--though the lowest-priced systems usually target individuals or home offices.

Levitt gives an overall thumbs-up to this software: "Those products are very practical, very focused, and well targeted. They're ready to use out of the box or ready to be customized by a professional service staff. I'm impressed by almost every interface [to Web sites] I've seen."

The market is so new, though, that only about 1,000 companies worldwide purchased E-mail-response software last year, spending a combined $27 million, Levitt estimates. The average price tag by those numbers is $27,000. This year the market should more than double, amounting to about $70 million, according to IDC.

Those pioneering companies are essentially one small step beyond beta-testing emerging systems that sort, route, index, and even automatically reply to E-mail. Some systems can even help companies identify their customers' unfulfilled needs, by highlighting major issues that recur in customer inquiries.