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Star Treatment

Ready for software that automatically reads and responds to e-mail from customers? Systems that let service agents send selected Web pages to clients' browsers while speaking with them by phone?

Well, ready or not, all that and more is coming as part of a technological revolution about to hit the world of customer service. For years, businesses have depended on 800 numbers and telephone call centers to connect with customers. But the Internet offers a multitude of new channels and methods for delivering better customer service at a lower cost. More than 24 Internet start-up companies are scrambling to change how people get personalized shopping advice, fix problems with laptops and communicate with companies about their products and services. It's what Forrester Research Inc. calls Teleweb technology.

Certainly the easiest new way to communicate with customers is via e-mail. But some companies now receive 5,000 or more e-mails per day--far more than can be answered personally. Consequently, tech firms such as Kana Communications (http://www.kana.com) have developed programs that scan incoming e-mail, respond automatically if possible, and route unanswered messages to specialists.

When e-mail's not enough, cutting-edge companies are beefing up their Web sites to provide easier access to data and documents. But sometimes, customers may still want to converse with someone in "real time." One method allows an exchange of typed messages--a private online chat room.

Another method: Soundstone.com, an online seller of music CDs, has representatives available during business hours to help visitors choose disks and resolve problems with their orders. Says Kevin Sheehan, president and CEO, "This makes people feel more comfortable with shopping on the Web."

Going even further are companies like MCI (http://www.mci.com). Its system lets an operator speak to Web site visitors and show them selected Web pages.

As technology continues to improve, experts believe the Web will improve how companies handle customer service.

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