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Ichat turns to customer service

The consumer-oriented chat technology firm is changing its name and providing enterprise software for companies to manage their customer interactions online.

A company that made its name in software for consumer-oriented chat on Web sites is trying to turn itself into a player providing enterprise software for companies to manage their customer interactions online.

In conjunction with its expanded focus, Ichat on Monday also will change its name to Acuity, an effort to defuse questions from corporate buyers about why they would want employees chatting online. Acuity chief executive Mark Saul told Bloomberg that he could take the company public in 6 to 12 months.

Styling itself an Internet-based "enterprise relationship management" software vendor, Acuity is building partnerships with existing vendors of customer service technology to help customers integrate Web-based customer support into their existing customer service operations.

The company's shift is embodied in its new WebCenter software, designed to enable Web-based commerce and to supplement phone-based customer support.

"The Web is a low-cost channel that can give a rich experience for customers, but most sites are very static and don't have a lot of interactivity," said Dean Cruse, Acuity's vice president of marketing. Email is increasingly being used for customer support, but it rarely includes immediate interactions between customers and companies.

WebCenter has three elements: a self-help system for customers to find answers to their own issues using a frequently-asked-questions database or existing system from other vendors, a Web "automated call distributor" that takes inquiries in order and routes them to specific agents, and several chat options.

Acuity also announced strategic relationships with vendors of customer information systems, sales force automation, computer-telephony integration, knowledge management, and e-commerce systems. Partners include Siebel Systems, Clarify, Quintus, Onyx, Genesys, e-commerce provider InterWorld, pcOrder, and Smart Technologies.

The WebCenter software starts at $125,000 and will be available on June 30 for Windows NT 4.0 on Intel-based hardware.