RightNow helps customers help themselves

Solid self-service and live chat features give e-service suite a boost, but beware of sticky integration and scalability

With an increasing number of customer touch points in today's service centers, managing the influx of communications is no easy task. E-services can reign in expenditures and help you better satisfy customer expectations.

RightNow Technologies recently released Version 6.0 of its suite of service-oriented products, and it's a good choice for organizations looking to jump-start customer relationship building while keeping service-related expenditures in check.

After spending some hands-on time with the Proactive Multi-Channel Customer Service Version, I found it to be a good tool for enabling customer self-service features and managing interactions. Although it offers limited deployment options and limited integration with other CRM and ERP systems, benefits such as an option for hosted deployment get you up and running quickly.

DIY Customer Service

The RightNow suite contains Service 6.0 to manage customer support and Web self-service, Outbound 6.0 to generate and track e-mail marketing campaigns, and the Live Chat application. And, RightNow integrates its features easily into your customer-facing Web front end without tampering with its look and feel.

Service 6.0 creates a "knowledge base," a back-end database responsible for holding everything from product backgrounder and case-resolution histories to tracking statistics on commonly asked questions. Using natural language processing and smart search technology, RightNow seeks out relevance from customer communications and taps the knowledge base for appropriate answers.

RightNow's real benefits come from tracking customer and agent usage and automating future interactions based on the collected data. The rules-based workflow facilities listen across your customer channels to perform triage, allowing staff to focus on escalating priorities while RightNow delivers first-response answers to customers over less-costly channels.

To get that workflow going, you set the rules and criteria for routing incoming requests. You can configure workflow to ensure top customers are given priority routing, for example, and Live Chats initiated from a product Web page are routed to the appropriate specialist.

 When I logged into the RightNow service interface, I could see pending incident queues, pull cases into my inbox for processing, or start new cases from phone-initiated sources. I could even associate an incident to a customer's service-level agreement and log billable time.

Although I would have preferred the ability to drill into a queue directly, without having to first open a new console, the Support Console allowed views into full audit histories and associated support files that made for concise resource access. Service administrators will appreciate the incident queue's monitoring and management features, such as the option to reassign cases among agents.

I found the basic routing and prioritizing features good, but I would prefer to see workflow automation tied directly into the agent interface to improve training and ensure best practices during customer interaction, not just after the record is updated.

Agents' troubleshooting efforts will benefit from the Answer Console -- a window to knowledge-base support materials. Plus, agents can continually submit new cases for inclusion in the knowledge base, improving its value. The Answer Console would benefit from better taxonomy options and more keyword assistance to guide agents and improve hit ratios on searches, but it performed well overall.

Flow Warrior

Every time a record is created or updated, RightNow's rules system goes into action, setting off such tasks as sending e-mail notifications to agents and customers or escalating incidents for priority processing.

Using the Rules interface, I defined triggers based on a variety of data points, such as agent incident threads, customer e-mails, and Web site feedback. You may also define triggers based on RightNow's SmartSense feature, which attempts to interpret the severity of an inquiry. Rules can be combined into complex patterns, each capable of setting off multiple triggers and initiating new processes and actions.

The interface allowed me to design rules without much effort, but the text-based interface for defining tables and event conditions might be more familiar to database professionals than line-of-business managers. And with such flexibility for complex rule design, the definition interface needs a graphical mapping tool to better reveal independencies between events, rules, and actions.

All told, I found RightNow's rules engine a worthy tool, providing efficiency and consistency in managing and prioritizing customer interactions, and far better than allowing items to slip through the cracks.

In addition to automating responses, RightNow also offers a good chat facility in its Live Chat module. If you're like me, you've encountered too many companies that appear to have monkeys operating their chat facilities. Live Chat gives service reps the tools to create a professional online experience and improve customer satisfaction.

Live Chat has the typical customer-chat amenities, such as color-coded text and canned dialogs, to speed responses to frequently asked questions. But RightNow also fills it out with a number of winning features, such as displaying the specific page a customer calls from, the power to open a Web page on the customer's desktop, and even a queue count so customers know where they stand in line.

Agents can collaborate and conference behind the scenes and bring a specialist into a chat for consultation.

Managers will appreciate the good heads-up dashboard for chat monitoring and statistical insight. I could see the various queues and sessions, the number of waiting customers and agents online, as well as cumulative response times and other session details in a single view. And because Live Chat integrates with the workflow system that enhances the entire RightNow suite, requests can be routed and escalated automatically.

The Proactive Approach

Whereas rules systems and chat features are reactive, the proactive side of e-service involves keeping customers informed of promotions, alerts, and other information, a valuable tool for retaining and attracting business. With that in mind, RightNow's Outbound e-mail marketing component combines with the Service knowledge base to deliver proactive, targeted messages to customers based on account history.

Outbound helps you construct and manage contact lists and content libraries, the latter of which is enhanced by an HTML page editor, Ektron's eWebEditPro, for in-browser HTML page editing. However, I think the interface for list development and segmentation could use some work: After setting up criteria, for example, I was unable to directly preview or export a list sample to help verify the accuracy of my list.

On the other hand, Outbound nicely handles other aspects of marketing campaigns. Recyclable document elements can be stored for easy reuse in future campaigns, and the management interface shows a campaign's status, including total e-mails delivered, response rates, and click-throughs.

The reporting facilities in RightNow are good -- it offers record and charting opportunities pegged to the full access of the knowledge base. Although it lacked out-of-the-box business intelligence analytics, the integrated Corda Technologies' PopChart application made it easy to produce impressive Flash-based reports and charts that could be easily drilled through to reveal underlying data.

I was also able to save reports as PDF and Excel files and, because not all reports were offered in real-time, I could set predefined intervals for report generation and autodistribution to designated recipients.

One to Grow On

It has a solid start, but RightNow does have some more maturation ahead. As well-defined as the layout was, I found the UI clumsy at times -- it launched new windows for every console and often lacked uniformity in menu selection. I would prefer to see a consolidation of the various consoles into a single user interface, which would definitely streamline usability.

Also, providing intradocument and inline interface security would enhance administration. Rather than relying on multiple documents and interfaces, admins could set up a single object with varying permissions. A junior agent might only see general customer information, while a manager's permission level would show that data as well as more sensitive financial detail. The level of granularity would be a boon to content management.

RightNow currently picks up a good number of its technologies from third-party and open source resources. I would prefer to see RightNow take ownership of toolsets that would play such an integral part in my customer service stack. With the e-services industry still in flux, a focus on in-house development and support is something of a reassurance for users (see "Successful E-services," left).

On the plus side, RightNow has plenty of features available as add-on options, that will help customize it to your business needs. Some of the more useful add-ons include wireless and voice applications and Locator, a self-serve mapping application that directs customers to nearby stores and company locations based on criteria such as proximity or product levels. Other perks include gap-analysis reporting, which helps isolate holes in your knowledge database so they can be filled before wreaking havoc with response ratios.

RightNow 6.0 delivers a good set of tools for mastering the art of customer service and bettering margins through self-serve and proactive channels. Improving the integration process and scalability will help balance the bevy of features to create a more well-rounded solution. If your organization wants to deliver on an ideal of real-time customer service, RightNow can help you meet the challenge head on.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (20.0%)
Administration (10.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (10.0%)
Integration (10.0%)
Security (10.0%)
Features (30.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
RightNow 6.0, Proactive Multi-Channel Customer Service Version 6.0 6.0 6.0 5.0 4.0 6.0 8.0 6.3
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