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Internet shoppers who have no salespeople to question often abandon their shopping carts-a vexing problem for e-tailers. Sunnyvale, Calif., EGain, a specialist in online customer service, hopes to create a completely different user experience with its interactive “chatterbot”-the EGain Assistant. The assistant consists of a conversational interface with an “avatar,” in this case an actress’s face that has been photographed in an array of expressions. If a shopper expresses frustration over an inability to find a product, the avatar, “Eve,” appears sympathetic and leads the confounded surfer to the information desired. If she can’t understand a request, Eve looks puzzled and asks questions until she figures out what the user wants-or determines that she can’t provide the answer. When she deems it necessary, Eve turns questions over to human customer service. EGain is developing assistants for several online merchants.

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