December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

It`s survival of the fastest. As broadband grows, so will pressure to add multimedia apps

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Both applications were designed to work for customers using 28.8Kbps modems, but My Personal Model runs slow even with a 56Kbps connection, says Gene Alvarez, program director for e-business strategies at the Meta Group. The same features used with a broadband connection create a completely different experience-far closer to the virtual one that developers had in mind.

And that often means mixing commerce with entertainment. The Home Shopping Network’s live Webcast on Super Bowl Sunday with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana is one such experience. Nick Ruotolo, vice president of HSN Online, St. Petersberg, Fla., says “thousands” logged on to see Montana and buy football cards and other merchandise he was autographing. Ruotolo declined to give sales figures for the Webcast, except to say that sales for HSN Sports, which just launched in January, were the highest of any other HSN Online category.

Service with a semicolon

Perhaps the biggest driver for adding applications that will run at slower speeds but sail with broadband connections is the need to improve customer service. Lands’ End is among e-retailers that have gone live with customer service, a decision spurred by the 1998 holiday season. The clothier found that customers concerned about package deliveries or uncertain about merchandise details often didn’t want to wait for an e-mail response or a follow up phone call once they logged off. By clicking an icon for live help, customers now can opt for Web chat with a customer service agent or arrange to browse the site in tandem with a friend or Lands’ End rep.

The application, created by Cisco Systems, synchronizes the two Web browsers being linked and fills a void for customers who want to shop online but miss the human interaction of the offline experience. A home theater retailer uses the system to ask customers about room dimensions, furniture layout and other needs, then suggests systems that best fit the room. “Live interaction is going to be key,” says Doug May, manager of consumer marketing for Cisco Systems Application Technology Group, Boston. “Retailers will distinguish themselves through voice, video and dynamic Web content, making the experience better than if I were doing it myself.” May says the cost of setting up such a system for a retailer’s call center starts at approximately $100,000 for the software, plus licensing fess that varies with the number of agents.

Hear me out

Some customers still want a human voice on the other end. eFusion, an Intel spinoff, provides its Push to Talk software to various e-commerce sites. The voice over Internet application is best used with a 56Kbps connection, says Gaus, though a cable Internet or DSL is the next best thing to being there. Voice over Internet works marginally with a 28.8 connection. “It sounds like a cell phone that is on the marginal edges of a good cell,” says Gaus. eFusion demonstrates the program using a 33.6K connection

EFusion’s voice over IP service takes between 30 and 45 second for a call to connect to the center. During that time eFusion offers retailers various applications, some of which will show advertisements while the call is connecting. “If the customer is looking at a printer it will show ads for paper or printer cartridges,” says Gaus.

EFusion can set up the service in three days, once calls are programmed to route from from eFusion’s tech center to the retailer’s call center. Retailers pay $1 to $2 per call on average, depending on the volume of calls and length of contract with eFusion.

Bestoffer.com, a marketplace for used cars, contracted with eFusion for the Voice over IP software in a bid to improve customer service, says Kathleen Farley, the site’s vice president of customer care. “It’s just nice having a voice on the phone to talk to you,” says Farley, adding that San Francisco-based BestOffer also is considering collaborative shopping and Web chat

The company hasn’t yet implemented the software because Farley and her colleagues are investigating where the function would work best. “We’re looking for the best place to put the button,” Farley explains, adding that they’re reviewing where people seem to get stuck on the site and where they tend to leave. “As broadband becomes more prevalent it makes getting help easier,” says Farley. “We know people use our FAQs, but with broadband we could get better information to people faster.”

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