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November 22, 2005

Technology Gives New Meaning To In-store Customer Service

Courtesy of TechWeb News

Best Buy Inc. began testing Monday computer systems at a Bellevue, Wash. store that allow shoppers to touch a flat-panel screen and get questions answered from a live customer service agent located hundreds of miles away.

Through a broadband connection transmitting data and voice, the customer service representative can advise a shopper in multiple languages on the cables required to connect the Philips plasma television with the Sony DVD recorder.

The service representative also can access the Internet to check prices and product availability at a manufacturer's Web site, and pull up a diagram to explain to the customer how the products work. The information is printable, too. "How many times has a sales clerk read the box to you when you've asked them a question?" said Jeff Erwin, a former Microsoft general manager who left to join Experticity Inc. as CEO earlier this year.

Experticity founder D.L. Baron began working on the technology in 2001, and the company now holds 18 patents. The software developed in C++ isn't scheduled to hit production until the first quarter of next year, but has already attracted seven top retailers. Two undisclosed "major manufacturers" are also considering the software in retail stores to assist in demonstrating their products.

Best Buy put one kiosk in the DVD department and the other in the music. A typical store should have one per isle, Erwin said. The software that runs the platform is sold on a subscription basis. It operates on a Windows platform. "It's an emerging technology that could help retail stores improve customer service," said Laura Merling, executive director at SDForum, a non-profit Silicon Valley company that provides insight on emerging technologies. "Why not talk to someone live that can help you find information on a specific product that a store clerk might not know."

For now, Experticity is self-funded with about $2.5 million invested by friends and family. Erwin said the company is looking for series "A" funding between $5 million and $6 million to get software into production.

Best Buy isn't saying how the platform is working. Through a survey, customers who have trialed the system are. In August, Experticity put one kiosk in a store to see if customers would even use the system. Within four days about 200 customers approached the screen. A third-party marketing firm polled consumers who used the system.

About 70 percent felt they were provided personal undivided attention. "The customer is being helped by someone who isn't looking for shoplifters, or watching a four-year-old spill coke all over the DVDs," Erwin said. "And the best thing is they had all the answers."

Click on this link to listen to a podcast of the interview with SDForum's Laura Merling.

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