A Conversation with ... Michael Murphy, CEO, Inquira

 "Web self-service" has never been as important as it is today. The transition from the Web as a series of passing billboards to a fully functioning commercial environment is complete. And the various pressures to deliver a self-service environment are pushing down hard on organizations.

"There are some companies that have been forced to the Web because they are growing so huge that they can't hire customer service reps fast enough," says Michael Murphy, CEO of InQuira. "Other companies are introducing products, the economics of which don't allow the luxury of a call center...10 minutes on an 800-call with a CSR erases the margin on the product for the whole year!"

So, naturally, companies are looking toward automation to solve their problems, and InQuira is all too happy to oblige. Automation, in this case, means many things: "The system has to collect all the information necessary about who the customer is; determine exactly what they're asking for in real time; and deliver a user experience that will maximize both what the customer is trying to accomplish AND what the business is trying to accomplish," explains Mike.

That, Mike says, requires a new way of looking at search, retrieval and service resolution. "We start with a deep ontological understanding of words," says Mike. "For one thing, we have spent years developing dictionaries that are industry-specific. When you are starting out, you have to pick where your battles are. We did that, and were able to invest in these dictionaries to the point where, now, it would be very hard for a competitor to break into a market we're already in and beat us."

Mike has spent a lot of his career working closely with customers in high-tech and other industries, including a few go-go years as one of the four key executives at Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP) in its heyday. I'm sure in many ways those experiences prepared him to take a unique slice at the newer challenges facing customer service in the era of Web e-commerce.

Mike says that in addition to domain expertise, InQuira uses a different kind of semantic understanding of how people look for information. "On any given week, thousands of support questions get asked across our customer sites. Our language people can analyze these questions to determine what commonalities there are, and to get at the customer's actual intent. It's one thing to understand content, and be able to get a very specific answer from a query. But it's important to us to understand what users are trying to do with the system."

They refer to it as "customer intent." "We realized that there are patterns around various users' intents...people can ask for the price of a car, for instance, 150 different ways. A live CSR can easily determine that intent; we needed to create a system that can do it in an automated way, unattended, on a website," Mike says. "Customers are so savvy to the Web that it makes no sense to keep information behind a firewall, where the customer service agent is the sole audience. The audience has expanded dramatically...you now need to show as much information to the end user as you can."

He continues: "It doesn't end there. You need to satisfy the intent, and bring resolution to the question, or drive them into a cross-sell revenue opportunity." Which brings us to the subject of business process. How, I ask, can you create a business process in such an unpredictable arena as customer service? Business process design assumes, in part, that you can predict what will happen, and force the following steps to take place. But in a customer service setting, that can be tricky—a lot of technology has been thrown at just this problem, and much of it hasn't worked.

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