Do you know where I can find a good selections of new snowboards?
Could you find me the cheapest flight to Chicago from Charlotte beginning travel on Dec. 30, and returning Jan. 2?
Does vinegar go bad or spoil?
These are the kinds of questions people are asking at a new Web site that employs a team of people to answer questions phrased in plain language.
The Toronto-based WebHelp.com is betting that computer users long for the human touch. And with 10 million unique hits since its launch last November, the company seems to be hitting a nerve.
"People are crying for some sort of customer service in that area and that service is embarrassingly absent," said Kerry Adler, founder and CEO of the privately-held company.
Adler said that looking at the absence of true service on Internet woke him to the business opportunity. "He who can build a better mousetrap in cyberspace is the one that has a winning formula."
Introducing Web Wizards
Here's how it works. A user can type in a query and one of a 1,000 WebHelp "wizards" searches out a variety of possible answers. The service is basically free, but a user who wants priority help can pay a registration fee for a faster response. Several subscription plans are available, with a typical one costing $9.99 for a limited number of priority queries.
The wizards use tools that WebHelp has patched together from technology it has bought and licensed exclusively and then integrated with off-the-shelf search software. Users usually get live help in about a minute and a help session averages about seven minutes with each questioner. At the end the user also gets a transcript of the session via e-mail, to help keep track of the information.
The wizards are scattered in offices around the world, including the United States and Asia.
"They are hiring like crazy in the Plains states like South Dakota, but also in South Asia, especially India," said Charles Gerlach, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Mainspring Communications Inc.
Adler said he's hiring more of these searchers everyday and expects the number to total 1,400 by the end of February. Gerlach estimates WebHelp.com will have 20,000 searchers employed by the end of 2000. By comparison, Yahoo has about 150 editors cataloguing three million web pages.
"The trained human element is very important and that's what gives us the edge," said Adler, who worked at a large customer service call center company before starting WebHelp. "Searches are not done automatically. Even a user who's not a novice finds this kind of service helpful."
The wizards at WebHelp.com go through 40 hours of training to understand the various tools, learn how to become an expert in searches and also learn Net etiquette with polite communication emphasized. For instance, a user types in a question and a wizard clarifies the question. If the question is complex, a wizard actually says something like, "I'm sorry for the wait. That's a really interesting question."
Garbage In, Garbage Out
But is it effective? FOX Market Wire staffers tried two searches and got discouraging results. In one search, a wizard reported that the current Prime rate, the interest rate that banks charge their best customers, was 13 percent - more than 4 points higher than the actual rate of 8.5%.
In another search, we asked a wizard named Mandy how we could tell if a plane had reached its destination. She responded by pointing us to three Web sites - one belonging to the Winnipeg Airports Authority, one hosted by the Comair Radio Control Club of Northern Kentucky and an online site selling planes, the kind used by carpenters to shave pieces of wood. We had hoped to be pointed to Trip.com, a site that provides the desired information for all domestic flights.
To be fair, Mandy did ask if we were satisfied with the results and we said "yes." We could have asked to narrow the search or been more clear about what we were looking for.
But will Web surfers stand for such time-consuming dealings with middlemen, especially if they have to pay for it?
"There's a glut of information out there and sure, sometimes it's a problem finding it, but it will be a leap of faith for consumers who are used to freebies on the Internet to actually pay for it," said Emily Meehan, an analyst at Boston-based Yankee Group.
Instead, Meehan suggests, people looking for specific information are more likely to consult a more specialized site. For instance, a consumer looking to buy an old-fashioned mortar and pestle would likely go to a food site or an appliance site that caters to that exclusively.
Reach Out and E-mail Someone
But the kind of personal service that WebHelp.com provides, or at least potentially provides as the company matures, is just the kind of thing traditional e-commerce sites are looking for as they seek to distinguish themselves from competitors.
"It's all part of the evolution of the services industry on the Internet," said Emily Meehan. She said that as traditional services move online, the e-commerce experience has to encompass different kinds of customer service, which they currently lack. "This leads to a lot of frustrated users," Meehan said.
Companies like WebHelp offer intuitive help along with the more mechanical help that search algorithms provide.
One of the most popular services of WebHelp over the holiday season was the human-assisted comparison shopping service for which WebHelp used technology by Waltham, Mass.-based Frictionless Commerce. This enabled users to search within 150 categories of goods from 350 merchants.
Selling their services to e-commerce companies is likely to generate a lot more revenue than subscriptions or advertising alone.
"Because of our routing and queuing technology, we can leverage our expertise to serve e-commerce Web sites," he said. "It takes an average of 2.3 e-mails to solve a customer's issue. But with our service called WebHelp Direct (for businesses), we will provide real-time, one-stop and immediate resolution for less than the price of an e-mail which costs between 60 cents and $1.25."
Other revenue sources for WebHelp will be banner ads and subscriptions from corporations who want to provide this service to their employees. Adler said he also plans to launch a similar site dedicated to students.
"We will provide homework help and educational tutoring for a 6-month fee."
However, can this offset the cost of paying the increasing number of wizards that WebHelp plans to employ?
"I see a market for this, yes, but not yet," said Meehan at the Yankee Group. "Like every other internet company, branding, driving consumers into the site, private labeling and outsourcing to credible portals is what will get them ahead."