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Essence of Message

When we write e-mail, we can be thoroughly, emotionally human. It is, after all, a medium that allows for creativity, opinion and bad grammar. On a visit to Nike’s glamorous Web site, for example, someone might start typing a message about how their sneakers fit, then go on about Nike’s girls’ soccer club and the company’s labor policy. Yet despite what can be a clutter of ideas and emotions, Shiva says the foundation for decoding e-mail is that “human communication is not as diverse as we think it is.” EchoMail, which handles Nike’s customer e-mail, scans these free-form messages for key words and phrases that characterize what Shiva has found are “five fundamental properties” of interest to a company in any e-mail.

“One is the issue,” he explains. “Is the e-mail about a billing problem or merchandise return, or a legal problem?” A second fundamental is the request the writer is making-say the location of the nearest outlet-and a third is which products are involved.

EchoMail’s job is to score every e-mail in each fundamental dimension. According to General Interactive’s director of semantic research Roland Westgate, EchoMail does this by applying a dictionary of key words and word relationships known as a “semantic network.” For instance, “if the program finds the word ‘Web site’ and ‘problem’ in close proximity, it might conclude that the e-mail’s issue is an online ordering problem.” Depending on how an e-mail gets classified, EchoMail can choose either to reply from a selection of prewritten responses (Westgate says most companies maintain a stable of 10-50 canned replies to common requests and complaints) or forward the e-mail to one or more departments for humans to address.

A fourth basic property is customer type. E-mail writers often give away such information as whether they own a boat; they may provide their home address and zip code. EchoMail can scoop up and add this information to the client’s customer databases.

The last of Shiva’s e-mail fundamentals is attitude. EchoMail can classify the writer as either negative, neutral or positive by honing in on key words such as “terrible” or “superb.” Shiva recalls that one client’s messages included the words “da bomb.” “EchoMail initially classified it as negative,” Shiva says. “Then we learned ‘da bomb’ means ‘you’re cool’ and we changed the classification.” At JCPenney, supervisor of Internet customer relations Christine Thomas says all e-mail with a negative attitute rating get checked by a person to ensure that replies going out to upset customers are appropriate.

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