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Instant messaging enters realm of online customer service

instant messaging

January 31, 2000
Web posted at: 11:26 a.m. EST (1626 GMT)

by Stephanie Sanborn

(IDG) -- FaceTime Communications has expanded its partnership with America Online, giving companies and customers the option of using instant messaging as a customer service tool through FaceTime's BizBuddy service and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).

Through the service, companies can offer customers a BizBuddy instant messaging name, which shows up on their AIM screen under the BizBuddy category, akin to existing "Buddies" or "Co-Workers" headings. Rather than sending e-mail or dialing a phone number when they have a question, customers can send instant messages directly to the company for an immediate response, according to FaceTime officials.

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Providing top-quality customer service and a great customer experience for people when they're on the site is becoming critically important for online e-tailers," said David Hsieh, co-founder of and vice president of business affairs at FaceTime. Hsieh added that buyers often lose interest in purchasing when their questions are not answered quickly.

Hsieh said that companies could have more than one BizBuddy name, such as a customer service name and a sales service name, to make sure questions go directly to the correct department. Hsieh also said that companies would be able to answer questions more quickly over instant messaging because of the uniqueness of users' screen names.

"Because people that use instant messaging have their own screen names, we automatically know who's 'calling' and so [a company] can pull up all your information before the customer service agent begins to answer you," Hsieh said., an electronics-industry auction company, in Melbourne, Fla., has incorporated FaceTime's service into their company, using the instant-messaging capability to help customers navigate their Web site and make offers or deals on available products.

"FaceTime really has gone out and pioneered this notion of taking this very consumer product, that really hasn't been used for anything other than our teenage children to talk with each other after school, and turned it into something that businesses can use for real-time, outbound communication with customers," said John Ormesher, vice president of e-commerce at

"Because we're in an auction format, we're dealing with very time-sensitive information, and it's big business," Ormesher said. "We have the ability to notify [customers] of products that have just recently become available for auction, so we can use it as a marketing tool to push communication that's highly personalized to our buyers."

Instant messaging may seem a powerful tool for receiving quick answers to queries, but it is still susceptible to the problem of long waits for an available operator. According to Hsieh, companies can sidestep possible customer service agent shortfalls due to instant messaging's online format.

"One of the things that's different about instant messaging is that the customer service agents can actually juggle multiple customer conversations simultaneously," Hsieh said. "Typically, we see that a reasonable customer service agent can have three or four conversations at once. That means less bodies can handle more customers, so for most companies, it will mean much better service times and much lower wait times, if any. If a company gets swamped, then certainly you might get put into a queue and placed on hold. Of course, instead of having to listen to really bad Muzak, you get the option to surf the Web while you're waiting."

Mark Levitt, research director of collaborative computing at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass., views the scenario of agents handling several customers at once with a wary eye.

"A customer service person is usually expected to focus on a specific customer, a specific question, and give the best possible answer," Levitt explained. "If you're raising the stakes on that customer service person and saying, 'Okay, now you have to essentially keep clear in your mind multiple questions,' the risk of either inaccurate or incomplete information being sent to customers rises."

Security issues may also come into play, as customers might be unwilling to provide personal details - such as giving a social security number to a credit card company as verification before receiving their account information - over an instant messaging client. However, Hsieh said that BizBuddy is "no more, no less secure than e-mail is."

Nonetheless, Levitt continues to wear his "skeptic hat" regarding instant messaging in the customer service department, noting that instant messaging is currently a lightweight service perhaps better suited to short, brief notes than "thoughtful, carefully-articulated responses to customer questions."

"I am skeptical about the idea that [instant messaging] is all of a sudden a new, fantastic idea that will revolutionize online customer service," Levitt said. "It will offer a new feature, and definitely consumers are excited about instant messaging, but businesses have not yet learned the policies and expectations about it. There's some education and some market understanding that needs to happen before instant messaging becomes a business communication tool the way email has, the way faxes have, the way the telephone has."

FaceTime will continue to pursue partnerships with other businesses offering instant messaging communities. The company signed a formal partnership with AOL in September of 1999, allowing FaceTime license to run applications for customer care on the AIM network as well as technical cooperation to make sure AIM will scale and provide reliability for business communication.

Instant messaging's war of words
January 7, 2000
Instant messaging heads for cell phones
December 13, 1999
AIM talks back
November 2, 1999

The future of instant messaging?
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