When eChips Inc., a content and commerce Web site for electrical engineers, started a public knowledge base about computer chips, it faced a problem. The company had plenty of outside experts volunteering to answer questions, but it had little infrastructure to support their efforts, says David Blaza, vice president of content operations at eChips in San Jose.
An engineer would send a question via e-mail, and one of the experts would answer it by posting the question and a response on a static Web page - a process that was downright user-unfriendly.
EChips now uses Quiq Connect, a hosted customer service application and knowledge base from San Mateo, Calif.-based start-up Quiq Inc. The move has brought organization and much-needed features such as a search function, Blaza says. The site is more usable, traffic is up, and Blaza has been able to attract advertising to the site.
Enabling input from external contributors makes Quiq Connect different from most other customer service applications, says Quiq President and CEO Greg Richardson. By delivering an infrastructure that provides access and management for experts both inside and outside the company, he explains, Quiq enables a company to turn its extended network of service specialists, business partners, distributors and customers into a collaborative help desk community that lowers support costs and increases the quality of the knowledge base.
Chris Martins, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc., a research firm in Boston, describes Quiq's value with the old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. "There's a lot of talent and experience amongst your customers and partners that augments the enterprise knowledge," he says.
Location: 2121 South El Camino Real, 10th floor, San Mateo, Calif. 94403
Telephone: (650) 294-2900
Niche: Web-based self-help customer service application
Why it's worth watching: Collaborative capabilities allow responses from external experts, forming an online support community.
Company officers: Greg Richardson, president and CEO; Raghu Ramakrishnan, co-founder, chairman and CTO; Kartik Ramakrishnan, co-founder and vice president of business development
Milestones: 1998: Company founded April 2000: Quiq Connect introduced January 2001: Version 2 released
Employees: 60; 100% annual growth
Burn money: $15 million from BancBoston Ventures Inc., Discovery Ventures, Altos Ventures and InterWest Partners
Products/pricing: Quiq Connect installation costs range from $30,000 to $60,000; monthly usage fees range from $20,000 to $55,000.
Customers: AlphaSmart Inc., Ask Jeeves Inc., eChips, National Instruments Corp. and Packtion Corp.
Partners: Blue Barn Interactive Inc., Idea Integration Corp., Participate.com Inc. and Quaero LLC
Red flags for IT: Requires customization to integrate with back-end content management systems. Current user access is all-or-nothing; there's no tiered access model.
By allowing companies to tap that talent and experience, Quiq can deliver better customer service. And Quiq uses a threaded message format so it's easier for users to follow the logic of its back-and-forth conversational mode, Martins says.
The technology that powers Quiq is a relational database with a series of customized layers on top of it, says Raghu Ramakrishnan, Quiq's co-founder and chief technology officer. Certain layers provide intelligent organizational and tracking capabilities for updating the database, while an advanced search-and-retrieval layer combines techniques from SQL-based queries and text-based searches to produce highly relevant answers to questions, he says. Users can rate the answers and the contributors; the system uses those ratings to choose which answers it offers first.
Blaza credits some of Quiq's advanced features with drawing users to his site. For example, when users want to track a particular expert's advice, they can subscribe to that person's answers and receive e-mail when new postings appear. Experts can post diagrams to illustrate their answers, which is especially valuable for Blaza's community of engineers.
Quiq also includes features for managing the public environment, such as keyword filters that trap undesirable or vulgar postings, Richardson says. The system's moderator can look at content at any time and handle troublesome postings or participants.
Blaza plans to use these advanced management features in the future. But first, he wants to integrate Quiq with eChips' internal content management systems so a user reading about a knowledge-base topic sees a link to related Quiq question-and-answer threads. Blaza anticipates that the integration won't be difficult because Quiq has good application programming and integration interfaces. Quiq's import/export framework for integration handles about 95% of the work automatically, claims Ramakrishnan, but he adds that the customer's IT department usually needs to do some customization.
Nonetheless, integration is an area that needs improvement, Richardson says. And he acknowledges that Quiq Connect doesn't leverage the data it captures very well. To help address that problem, a feature to be released this year will let companies offer their users different support levels, including a standard access level that's limited to certain areas of the knowledge base and a premium support level that gives users access to more information.
A Market in Questions
Chris Martins, an analyst at Aberdeen Group, says collaborative customer service applications like Quiq Connect, which can deliver rapid answers to customer questions, are here to stay. "It's an important and emerging market area," he says. Aberdeen projects that this year's customer service software sales will be approximately $7 billion.
Sharon Ward, director of enterprise business applications at Framingham, Mass.-based market researcher Hurwitz Group Inc., says Quiq is riding the trend toward cutting customer support costs by providing online self-help. "It's hitting the right place at the right time," she says. But Ward warns that the company's technology doesn't give it a sustainable competitive advantage.
Quiq's current competitors are small firms, although CEO Greg Richardson says he expects to see new start-ups and large companies, like San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel Systems Inc., enter the market.
Orbital Software Group Ltd.
Orbital's Organik software has features similar to Quiq Connect's, with search capabilities, answer ratings and e-mail notifications. Outside experts can also contribute.
Broad Daylight Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.
The company's Broad Mind offers a Web interfacce for customer questions. It then routes e-mail to the appropriate expert, who publishes the answer by replying to the e-mail. It doesn't allow outside experts to contribute. Customers can buy the software or use it as a hosted service.
RightNow Technologies Inc.
RightNow Web [Technology, Jan. 17, 2000] automatically handles e-mail queries and provides a knowledge base of questions and answers, but only internal experts can provide answers. It supports chat sessions and online surveys to capture customer statistics. It's available as software or as a hosted service.
This story, "Quiq Builds User Communities Online" was originally published by Computerworld.