Case in point: Los Angeles-based Qualté has amassed relatively well-known clients like E! Online, but specializes in niche industries and smaller e-commerce sites, such as nutraceutical reference standards site Chromadex, and B2B Web photography e-commerce site Pictage.
"We recognized there were some deficiencies in the market for online support solutions," said Qualté Chief Executive Peter Kim. "CRM is still relatively unknown and inaccessible for small to medium-sized companies, and the Siebels and PeopleSofts do not really cater to a company doing few million dollars in revenue a year."
But by offering a fully outsourced solution, Qualté is wagering that it can provide customer support services to small- to -medium-sized online businesses.
"Turnkey, hosted solutions lower the barrier to entry for these companies," Kim said.
Qualté identified smaller businesses' need for online support solutions while the firm was serving, in an earlier incarnation, as a B2B play centered around fielding and funneling customer service complaints and problems to client companies.
"We began simply providing the tools for companies to provide the support on their own," Kim said. "That was a great learning experience, in terms of finding out how companies provide support, and about some of the limitations and where support features are lacking in terms of multi-channel support."
In response, Qualté brought to market its flagship XL suite of outsourced, online customer support services, including e-mail, self-help "knowledge base" Web sites, online forms, and a call center contact database.
Earlier this year, the company added Web-based chat as a standalone product; last month, the offering became incorporated into XL.
While it's a late addition to the company's suite of services, Kim said most of his clients had been asking for the feature. For one reason, chat support is sought-after because it enables consumers to receive real-time support without sacrificing their Internet connection -- particularly helpful in instances of walking a user through the online buying process.
"Most people are still on dialup , and when they need phone support, they've got to hang up and use the phone," Kim said. "Chat is a great way for people to stay online and go through the buying process and get live support."
Customer reps are alerted by audio and screen prompts when a consumer initiates a conversation. Features available to support staff include multi-user discussions, the ability to push Web pages to the consumer, and canned responses and automated greetings.
Now that Qualté 's Web-based chat is tied into XL, the system is capable of logging chat transcripts in its database and linking them to records generated by XL's other modules. That comes into play when reps field customer service inquiries -- support personnel can pull up existing data on the user with whom they're chatting, including previous requests for support.
"A customer service representative could look at a customer contact, and see all the e-mails conversations and chat sessions as well. We thought that was a very important piece of getting a 360-degree view of the customer."
The solution includes basic forms of presence-detection for customer service reps: chat requests can be routed only to available reps. The system also supports chat escalation to higher-level "tier two" reps, and, in the event that "tier one" reps are busy with customers, can automatically redirect queries to "tier two" reps.
Qualté 's chat system also offers integration with an internal knowledge database -- enabling service reps to share best practices and common procedures.
"That adds speed and consistency to the service process," Kim said.
"There are more complex products out there, but I don't know if those get you any more," Kim said. "We make sure that our products do more than what they're supposed to do, but that they give customers and clients a simple experience. Online customer support is relatively new -- it's like the earliest days of e-commerce. Many of our clients and their customers ... don't have an understanding of that, so it's got to be simple and intuitive."
Nevertheless, Qualté is eying several improvements to its chat implementation. In coming months, Kim said the company intends to add automatic routing of consumer queries to the appropriate customer rep based on experience. The next version of the service also will incorporate automatic forwarding of customer inquiries to e-mail, should all customer support reps be unavailable to take new queries.
But Qualté faces a growing level of competition as other players in CRM merge chat and instant messaging with customer support. PeopleSoft earlier this year struck a number of deals adding support for public instant messaging to its applications, while newer players like InfoBuild Networks' Bsmarter and HelpMessenger are emerging on the scene.
Veterans in the instant messaging space also have expertise in the area. A leader in the enterprise IM management space, FaceTime Communications, actually got its start in IM call-center applications. In recent years, however, the company refocused on providing solutions to log and manage public instant messaging use within the workplace. Yet, in an indication of the staying power of chat-based customer support, FaceTime not only continues to maintain its original CRM offerings, IM Call Center and Instant Customer, but in past months the firm has reworked them to integrate with its overarching IM Director platform.