BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : MARCH 22, 1999 ISSUE
BUSINESS WEEK E.BIZ

When E-Mail Is E-Normous


Ideally, E. Cameron King would like his service reps to answer all E-mails personally. ''For selling mortgages, that's the right thing to do,'' says King, executive vice-president at Countrywide Home Loans Inc. in Calabasas, Calif. But when interest rates started falling last September, E-mail overwhelmed Countrywide, swelling to more than 2,000 a day, triple the normal rate. Says King: ''They all ask the same thing--'What's your 30-year fixed rate?'''

Now there's software to help. Such companies as Mustang Software, eGain Communications, and Kana Communications have sprung up with programs that record, acknowledge, route, queue, and generate reports on E-mail. Others, such as Aptex Software Inc., supply artificial-intelligence tools to understand questions without human intervention, and even get the tone of E-mail--whether angry, sarcastic, or humorous. Those can then generate a response, either sent automatically or as a suggested answer for the service representative.

Many Web businesses don't realize how essential automated help can be until they're barraged by incoming E-mail. And the problem is getting worse. A Jupiter Communications survey earlier this year found that 44% of retail Web sites either didn't respond or didn't even offer an E-mail address. That is up from 28% last fall.

Countrywide chose a system from Brightware Inc. in Novato, Calif. Now, 70% of that E-mail receives an automatic response that asks whether it's a new loan or a refinance, and whether it's a conventional or jumbo loan. ''We can prequalify consumers,'' says King, who estimates that reps now spend only 5% of their precious time on E-mail instead of 35%. Most Web sites need to figure out some way to respond, or run the risk of losing customers.

By Larry Armstrong

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