A better search creates a site for sore eyes

A frustrated customer isn't likely to spend money with you. That's why some companies are taking a closer look at enterprise-search technology for their customer-facing Web sites.

The difference between a frustrated customer slogging through a maze of site links and one quickly finding the

necessary information can be the difference between a sale and someone logging off.

That has companies taking a closer look at enterprise-search technology for their customer-facing applications.

Countrywide Financial Corp., in Calabasas, Calif., recently invested in the One Step application from iPhrase Technologies Inc. Countrywide, a mortgage lender that is branching out into banking and insurance, wanted to create a common style for its 110 external-facing Web sites. Much of the firm's business goes through the online channel, including about 45% of its mortgage lending, according to Larry Gentry, first vice president of business technologies.

Countrywide bought into One Step in May and has rolled it out on its corporate communications and investor relations sites.

"So far, it looks great," Gentry said; "iPhrase has a good reporting module, so you can instantly see what people are searching for [and] the number of clicks. It's insight we never had before."

Already, the company has seen unexpected traffic for job listings and career information. Additionally, many users are looking for branch locations. Armed with that information, Countrywide was able to move the link to that information further up the FAQ site, saving customers a step.

Customer-facing search technology is just one segment of the overall enterprise-search market, according to Tim Hickernell, an analyst with Meta Group, in Stamford, Conn. Others include traditional, enterprise-wide search technology and categorization, and there's also information-discovery technology, such as that used by large agencies such as the CIA and FBI.

Laura Ramos, a director with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., said the market for search technology is just beginning to sort itself out.

"Enterprise search is still very crowded with vendors and crowded with technology," she said. "There's a lot of opportunity for growth. It's difficult to sort out the players."

Analysts say Verity Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., and Autonomy Corp., San Francisco, are two of the bigger players in the overall enterprise-search arena.

Searching for ROI

One of the attractions of customer-facing search is some quick and easy ROI. Quick answers to questions that stop calls to the contact center, as well as technology that helps people buy items online, have a value that's quantifiable, Ramos said.

"The primary things a business needs to consider are: What is the true business goal here? Are you trying to move a call center into having a second channel into the Web environment? Create a shopping experience that acts like a smart salesperson online? Or are you trying to create an investment that standardizes searches internally?" Ramos said.

Customer-facing search technology provides quick merchandising analytics, as well. Companies can learn which products customers are most interested in and click-through rates for online marketing and merchandising programs.

Online retail firms, particularly those companies with brick-and-mortar roots, are some of the biggest adopters of this technology. By targeting specific customer segments and using search technology to cross-sell and up-sell, they are reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in online growth, Hickernell said.

Because customer-facing search technology is expensive, larger companies are now making the $200,000 to $500,000 investment, Hickernell said.

Andre Pino, senior vice president of marketing for iPhrase, draws a comparison between new customer-facing searches and the more traditional uses. He said a traditional search offers matches based on literal keywords, while the self-service searches are based on diverse expressions. A traditional search will provide either too many or not enough responses by just generating a page of links. A self-service search provides a direct answer, calling up the direct answer to a question.

For example, where a traditional search for "IRA" might come back with any document or site with the word in it, a self-service site would provide a definition of an IRA, types of IRA accounts or IRA products, Pino said.

"Collapse the number of steps; that's our whole game," Pino said. "In effect, it acts as a concierge."

While consumers may be more Internet savvy than ever, that doesn't mean they don't need some help, and that includes customer support.

"Customers, quite frequently, don't know what they need," Hickernell said.

Customer-facing search technology can also better prepare customer support staff, Hickernell added. High-tech and consumer electronics companies are taking advantage of customer-search technology, but focusing on knowledge management -- rather than sales -- to provide the complex support that those industries often need, Hickernell said.

"There are a lot of older search engines out there supplying customer-facing Web sites, especially for corporations that aren't selling things," Hickernell said. "I often see them using standard intranet Web search engines, which put up press releases as top matches, rather than product information. The market is barely tapped."

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