Automating email responses

Automating email responses is one of the biggest opportunities for relieving customer care workloads and costs.

Automating email responses
By Linda Christie

With an estimated cost per email contact of between $2 and $4, or more depending on message and product complexity, one of the biggest opportunities for relieving customer care workloads and costs is automating email responses.

However, many companies have hesitated to initiate an automated email response system for fear that customer messages will be replied to incorrectly. "When people write emails, they are in a hurry," Kirk Oatman, president of YY Software, which provides an "intelligent" email response solution. "They write in incomplete phrases, misspell words, and use incorrect grammar and slang. Some customers will ramble or incorporate multiple questions or requests into one message--making it even more difficult to interpret."

Keyword and Boolean recognition systems, claiming 70+% accuracy on simple, straightforward requests, essentially work by matching words and phrases in the email message to a lexicon database. Then they select a response from an FAQ-like list of pre-programmed answers. "Even when a system is 90% accurate, it is also 10% inaccurate," Oatman said. "With thousands of messages being answered in a single day, the impact of hundreds of mishandled responses can be devastating for sales as well as the brand."

Unlike the artificial intelligence systems used by many automated email solutions, YY Software says its proprietary technology uses both knowledge processing and linguistic analysis, together with a Knowledge Base tailored to the client's specific business. "In other words," Oatman explained, "YY Software understands language the way people actually use language. More importantly, it also knows what it doesn't know. So, if it is not certain of the proper response, it refers a suggested response to a `live' service or sales representative. In this way we can achieve 99% accuracy for the emails automatically answered."

Brightware, a company that provides end-to-end email assistance solutions, claims to achieve up to 98% accuracy by blending natural language processing with case-based reasoning. "Our artificial intelligence system can accurately understand, classify, and select the best response to answer email inquiries," said Brian Tuller, Sr. VP Worldwide Marketing and Business Development for Brightware. "The response is then sent to a customer service agent to rapidly review, click and send--or, for fastest service of all, the response can be issued directly to the customer.

In addition to searching for a solution that is easily customized to recognize the terminology used in your business accurately, there are a number of technical issues to consider. "Make sure the solution will integrate with your contact management system," said Lawrence Catchpole, CTO for WebTone Technologies, a provider of customer care solutions that incorporate AI for intelligent routing and automated responses to service requests. "If it doesn't, you won't be able to leverage the skill set and time of your CSRs. In addition, the system should provide rules-based routing to direct specific types of inquiries, such as those from preferred or angry customers, to designated CSRs for handling."

"Customer retention is the key," said Oatman. "If you can respond to their email messages quickly and accurately to give them what they want--provide them with a delightful experience--they will want to continue doing business with you."

This was first published in November 2000

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