Flash in the Online Plan

Flash in the Online Plan

Provide a Human Touch

One thing brick-and-mortar stores have over online stores - at least in theory - is a salesperson to help you when you have a question. Now that more consumers have broadband connections, it's possible for companies to provide virtual salespeople to offer that humanlike touch. For example, Ikea, the Swedish furniture retailer, has created Anna, a graphical representation of a woman who tilts her head, blinks and smiles as she answers text-based questions.

Ikea launched this interactive shopping assistant feature, Ask Anna, on its US Web site in 2004 in order to help customers prepare for their store visits. (Don't look for a date with Anna locally because she doesn't appear on Ikea's Australian Web site.) Because Ikea stores are so far-flung (the company operates only 26 stores in the US), customers may drive hours to reach one. They prepare for their visits in advance in order to make the most of them - arriving armed with measurements and information from about the furniture pieces and accessories they like.

Melissa Robinson, central services manager of Ikea Direct, Ikea's online operation, says that Ask Anna has enabled the company to reduce call centre volumes by making it easier for people to find information on its Web site. "We wanted to find a way to make information more accessible," she says.

Anna is a bot, or software agent - a software program that "intelligently" answers text-based questions. Ikea created a knowledge base for this feature consisting of 1600 questions, each with at least 10 variations and 2100 answers altogether (because there can be more than one answer to the same type of question). When a user clicks on an Ask Anna link anywhere on the site, a pop-up window opens with an animated representation of Anna (who is not based on a real person), along with a text message in which she introduces herself as Ikea's online assistant. Users can enter their questions in a box at the bottom of the pop-up window. Within three seconds an answer appears and a new Web page loads with additional information.

Developing Ask Anna's knowledge base alone took two people six to eight weeks during the course of several months, says Robinson. The software development took four months. Robinson considers the development costs moderate and says a company looking to do the same can probably expect to pay less than $US500,000. The investment in such a new technology has been worthwhile for Ikea. "We see our user counts constantly increasing," she says. Between 5000 and 10,000 people use Ask Anna each day. In the year after the feature was first launched, Robinson says, call centre volume grew a mere 7 percent, compared with 20 percent growth the previous year. Robinson also says Ask Anna has been "especially efficient for reducing incoming e-mails, which are most costly to manage". The software paid for itself in less than a year.

Now Ikea is expanding the database so that customers can get help assembling products, and is considering ways to have Anna answer people's questions verbally to make the interaction more lifelike and conversational.

Even though Anna is totally 2D, customers seem to be impressed. Some users have even proposed marriage to Anna. "Several times," says Robinson. "People are connecting with Anna on that level. Part of the reason she gets those questions is people having fun and part of it is people thinking: You answered my question and you did OK, so let's see what else you know."

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