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May 23, 2000

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Echomail: the automated answer

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

The first time Vellayappa Ayyadurai Shiva heard the words "electronic mail", he thought the term had something to do with passing electricity through letter paper. That was in 1979, when he was still in high school. Twenty years later, Shiva, who is known to colleagues as "Dr E-mail", is out to revolutionise the whole process of responding to e-mail.

As founder and CEO of General Interactive, his software, Echomail, provides real-time messaging and relationship marketing solutions for big-time customers like AT&T, Calvin Klein, American Express, Nike and even the US government.

"One of the key things our technology does is to listen to the heartbeat of e-mail," says Shiva, 36.

Echomail automatically reads, classifies, routes, tracks and centrally manages incoming e-mail to a Web site using 19 different methods to analyse the language of a message.

On the outside, e-mail may appear as an unconnected clutter of ideas and emotions, but Shiva says the foundation for decoding e-mail is that "human communication is not as diverse as we think it is".

There are "five fundamental properties" of interest to a company in any e-mail. One is the issue. Is it about a billing problem, merchandise return or a legal problem? A second fundamental is the request the writer is making, the third is which products are involved.

By applying a dictionary of key words and word relationships known as a "semantic network", Echomail scores every e-mail in each fundamental dimension. Depending on how an e-mail is classified, Echomail can choose either to reply from a selection of pre-written responses (most companies maintain a collection of 10-50 canned replies to common requests and complaints) or forward the e-mail to one or more departments for humans to reply to it.

"Eighty per cent of e-mail can be automated according to technology and 20 per cent can be identified as needing personal attention," says Shiva. "When a person spends $100,000 on your company, you don't want that person getting an automated response. You want a high-end representative to deal with him. Our thing is not so much about automation as optimisation," he elaborates.

But what is the reaction of customers to getting automated responses to their e-mail? Shiva insists that the majority of writers are happy to just get a response. "The customer experience is very nice. The issue is that, not whether a machine has responded to their e-mail."

Contrary to popular notion, Shiva emphasises that machines are better than human beings in answering mail. Especially mail that requires rote answers. "Human beings are horrible at doing the same thing over and over again. They get bored. Machines can do that well. Human beings on the other hand can handle the more creative e-mail, which needs personalised responses," says Shiva.

A fourth basic property is customer type. E-mail writers often give away information about themselves -- their home address, zip code, whether they own a house or a boat. Echomail can pick up and add this information to the client's customer databases.

Finally there is attitude. Echomail can classify the writer as negative, neutral or positive by swooping in on key words such as "terrible" or "superb".

Of course, over the years they have learned to re-classify words. Like the time one client's messages had the words "da bomb". Echomail initially classified it as "negative", but then they learnt that it meant "you're cool" and changed the classification.

With e-mail growing at 700 per cent a year, people don't have the time any more to read all those mails. Ninety-three million Americans sent a total of 335 million e-mails a day in 1999, according to Jupiter Communications. Personal e-mail has grown 50 per cent per year. Twenty-three million Americans used e-mail to order goods from corporate Web sites accounting for much of the $20 billion consumers spent online in 1998. That figure will reach $140 billion in 2003, according to Forrester Research, while business-to-business online sales will grow from $109 billion to $1.3 trillion in 2003.

With companies and institutions being flooded by e-mail, no wonder technology like the kind being offered by Echomail has proved to be a godsend in many ways. The US Senate approached Echomail in 1998, looking for help to handle the deluge of e-mail their offices were receiving. They were averaging 20,000 e-mails per diem. During Clinton's impeachment trial, the Senate was getting up to 500,000 e-mails a day. Now it has levelled off at 50,000 to 60,000.

Though several other companies offer similar solutions, the Senate found that General Interactive was the only one whose technology was advanced enough to handle the volume of e-mail they were receiving.

In April 1997, TV actress Ellen DeGeneres announced on nationwide television that she was gay. The controversy spilled over to the sponsors of the show. One, the popular J C Penny department store chain, found its fledgling presence on the Web inundated with the kind of e-mail it had never seen before. Anti-gay critics belted J C Penny and raged at DeGeneres.

For technologists, the real news was not so much DeGeneres's 'outing' as to how J C Penny's e-mail system handled the torrent. At that time J C Penny was experimenting with a pilot version of Echomail. Not only did Echomail go on routing and replying to the usual queries about orders and returns, but also recognised the 'Ellen' messages did not fall in the usual categories. It also recognised that some of these people were enraged.

Even though people staffing J C Penny stores and catalogue call centres were also getting calls about 'Ellen', they did not compare to the power and immediacy of the signal received by J C Penny's e-mail department. J C Penny's headquarters knew they had a major customer relations problem and immediately addressed it by drafting a statement to use in reply to the onslaught of 'Ellen' mail.

