Instant Messaging: New Twist for Customer Service

Like many large organizations, Cox Communications grapples with two conflicting goals for customer support: improving it while keeping costs down.

The need to harmonize these clanging principles led Cox to implement a system on its website that uses an instant messaging-like interface to field customer questions via an automated text chat. The system, dubbed Instant Answers and deployed last November, costs Cox much less than having customer service representatives answer questions.

Cox provides high-speed Internet, cable TV and telephone services. When customers visit the support section of Cox’s website, they have the option to ask questions of Instant Answers’ “virtual customer service representative.” Those who choose it are taken to the Instant Answers interface. Customers then ask in plain English how to set up their e-mail application or inquire about digital cable service. Instant Answers helps customers refine their queries. In addition to returning answers, it also provides links to other relevant parts of the Cox website.

Through surveys during the months after the rollout, Cox found that between 9 percent and 11 percent of Instant Answers users decided not to call customer support because the chat system answered their question, says Suzanne Foy, the company’s director of customer care strategy and support. The system would pay for itself with a call avoidance rate of only 2 percent to 3 percent, so the results are exceeding expectations, Foy says.

Automated service agent technology has been around for several years, but adoption has been timid, says analyst Michael Osterman of Osterman Research. However, he says, its popularity is rising, thanks to increasing familiarity with IM and the need for lower cost customer service.

Agents can also be used with an enterprise IM system to help employees find information in back-end applications and databases. This is the plan at IntelliCare, which operates health-related call centers.

Agents will make it easier and faster for nurses to find the information they need to help patients, says IntelliCare CIO Jeff Forbes.

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