January 8, 2002, 12:00 AM

Consumers like talking to a real person, even if it’s fake, Buy.com learns

Since Buy.com deployed NetSage, an automated self help function that features pictures of a person who appears to be providing assistance, online customer service queries resolved on first contact have risen to 80% from less than 50%.

Kurt Peters

Executive Editor

Online shoppers like the appearance of dealing with a live person, even if they’re not, says Buy.com after its deployment of Westminster, CO-based Finali Corp.’s NetSage, an automated customer service support solution. NetSage cut per-customer contact costs by nearly 40% to $3.25 at Buy.com within its first six months of implementation, Finali reports. Finali’s solution, which integrates automated customer support with live online help as needed, also decreased the total cost of customer service support from 2% of revenues to less than 1% at Buy.com, and reduced the total number of customer service e-mails coming into Buy.com by 23%, the company says.

NetSage, an automated online customer service agent, is based in part on concepts of online “social intelligence” developed by researchers at Stanford University. Rather than guiding online users with customer service queries through self-service by using menu prompts, netSage appears onscreen as a moving image of a human being. The online image answers the user’s questions in text in a natural manner, mimicking the attitudes and appearance of a person to guide users to a resolution through an online exchange that resembles an actual conversation. A different persona and appearance is developed for every site on which Finali’s netSage technology is deployed. Buy.com’s netSage figure, “Ian Stone,” appears as a techno-savvy 20-something not unlike a manager shoppers might expect to find in a similar offline superstore.

The approximation of a real human to whom they can direct questions keeps users engaged enough to stick with self service and resolve many of their own questions online, the company says. Within six months of netSage’s implementation at Buy.com, first-contact resolution rates rose to 80% from less than 50%.

“Prior to bringing Finali on board, our customer service costs and resolution rates were similar to industry averages,” says Brent Rusick, senior vice president of sales and operations at Buy.com. “Six months after implementing Finali’s customer care solutions, our service levels are soundly and routinely beating industry averages in all areas measured.”

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