The result of all this brouhaha was that J C Penny signed up Echomail, adding to the list of blue-chip companies like Nike, Citibank, American Express, AT&T, AllState and IBM. "These large companies don't simply choose anyone. They put you through rigorous testing. AT&T have Bell Labs, they could have done something with them, but they didn't. It gives you an idea of the sophistication of the technology," declares Shiva.

For marketers, intelligent e-mail programs like the one offered by Echomail can be a powerful market research tool. If a product generates thousands of e-mail, these tools can assess the popularity of the product almost immediately, on a scale much larger than any focus group.

Not only has intelligent e-mail brought down the number of people needed to man e-mail departments, time-motion studies done by General Interactive have shown that the cost for humans to read and compose an answer to a single e-mail averages $4.23. The company charges a fee of $100,000 or more to set up and customise the system, which the client leases and runs on General Interactive's servers in Waltham, Massachusetts. After that, General Interactive gets paid 50 cents and $1 for each message successfully decoded and replied to automatically. The client, according to Shiva saves at least $3 per message.

With intelligent e-mail response growing steadily, Echomail is now facing the heat from competitors like Kana and Wired Empire, but Shiva dismisses threats of competition. "Many of our competitors are losing $20-30 million a year, but we are actually going to be profitable this quarter," he boasts.

Echomail itself does not come cheap. Client companies pay anything between $250,000 and $2 million for their solution packages depending on the level of sophistication they need.

It took almost 20 years of research before Echomail reached its present state-of-the-art level. The company based in Cambridge, Ma, in the world-famous Harvard Square near the Harvard and MIT campuses, is only six years old.

But Shiva's fascination with e-mail goes back to 1979. A bored 15-year-old high-school junior then living in Livingston, New Jersey, Shiva was asked by a Rutgers professor to help with a computer network linking three hospitals. He set to work and two years later the networking project won him a prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search Award. That set him on a path that would lead to an undergraduate degree in computer science from MIT.

During his work for his degree in computer science, Shiva was exceedingly fascinated by pattern recognition, a field of mathematics that looks to draw meaningful information from noisy data. This is closely allied with artificial intelligence research.

Shiva also has a double master's in visual studies and mechanical engineering from MIT. He studied pattern recognition for 13 years and found that his findings could be applied to technology. He did his doctoral research in information theory and worked at Dataware Technologies, Hewlett-Packard and IBM/Lotus. He has also been a consultant for the US Air Force, US Navy, Proctor & Gamble and Digital Corporation.

He started Millennium Cybernetics in Cambridge, Ma, where he developed e-mail technologies and Web sites with a sister company called Millennium Productions. In 1994, the two merged into one entity: General Interactive.

General Interactive's operations are split between offices in the United States and Madras, India. They also have a partnership relationship with Wipro Infotech. As yet no Indian company uses Echomail, but Shiva revealed that Asian Paints has shown considerable interest in their software.

The Madras office will have a strength of 500 personnel by next year. According to Shiva it is the first creative company in the subcontinent to get ISO-9000 certification. "Typically I make three trips a year to Madras and I'm very happy with the way things are going there. There is tremendous talent in India and our office there does the same kind of thing we do here," he says.

Shiva's parents moved to the US from Bombay in 1971, when Shiva was just seven. Unlike most Indian immigrants of the Seventies, his parents went to the extreme of teaching Shiva and his sister Uma, their language Tamil and their culture. Both of them speak fluent Tamil. Says Shiva with a chuckle, "Indians in India are more Americanised than I am."

His father, who has an operations background, has worked with Helene Curtis, Colgate-Palmolive and Mennen. He now works for his son as chief administration officer. "I treat Shiva as my boss," says Ayyappa Durai. He remembers his son as a "very hardworking, self-motivated" child who showed signs of leadership even in kindergarten.

Mother Meenakshi Ayyadurai, who works as a senior software developer in Western Union, worries like the typical Indian mother that her son is still unmarried at 36. She too says that from an early age, Shiva showed signs of going far. He was a perfectionist, who always analysed everything deeply and believed that everybody has the potential to make it.

"He demands a lot from everybody, he does not understand that everybody cannot work as hard as he does," she says. She describes him as a "very simple man" who "empathises with the needy" and would really like to do something for India.

"His doors are always open for people coming from India. As a student he noticed the rich kids getting special treatment and he always fought for the poor kids who couldn't pay their fees," says the proud mother.

As for the future, Shiva does not rule out the possibility of going public, but stresses that it is an option he will consider only if he is in a financial crunch. He will not disclose revenues, but will only say that there has been 300% growth annually.

By the end of next year, he hopes to have offices all over America and Europe. According to International Data Corporation, General Interactive now controls an estimated 22 per cent of the automated e-mail response market with revenues in the neighbourhood of $17 million.

"Most companies are formed by bankers. We were formed by technology. We've never taken any venture capital, simply because we built the product using our sweat. I would like to take this company to the highest state and do great things in India," says Shiva, with all the confidence of a man who lives by his words and deeds.

Next: India, China to outpace Japan in Net growth

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