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GE brings customer service to light

October 12, 1999
Web posted at: 11:01 a.m. EDT (1501 GMT)

by Dana Gardner


(IDG) -- The way from electronic data exchange (EDI) networks to Internet commerce will be a bumpy road, but bricks and EDI giant General Electric has teamed up with Ventix Systems to develop a series of customer help applications that can smooth the way.

Ventix later this month will announce the Ventix Answer Network, a versatile self-support, knowledge management infrastructure that Ventix investor GE Information Services (GEIS) will quickly employ to ease the Web migration for its own employees, its preferred business-to-business customers, and new end users visiting its burgeoning commerce sites.
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Gaithersburg, Md.-based GEIS is ramping up the long anticipated merging of its 100,000-customer strong EDI commerce network with the open Internet standards world of Web e-commerce. Extensible markup language (XML) and associated technologies are being developed to allow EDI and non-EDI e-commerce applications to better co-exist.

But in addition to making the system work technologically, ways need to be designed to make it work for users behaviorally.

"People don't want to interrupt what they are doing online to find the answer to a question," said David Sikora, CEO of Ventix in Austin, Texas. "We're trying to bring personalization to customer support online."

Ventix says its system can save big bucks in customer support costs, and provide a better way to seed information to myriad users and customers from a central infrastructure. GE views an automated help application as key to spurring those unfamiliar with e-commerce to embrace it.

GEIS is setting out to provide a co-mingling of EDI protocols with standard Internet commerce practices, while supporting legacy EDI users as long as they wish, and helping new, Web-based non-EDI users tap back into older EDI-based systems, said a GE executive.

"We see a convergence of machine-to-machine transactions, which is EDI, and person-to-business commerce -- which is the new model -- happening," said Venkat Mohan, vice president of global marketing and e-commerce for GEIS. "It's not either-or, it's co-mingling."

The challenge is not bridging networks: already all GEIS EDI traffic is conducted over TCP/IP networks, said Mohan. The challenge is supporting customers in transition. The Ventix applications provide a way for people to find out basic information about transactions to make their experience satisfying, and reassuring.

"Suppliers want to be able to look into an EDI transaction, even if they are browser-based. We can allow that," said Mohan. "They want to know, has the customer received the purchase order? Are my EDI documents being recognized? A call desk person will not work well. These direct applications will."

Ventix, through its products and some customization by GE, will aim to satisfy those customers seeking help, but also guide them to a knowledgeable person to answer questions if the automated process is not sufficient, or if the question breaks new ground.

"Our goal is the right answer to right user at the right time, so that support comes in a contextually relevant way in a buy-and-sell situation," said Suaad Sait, vice president of marketing at Ventix. "We want to be the first level of support for all users. The telephone won't go away, but it should be just for the toughest questions."

Analysts said it makes sense to use the Web as a way of making e-commerce a beneficial experience.

"Most of the knowledge bases that Web customers will look at are the same ones that the customer support people are looking at -- so let users go right to source," said Jeffrey Tarter editor of Softletter in Watertown, Mass.

The Ventix Answer Network, which costs $50,000 and up, consists of the existing Ventix AnswerSystem, which delivers contextually relevant answers, and the new Ventix AnswerWeb, an intelligent self-support infrastructure for e-business transactions. AnswerWeb will be available by year's end.

Ventix's approach allows any user examining a product or process to click a button. Based on where they are and who they are the Ventix network offers relevant information. The answers can arrive in the form of question-and-answer documents, text explanations, links to pages or web sites, and into existing help-oriented applications.

Moreover, if those content sources don't score an answer for the user, they can persist with the questions by contacting an "expert" on the topic, as defined by the Ventix network, via instant message or email, said Sait.

Theoretically, the system should feed on itself to automatically answer any question in near real time.

"We're making knowledge management have a business value. The more it's used, the smarter it gets," said Sait.

An expert offered a caution, however, on relying on help and customer support applications too heavily.

"You don't just want to just shoot them off into e-mail land," said Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group in San Francisco, a consultancy focusing on Web site ease of use.

"If your users have many questions, it's a failure of your primary site design. It becomes not so much customer support, as much as customer complaints," said Nielsen.

The role of support for GE, however, comes at a critical time. EDI may be at risk because of the ubiquity of the Internet. GE needs to keep its current, longtime EDI customers by doing all it can to hand them off to the Web from its own sites and applications, and not lose them entirely to another organization.

"We're going to migrate GE's customers from pure EDI to a mixed EDI/Web marketplace," said Sait. "We will provide support in that community. We need to turn long-term relationships into new ones."

Dana Gardner is an InfoWorld editor at large based in New Hampshire. Michael Vizard contributed to this article.

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