Case Study: Right Now Technologies’ Automated Response solution

Software company Right Now has produced a knowledge base for Ben & Jerry’s that grows organically as more questions are answered,...

Software company Right Now has produced a knowledge base for Ben & Jerry’s that grows organically as more questions are answered, reducing the workload of customer support

Ben & Jerry's is probably the world's most famous ice cream manufacturer. With over 50 flavours, the brand is based on a strong, almost fanatical ice cream-eating following. The Ben & Jerry's website reflects the image of the company and draws many requests for information, news and answers from its customers. Ben & Jerry's is keen to ensure that the website offers customer service equal to their telephone support phone lines.

To help implement a solution for managing email correspondence, the company turned to Right Now technologies. Right Now is a Montana-based company with clients spanning the globe. Air Canada and Turner Network Television are better-known clients of the 300 plus companies using the E-Service Solution aimed to pull together email, electronic knowledge bases and traditional telephone support, under one control and management solution. The software comprises a mixture of complex HTML, CGI and SQL database modules running on either NT or various implementations of Unix.

Ben & Jerry's first evaluated the system in 1995 and was somewhat wary of automated email services. "We feared that it would feel over-automated," says Lucas Jenson, marketing strategy and research manager. "However, we've learned that customers appreciate being empowered to find their answers immediately. Besides, seeing the top questions being asked by other fans helps lead them to learn more about Ben & Jerry's than they might have on their own." The fact that the whole solution was totally web orientated, requiring very little implementation and training period, allowed Ben & Jerry's to have it operational in under three months.

The system works as follows: If a customer has a question for Ben & Jerry's, for example, "Do you make mint ice cream?" they can type in keywords into a search dialog that looks through a database of previously answered questions. If the customer still hasn't found an answer they can mail the customer support department. The mailing process is streamlined with each question requiring a category and subject, for example products (category) and How do I? (subject). The customer types in a question, which is emailed to Ben & Jerry's web server for processing.

At the heart of Right Now is clever system for processing and administrating any mail sent to a website. A simple yet powerful macro language allows mail to be automatically processed in many ways. The system can auto-respond to certain types of mail if they use certain trigger words. This can range from a simple confirmation that your question has arrived, to automatically emailing price lists and dealer information. The macro language also details to whom mail should be delivered depending on category, subject, time of day, sender's location and a host of other variables. Eventually a human operator will receive the mail and provide an answer, which will then be added to the knowledge base. The knowledge base will grow organically as more questions are answered and solved, and hopefully reduce the workload of the customer support staff, allowing them to pursue more proactive tasks.

From an administration point of view, Ben & Jerry's use of the software has helped them take an overview of the website and what concerns customers may have. Each question and every answer extracted from the knowledge base is complied on a number of charts and graphs. For example, when a recent flavour was withdrawn, the marketing department could judge the consumer reaction by the amount of questions received on this decision. The system also allows all correspondence between customers and support staff to be tracked and monitored when necessary.

The software is almost entirely web-based and runs on either Windows NT or variants of the UNIX operating systems and requires a POP3/smtp-compliant mail program like Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Domino. The interface for managing queries and administrating the Right Now software are web-based, removing the necessity for support staff to be attached to the company intranet. The web-based nature of the software also allows it to run on any Internet capable device including PDAs and thin clients.

Although Right Now Technologies is a relatively young company, in the past year almost 300 multi-national companies have signed up to use its software. Right Now's founder and president, Greg Gianforte, has strong view on the current state of the Net. He says: "Many managers still think of websites as electronic brochures or print ads. They fail to adequately consider the dynamic, interactive needs of today's web user. Often, they are not as avid users of the Net as their audience, and don't recognise how the rest of the Net experience, which can include chat rooms and highly interactive "community" sites, fosters this expectation of interaction and response. Such companies therefore typically overlook the need to provide content and mechanisms that meet the demands and expectations of the typical website visitor."

Right Now is one of the few players in this expanding market. As companies see the web as more than just a place to stick banner adds, systems like Right Now are providing automation to cope with customers increased interest in the web. The organic nature of knowledge bases increases the value of the software over time, hopefully reducing support staff's repetitive workload and giving customers immediate answers.

Right Now Technologies is an exclusive Intel Architecture-based shop. It hosts the Ben & Jerry's site, as well as over 100 other customers, on an Intel Pentium III Xeon processor-based server. It runs the Red Hat Linux operating system and Apache Web Server with Right Now web-application software.

Will Garside

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