A good idea can come at any time and occur anywhere. Just ask Nabil Harfoush, CIO and vice-president of development for Helpcaster.com, which provides live voice communications over the Web to companies in the travel and tourism industry.

The company got its start in a Toronto coffee shop in 2000 on a paper napkin. It was the gold rush days of e-commerce, and while businesses were rushing to move to the Web, Harfoush and colleagues noticed the customer service portion of online business was sorely lacking. If not overwhelmed by the amount of Web site information, customers complained about the lack of live interaction.

The result is a product called LiveReach Click-to-Talk, which allows customers to click on a Web site or e-mail link and get connected to a live person. “They can talk to you either by phone, or right through their browser,” says Harfoush. “At the time, the market didn’t even think it was possible.”

Six years later, Helpcaster has been able to deliver a product and several resorts and travel agencies have signed on as customers.

  • Montbleau Resort Casino & Spa in Lake Tahoe uses Click-to-Talk for its online reservations system offering both “Live Help” (PC-to-Phone) and a Voice-over-IP (PC-to-PC) versions;
  • Travelwave uses Click-to-Talk so customers can speak live to a travel agent in believing “there’s no substitute for a real travel agent when it comes to making recommendations” says the company; and,
  • Via Rail uses Helpcaster for its AskVIA service, an interactive tool that lets customers type their questions into a box, click an AskVia button and then receive a text answer.

While acknowledging Helpcaster is not the only live chat Internet solution on the market, Harfoush says it differentiates from mass market products such as Skype by better being able to meet corporate requirements for security, monitoring network performance and complex business processes. “We’ve built enterprise-class standards into our applications that give you military-grade security, on-demand reporting and a full array of applications configurable to the preferences of your customer,” says Harfoush.

Now comes the time for affirmation. “The ultimate test of any innovation is its market valuation and acceptance. It is the market (customers and investors) that measure the value we create,” he says, which isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

“It’s a difficult balance between what the market really wants and thinks it wants.” While the Internet enables companies to greatly reduce the cost of providing customers transactions (from $99 to 99 cents for each interaction in some cases), for most large companies such as banks, online represents less than one per cent of their business.

Harfoush hopes to change all that. The company has received U.S. patents for some of its innovations. He says new developments in search engine and linguistics technology should help the company improve on its products even further.

Continuing on that path to innovation, says Harfoush, will come only from a deep understanding not only of the technology but also staying in touch with employees and customers. While stressing innovation initially comes from understanding and anticipating market trends, continuing success depends on “imagination, creativity and knowledge of our entire staff.”

He is also looking more and more to his customers. “Early indicators on whether we are on the right track or come from initial response of customers in alpha and beta pilot projects. Sometimes they are the ones who come up with most innovative ideas.”

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