One Route To Automating Customer Tech Support

By monitoring customer tech support queries, nanoRep builds a knowledge base that can provide answers to a high percentage of them. One customer reports achieving a 90% to 95% hit rate.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

August 19, 2011

5 Min Read

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With the right technology and a little bit of strategy, the company behind the do-it-yourself website builder Yola found it could automate responses to 90% of its incoming customer support requests.

Achieving that result with the help of nanoRep, an Israeli company with a software-as-a-service product for online service. NanoRep provides a help desk ticketing system, together with monitoring of agent communications so the next time someone asks a similar question, the system can try to provide an instant answer. That way, it's only if the customer is dissatisfied with the response that they need to open up a traditional support ticket for review by an agent.

"This has completely changed the type of cases we see in support," said Monique Viljoen-Platts, vice president of customer service for Yola. Like the Lycos Tripod product, which has also discovered the need for better customer service, Yola provides Web-based tools for building websites that are supposed to be easy to use--but not always quite easy enough for every user.

"It used to be we would get a lot of repetitive support questions, mostly very basic things like 'how do I add an image?' Now, the cases we get are quite unique and very specific to a problem that requires human communication to solve--we're getting the machines to do machine work, and the humans to do human's work," Viljoen-Platts said.

Using its own natural language processing technology, nanoRep analyzes questions users type into a search box and tries to provide an immediate answer, based on previous responses recorded in a knowledge base. That can dramatically decrease the amount of customer support labor required to handle email and phone calls, nanoRep CEO Doron Herzlich said in an interview. "When people receive immediate realtime answer on the Web, they stop calling."

NanoRep provides a system for managing service and support tickets as part of the application, but there is no per-seat fee for using it. Instead, nanoRep starts at $199 per month and scales up based on the volume of inquiries it can handle without human intervention--$399 for 10,000 monthly answers and $990 for 30,000. The service can also be integrated with other help desk or customer relationship management systems, mining their tickets for knowledge base content.

Viljoen-Platts said Yola discovered nanoRep at a critical time for the company's growth. Originally known as SynthaSite, Yola was founded in South Africa and Viljoen-Platts continues to work out of its office in Cape Town. After picking up $20 million in venture funding in 2009, Yola established a headquarters in San Francisco and began to expand more aggressively.

One key challenge was figuring out how to provide users with the support they needed at a reasonable cost, Viljoen-Platts said. Although the company had built up a body of tutorials and frequently asked questions documents, the search engines Yola used with those documents, including Google, tended to return too many results and too seldom delivered the right answer. Yola looked at text chat with service representatives as an expensive proposition, considering that it requires synchronous communication and the staffing to support that. And although Yola wound up offering phone support to paying customers (as one of the terms it agreed to for certain partnerships), it had an incentive to minimize those interactions.

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Yola discovered nanoRep after seeing it on a competitor's website and recognized it as offering "the feel of live chat because it offers an immediate response," Viljoen-Platts said. "We still don't offer live chat, and I'm not sure we ever will. We have an active forum and email support, so I think the goal is to have those be effective support channels and not add too many more."

Not that it was an overnight success. "Initially, we got a lot more tickets," she said, because the knowledge base was offered with the ability to escalate issues to be handled by a representative "and we were making it easier for them to find us. We were quite overwhelmed at first."

Part of the problem was the same Yola had encountered with other knowledge base searches, where the terms users entered when asking a question didn't match the keywords in the support articles. That changed as the system learned the words and phrases users entered and could match them with the responses from the agents. By the metric of an automatic answer rate--where users are sufficiently satisfied with the automated response that they don't feel the need to open a support ticket--performance steadily improved.

"We started off at about 67%, but now we're consistently seeing it's between 90 and 95%, which is unusually high for self-service," Viljoen-Platts said. The results have been notable enough that one review of Yola's service on called out the quality of customer support for praise, even while noting the absence of live support options such as chat.

Although nanoRep can automatically add answers to the knowledge base as they are generated, most customers chose to have them go into a queue for review first, which is the way it works at Yola. Viljoen-Platts said one of the things her team has done to improve performance is fine-tune the responses before they are added to the knowledge base. In the beginning, they made the mistake of putting too much information into each support messages. That became a problem because there were so many places information needed to be updated if instructions changed. Instead, what worked better was to send back a few sentences, with links to tutorials and articles.

"We settled on short, pithy answers with links to information, and then made sure whatever we linked to was up to date," Viljoen-Platts said. "That way, we're updating the information in one place, and customers tend to tell us pretty quickly if ever the information is not correct."

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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