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Software makers aim to support e-commerce

As stellar service becomes a more crucial part of selling online, a growing number of software makers are pitching improved ways to help companies connect with their customers.

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As stellar service becomes a more crucial part of selling online, a growing number of software makers are pitching improved ways to help companies connect with their customers.

Companies including Kana Communications, eGain Communications, Mustang Software and WebLine, which Cisco bought in September, have quickly positioned themselves to help e-commerce firms manage their overwhelming quantity of email and assist with customer service.

Wall Street was particularly welcoming of Kana's recent IPO. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company's shares jumped to 51.5 in the first day of trading in September--and closed Friday at 119.25. Meanwhile, eGain's stock jumped 20 percent to $30 a share last month after the company announced it was part of a deal with AOL, under which eGain software will be used to help AOL enable its members to make customer service requests in plain English. eGain shares closed at 36, down 0.88.

Part of the reason for these companies' success is the anticipated growth of online shopping and demand for software to support that rush. Analyst firm Gartner Group expects companies will grab 25 percent of all customer inquiries through email and over the Web by 2001, though recent studies have shown that many online companies are woefully unprepared to provide adequate support.

Today, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based eGain will introduce new features to its software platform that are intended to help companies provide more live, real-time support. Like other companies promising real-time chat, eGain Live 3.0 will enable instant communication between an e-tailer and a customer as users are shopping or surfing a Web site--and tie all correspondence to a customer's email history.

As a complete package, eGain Commerce 2000, which the company will begin shipping today, along with eGain Live 3.0, helps customers track every email, phone call or contact to the company, information which can be configured to pop up when a call center operator answers an inquiry or used for a marketing campaign.

The software can be customized to include a host of business rules, which will be triggered depending on the content of an email. For example, an email request to buy something on a user's site might automatically receive priority routing. eGain said it has more than 140 customers including AOL, Mazda, online bank Wingspan and Walgreens. Kana, which also provides hosting services, has about 200 customers, including J. Crew, Delta Airlines, Kodak, Maytag and Avon.

IDC analyst Chris Hoffman said eGain and others have technology that will be increasingly in demand.

"In order to deliver good service and support and create satisfaction with customers and get their loyalty, you need to communicate with them," he said.

IDC expects the services and support market--which includes call center software, instant messaging applications and Web technology--to grow from $11.3 billion in 1998 to $42.7 billion in 2003.

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