Network: The more things change, the more we stay the same

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The Independent Culture
A recent survey of the financial services industry found many banks and building societies are failing to respond to e-mail inquires. How can businesses learn to communicate through their corporate Web sites? Mark Vernon looks at some potential solutions to the problem.

It is an irony that modern information technology often becomes a victim of its own success. No sooner does a new gizmo come online, than expectations are raised once again, rendering the current technology apparently ineffective. This is perhaps more true of the Internet than of any other technology.

Though the simplicity of the Web has made it an overnight success, the communications channel that proclaims itself to be the most interactive of all is, in fact, one of the worst. New research on the financial services industry in the UK has backed this up. The leading banks, building societies and insurance companies were approached, as if by a potential customer, via their Web sites in a survey conducted by Incisive Research. Overall, 25 per cent of companies failed to respond in any way to simple free-form inquiries, although the chances of getting a reply increased significantly when a form of more precise questions was included.

Retail banks took an average of four days to respond, with the most surprising failure being that of a savings account query to Barclays, which did not reply at all. Over a third of building societies remained silent, with others taking nearly two weeks to put an information pack in the post. Insurers performed best of all, with 40 per cent responding the next working day.

"A surprisingly high number of queries appeared to go amiss," the report concluded. When it comes to business, such a situation can rapidly become nothing short of disastrous. Not only does a poor response to online inquirers suggest the loss of potential sales and leads (possibly to competitors whose site performed better) but a repeat bad experience for visitors to the Web page could, in time, result in a severe erosion of brand.

However, new technology becoming available seeks to address these problems. One comes from a company called Brightware. With a history in neural networks, developing applications that are able to respond dynamically to unpredictable situations, the company turned to building a solution to deal with the problem of high volumes of incoming e-mails from corporate Web pages.

A large part of the problem of non-interactivity here is due to the cost of processing the traffic. By the time an operator has assessed whether the message is from a casual inquirer, information seeker, troublesome geek or genuine customer, and initiated the appropriate response, the cost could reach a substantial pounds 10 per e-mail.

The expenditure so seriously jeopardises the ability of the Internet to turn in a profit that some companies are actively discouraging their sales managers from too vigorously pursuing the new channel.

Using natural language techniques, which not only detect the kind of inquiry but the degree of interest, as indicated by the words used, the content of e-mails is analysed before an appropriate automatic response is sent back. The software is smart enough to handle language and dialect differences presented by the global reach of the Web, too: a subject header "Carry-on" addressed to an airline company, for example, might conceal a troublesome caller in Britain, whereas in America it would be an innocent request for details of baggage allowances. It is to these depths of comprehension that useful products must reach.

Another significant area in which interactivity might be improved is with "push", technology that delivers data to the desktop. Push can help on a number of fronts. With the rush of business to intranets, information overload is now a serious problem in corporate life. Push technology allows individuals to select with precision the material they really need to see, and then have it automatically delivered. Furthermore, push can be programmed to perform in periods of online downtime, maximising available bandwidth.

"Polite Delivery" is what one company, BackWeb, calls it. The product is already well established in the United States, not only with broadcast news channels, but with no lesser customers than the US Department of Defense, for example, that uses it to update its anti-virus software.

In Europe, which is often regarded as a more mature embodiment of the IT market, a number of interesting applications are coming online too, again all making for improved interactivity. For example, the airline Lufthansa is able to inform its customers about current flight deals and prices, and 3Com uses BackWeb to supply driver upgrades for its modems.

With the arrival of Internet access via television, the demands for efficient, revenue-generating technology is only likely to increase.

Unsurprisingly, the entertainment industry is very interested in BackWeb and other push capabilities. JAMtv, for example, is already promoting newly released pop videos by pushing clips out to profiled customers who are likely to want to buy them.

In the meantime, interactivity is likely to be a pleasant surprise in the contemporary Web experience - though, of course, the minute it becomes routine, we will not notice it anymore.