But the $4.3 billion giant didn't have the same success delivering that kind of reliability with its initial Web efforts. Visitors to the Newton, Iowa, company's site, for example, often waited hours, sometimes days, for answers to basic e-mail inquiries for product literature or installation instructions.
With its hard-earned reputation -- not to mention new sales -- at stake, Maytag's IT team quickly determined that its growing e-mail operation was on the blink and in need of a service call.
|At a Glance|
The fix came by way of an e-mail response management system from Kana Communications Inc. The software replaced a mostly manual process in which Maytag agents spent hours researching and answering individual e-mail inquiries, oftentimes duplicating efforts when customers or would-be buyers asked the same question or sought similar product information.
With the Kana tools in place, Maytag officials say the company has achieved a level of automation that lets it efficiently manage an increasingly popular point of customer contact, while customers get more prompt, better service.
"Our goal is to take care of the customer," says Caroline Varner, coordinator for Maytag's call center operation in Cleveland, Tenn. "Prior to Kana, we were failing in the area of e-mail. We weren't providing the same timely service to e-mail contacts as we were to telephone service."
Providing a consistent level of responsiveness is particularly acute for veterans like Maytag, which have built a legacy of delivering superior customer support.
While companies have made strides perfecting the art of customer service through telephone call centers, e-mail communication remains relatively uncharted terrain, with effective automated responses still being developed.
That's where packages like Kana Response and eGain Communications Corp.'s eGain Service Enterprise come in. While slightly different in function, programs like these essentially apply business rules and key words to help companies craft template e-mail responses, automatically route questions to the appropriate parties, and, often, deliver tailored responses to customers. This helps companies cut support staff while speeding responses.
Merely implementing one of these e-mail response management packages is not a panacea, however. Experts say the key to success is in proper implementation.
"Companies need to understand what a client is asking for so they can send the right answer back," explains Esteban Kolsky, senior research analyst for Gartner Group in San Jose, Calif. "There's nothing worse than sending back a fast answer that's the wrong answer. You end up ticking off a customer rather than providing customer support."
To get there, Kolsky says, companies have to make a concerted effort to understand the key words associated with frequently asked questions so companies can configure the software properly to ensure the most appropriate reply.
At your service
That's certainly the goal at Maytag, which has been refining its rules, key words, and response templates using the Kana product.
The wake-up call came sometime in mid-1999, when Maytag's IT group realized that the company's haphazard approach to handling e-mail was falling down as the number of e-mails increased. Routing was done manually, with individuals in different departments forwarding e-mails to whomever they thought appropriate. Customers began to complain about Maytag's dilatory responses, and the company was faced with adding manpower if it hoped to improve.
"People wanted to communicate over the Web, and we weren't ready to handle it," says Jeff Hall, manager of Maytag's computing transformation. At the time, the Maytag group was using Lotus Notes to handle all internal and external e-mail, including correspondence that came in over the Web site.
"Using Notes, we couldn't facilitate any prewritten response templates, we couldn't report on e-mail traffic -- we could do nothing more than read individual messages, write complete responses, and send them back out," he explains. "Sometimes there were e-mails out there hanging for three or four days, which could be anything as simple as a request for literature or a question about a product."
A team was assembled to find a solution. After evaluating three e-mail response management systems, including those from Kana and eGain, Hall's group chose the Kana product, partly because of the stability of the company and partly due to its array of features.
Implementation time from start to finish, including training, took about six weeks. Maytag particularly liked Kana's rules engine, which can be configured to automatically route e-mails to appropriate individuals or departments instead of through a centralized e-mail response center.
The Kana software parses the e-mails and routes them to the right parties within Maytag, while within minutes sending an acknowledgement to the customer. For most inquiries, Maytag responds within seven minutes to the request during business hours; after hours, there's typically a 4-hour turnaround. Agents are able to access the Kana system from home off-hours and on weekends; previously there was no off-hours coverage.
The rules engine also helps Maytag respond faster to high-priority messages, Hall says. The software is configured to search for phrases like "smoking" or "fire," as well as for requests for the CEO, so these messages can be addressed immediately, sometimes even with a phone call to the customer.
"We want to get creative with singling out consumers' emotions and needs to improve our performance level and bolster customer service," Varner says.
Kana's ability to create e-mail response templates is another way Maytag is becoming more efficient. While Maytag didn't want to completely automate its e-mail responses, the Kana system allows them to create standard phrases and headers for different requests, as well as formalized greetings and signatures.
It also suggests a reply, based on the key words, that the Maytag agent answering the inquiry can chose to use or modify. That way, Maytag employees don't spend unnecessary time retyping redundant information, and their communications are more consistent.
Using Kana's reporting and analysis features, Maytag is able to produce critical e-mail metrics that it had no way of knowing before -- for example, how many e-mails it processes a day, how productive its agents are, and which are the most commonly asked questions. The company then tailors its Web site accordingly, Hall says.
These and other efficiencies have made the Kana software well worth the investment, Hall figures. He says the software cost 65 percent of what Maytag would have had to spend on staffing to handle the volume of e-mail projected over the next three years.
Moving forward, Maytag plans to expand the use of the Kana software to its other divisions, including internationally and within its Hoover floor care company. It also plans to integrate the e-mail response management system into its other customer relationship management applications to get a more complete view of customer interactions.
For now, though, the Kana package has gone far in helping Maytag polish its tarnished reputation for dependability.
Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer in Newbury, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.