February 2, 2001, 12:00 AM

Using automated e-mail keeps Borders.com`s stafffing under control

Automated e-mail controls Borders staffing and pleases customers. A reduction in staffing paid for the system in less than 18 months.

A year ago, Borders.com was handling 400 to 700 e-mail messages a day from web customers. Charlie Moore, director of customer service for Borders Group Inc. in Laverne, Tenn., thinks the company kept up with that volume fairly well-but he’s not really sure. Borders didn’t have a good system for tracking performance.

What Borders did have was a goal-to answer 95% of those e-mails within 24 hours. To get there, the company needed a system to help it respond faster and track how it was doing. The old system-sorting incoming messages into folders in Microsoft Outlook for customer service representatives at an Ann Arbor, Mich., e-mail response center to search through-wasn’t up to the job. So last February, Borders installed Brightware Answer, software from San Rafael, Calif.-based Brightware Inc., that automates the answering of customer e-mail.

Within two months, Borders had met its 95% goal. Since then, e-mail volume has grown to 1,000 per day during the holiday shopping season. The bookseller was able to keep up thanks to a 30% reduction in the time it takes to deal with each message-an improvement that Moore attributes largely to Brightware.

The cost was between $100,000 and $200,000-Moore won’t be more specific-and Borders expects to get its money back in 12 to 18 months by reducing the number of new hires. Where Borders had projected payroll in its e-mail center would double in the past year, it has increased only 50%, Moore says. And instead of 10 temporary employees to help with the holiday rush, Borders needed only three.

Brightware is a privately held company that grew out of the rarefied world of artificial intelligence. Spun off in 1995 from Inference Corp., an established developer of software for processing natural-language queries, Brightware set out to capitalize on the need to process customer e-mail more efficiently and in some cases automatically, says Brian Tuller, senior vice-president of worldwide marketing and business development. Because it is privately held, Brightware will not reveal revenues or other financial details.

The rise of electronic commerce created an upsurge in customer inquiries by e-mail. Web-based merchants had to find ways of dealing with it.

“They were very early in addressing the need to handle high volumes of e-mail,” says Mark Levitt, research director at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., an expert in e-mail and e-mail response.

Brightware applied Inference’s natural-language technology to custom development, then developed it into a software package which became the focus of the business. Brightware Answer uses a knowledge base of information about a company’s products and services, coupled with its natural-language capabilities, to figure out what incoming e-mails are asking.

When Borders receives a customer e-mail, the e-mail goes straight to the Answer software, which creates a suggested response. Answer compares each word in the text of a message to a dictionary of words and phrases relevant to the particular business. Though it does use standard templates, Brightware emphasizes it does more than just spot a few keywords and respond to them with cookie-cutter messages. It can identify key elements such as product names in messages, then use them to retrieve customer-specific information and customize messages.

Answer could send its reply automatically. Borders, however, prefers to have employees fine-tune each response. The responses are presented to representatives through a companion package called Contact Center, which manages message routing and work flow. Employees edit the messages then send them. The process is very like what the representatives did before, except for the time saved by having drafts written for them.

Borders uses personalized responses to recreate the “kind of eclectic feel that our customers have when they walk into a Borders store,” Moore says. The only automated messages Borders sends now are shipping notifications. In the future, though, the retailer may use automated responses in other situations.

Brightware Answer also tracks the flow of e-mail and the responses, providing customers like Borders with the information that tells Moore his company is meeting its 95%-in-24-hours goal. And by analyzing e-mail content to track what customers ask, it helps the company understand what customers want and how they shop (other Brightware products can capture information about web customer activity).

Mum’s the word

Tuller says artificial intelligence is at the core of the product, and Brightware’s origins in a pioneering AI company are critical to its success. As Tuller puts it, AI may be a major strategic asset for Brightware, but “it’s also one of the bigger challenges of the marketplace, because AI falls in and out of favor.” So Brightware would rather talk about more efficient customer service.

No question, Brightware saw the need for an e-mail response tool and filled it before others did. But if the company had done only that, it would probably have been overtaken quickly by competitors. Today there are other players in the same field-a prime example is Cambridge, Mass.-based EchoMail Inc., whose revenues Levitt thinks may exceed Brightware’s though he considers Brightware more visible in the market. But Brightware has not stood still. It has added several products, including software to help customers answer their own questions through web sites, a package that lets customer service reps answer questions through text chat, and business intelligence software to analyze data from online customer contacts.

Among the newer products is Concierge, which can take an online customer directly to the web page that answers his or her question-or, if necessary, dynamically generate a page containing the desired information. It will also recommend products or services based on a web visitor’s requests.

With these products, Tuller says, Brightware is going beyond facilitating e-mail to avoiding e-mail. “Our focus is on e-mail avoidance or instant gratification,” he says, “where we try to provide the answer in real time on the web site.”

Another package called Brightware Connect is designed to help integrate the Brightware product line with back-end CRM systems from vendors like Siebel Systems Inc., so organizations can build complete profiles of their customers’ online and offline activity.

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