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“I’m gay!” This announcement by TV actress Ellen DeGeneres during her prime time “Ellen” show might not, on the face of it, seem a signal event in the history of online commerce. But it was. Ellen’s “outing” on the April 30, 1997, ABC broadcast fueled a nationwide controversy which spilled over to the show’s corporate sponsors. One, the venerable JCPenney department store chain of Plano, Texas, found its fledgling presence on the World Wide Web inundated with e-mail of a kind and quantity it had never seen before. Anti-gay critics flamed DeGeneres and belted JCPenney for supporting her show. Supporters were just as vehement. Not exactly cardigans and cookware.

For technologists, though, the real news was how JCPenney’s e-mail system handled the fuss. At the time, Middle America’s favorite apparel retailer was experimenting with a pilot version of EchoMail, a new type of automated e-mail classification and response system from General Interactive, a young Cambridge, Mass., software firm. Not only did EchoMail go on routing and replying to regular queries about orders and returns, but it recognized that the “Ellen” messages didn’t fall into a preset category.

It also recognized that some of these people were mad.

Of course, humans staffing JCPenney’s stores and catalog call centers were also getting calls about “Ellen.” But the volume of complaints to any one site couldn’t compare with the power, and immediacy, of the signal received by JCPenney’s e-mail department. The EchoMail program was reporting a sudden spike in the number of angry incomings, and headquarters knew it had a major customer relations problem. Right away the PR department drafted a statement for the company to use in reply to the ornery Ellen-mail.

The “Ellen” brouhaha caused the show to lose JCPenney as a sponsor, as the retailer declined to renew for the next season. EchoMail, however, fared better. As recounted by V.A. Shiva, aka “Dr. E-mail,” General Interactive’s founder and CEO, and the inventor of EchoMail, the system’s early alert over “Ellen” during the testing period helped convince JCPenney to sign up for the service-adding it to the blue chip list of companies, including Nike and Citibank, that have bought Dr. E-mail’s prescription.

EchoMail, says Shiva, is a combination of pattern recognition techniques that, by decoding, routing and in many cases answering e-mail, lends his customers the “sensory and cognitive ability” needed to win customers online and keep their loyalty. “Our goal is to become a company’s central nervous system,” says Shiva, one that uses e-mail to provide clients not only the “capacity for quick response” but also the “look and feel” they want.

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