VIA Rail boosts low-cost online contact

If driving more and more business from a call centre to the Internet means more e-mail correspondence, what you save on the one hand is being spent by the other and your advantage is lost.

In June, VIA Rail Canada received its millionth online query to its Web site since 2001. Remarkably, only 1.5 per cent of these queries required a personal response.

When Guy Faulkner was responsible for VIA Rail’s e-commerce strategy, he launched the Ask VIA program which uses intelligent service management software called IntelliResponse from ComText Systems Inc. of Kitchener, Ont.

Now VIA Rail’s product manager for Corridor Services, Faulkner reports that it took six weeks for the bilingual implementation in 2001 and since then it has routinely handled 50,000 Web site inquiries a month. While online sales increased more than 100 per cent, Ask VIA cut emails from 200 per day to 25 per day, with a significant reduction in telephone calls as well, he says.

Costs have gone down and customer service has gone up, confirms Faulkner. “We had six people answering e-mails, now we’re down to two even with a five-fold increase in questions and sales coming through the Web site.”

Two people maintain the Ask VIA system nearly full-time, improving the usefulness of the Web site as indicated by questions being asked.

He reports that last year VIA Rail did about 10 per cent of its sales, or more than $20 million, on the Internet. This year he expects it to be 20 per cent. “With the impact of SARS, we’re still seeing an increase in people using our Web site even though our ridership is going down.”

After the initial installation, VIA Rail implemented a second application which it geared to travel agencies to drive costs down and provide better service. “Since rolling out to travel agents, we have seen improved information from travel agents to customers,” says Faulkner. “You always get the same answer to the same question.”

Since replacing what Faulkner describes as “the expensive, clumsy text-based central reservation system” previously used for the travel agents, VIA Rail has seen about a 20 per cent improvement in the way customers rate the information they’re getting from travel agents. “Maybe not completely, but at least in part, Ask VIA and the Web were both directly responsible for this customer satisfaction,” he says.

VIA Rail at press time was working on a third application that will tie in with the recent addition of a Bell Canada Symposium switch which brings VIA Rail’s three call centres, located in Moncton, N.B., Montreal and Toronto, into the virtual realm with calls to the main number directed to the available customer service representative regardless of location. “If an agent in Moncton gets a call from a customer in Toronto who wants to know the parking close to Union Station, the agent can Ask VIA which will display the information with directions to the parking area.”

IntelliResponse allows you to provide a better response by providing an answer now, rather than waiting for a reply, he says. He adds that it also facilitates cross-selling and the subsequent software reporting helps optimize the Web site.

“It is good for productivity, it improves customer service drastically and I think it gives customers what they’re looking for in terms of product, the way you set up your user site,” says Faulkner. “If people want something you’re not giving them, they’ll go somewhere else.”

He recalls that for two years he had searched for an automated system to handle e-mails. He found one used by CIBC but it exceeded their scope and resources. He looked at the chat system used by GM and Siemens and almost moved to that system. Then, he was introduced to IntelliResponse. Although he was the first commercial customer, “I immediately knew it was something for us.”

“We strongly believe that anybody that goes to a Web site or to a knowledge database goes there with a question in mind and that is the whole basis of the product,” explains Sharad Sharma, ComText CEO. “If you can address the question, by allowing them to actually insert the question in whatever grammatical format or using any acronyms, and provide the response from the organization, that immediately speeds up product delivery or the customer service aspects and gives you the business intelligence of what consumers are actually wanting from the organization. If they get the information they want, that will preclude an e-mail coming in and that will build loyalty with the Web site and the information they are receiving.

Quality customer interaction

“People committed to going to lower cost channels are finding that call centres are eating up a lot of cost but they have to do that to keep the customer satisfied,” Sharma continues. “So if you put our tool into the front end either into the partner portal or the intranet portal or the Internet area on your Web site, people will go and ask a lot of the standard, repetitive questions straight away and what you will get in is high value, high margin content that your support people can really work on.”

The system tracks every question that is asked, revealing what information is being requested. It has even lead to new marketing ideas or adding products or services. Sharma likes to report that within six days of use on the VIA Rail site, it became clear that the fourth most common request was regarding renting private rail cars. The VIA Rail marketing department saw an opportunity and seized it.

“You really need to know what is the flavour of the day, month, year or whatever and the system very quickly tells you that, relating the data from the questions that are asked,” says Sharma.

Saving Web real estate

Faulkner points out that IntelliResponse is also good for giving information you don’t want to put on the “precious real estate” of the Web site, for example, contests with partners. If someone asks a question, you can provide the answer without consuming the limited space on the site that you want to reserve for marketing drives to customers.

Faulkner recalls that the training was only two days and Ask VIA was built and launched “in a matter of days.”

Building a question and answer knowledge base can begin with historical data about the company and the products, says Sharma.

“We work with the people who are handling the phone calls from the consumer or the public and ask them: ‘what questions are you being asked? What would you like to offload and automate? What are the standard ones?’ Once a question is formed, IntelliResponse provides tools that allow you to take into account all the derivatives of that question. Immediately we see a huge increase in the number of questions being asked.”

IntelliResponse can help manufacturers and retailers push information out to those front line workers. When information is needed for any customer, employee or partner touch point, people will ask questions because they have a complaint or because they need help in selling the product better by passing on the question that the consumer has asked them, Sharma stresses.

“If you’re sending out technical information on products or if you are launching a new product, are people having problems with the process of signing up with the new product? Are there product issues?” queries Sharma. “If you suddenly get a whole bunch of questions [on your Web site] about the product, you know you have a problem.”

Not only has IntelliResponse answered 98.5 per cent of all Ask VIA questions without someone involved, it has helped VIA develop a finely tuned knowledge base. Search engines, in contrast, cannot be used to identify consumer and industry trends or provide market intelligence about site visitors, Sharam argues. “If you put a search in and nothing comes up, you leave the site. If you misspell words, put in acronyms, nothing comes up. You get frustrated, leave and potentially you go to a competitor. Or it increases the cost to the company to deal with my inquiry because I now either pick up the phone or send an e-mail.”

While Internet site usage of IntelliResponse is growing, says Sharem, internal usage to help manage information to employees and partners is taking off to the extent that he foresees the current 50/50 split to become a 30/70 split between external Web site and internal usage.

Some of IntelliResponse’s other users – including Scotiabank, Signature Vacations and McNeil Pharmaceuticals – are implementing the solution internally because the problems people have in finding information at public Web sites are shared by employees, particularly new employees, in getting information from a company’s intranet, he says.

Sharma claims that the ROI is cost displacement. “The first thing our product does is displaces the level of e-mails coming into the organization. VIA Rail paid for the system within six weeks of installation. Typically, depending on the volume, ROI payback period is three months to six months.”

IntelliResponse is sold to customers on a 24-month contract. Monthly fees range with the number of public interfaces. A one-time fee up to $25,000 applies to training and implementation. Users can also purchase a software license for the rights to the product.