Brightware Inc., a four-year-old developer of customer service software for the Internet, last week raised $14.4 million of venture capital financing, bringing the total funds it has raised to $32 million.

The Novato, Calif.-based company is a leader in developing artificial intelligence software that can respond to requests initiated via electronic mail, according to International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

On-line customer service issues are moving to the front burner as more business is conducted over the Internet. International Data expects the market for customer service automation to grow from just under $30 million at yearend 1998 to $342 million worldwide at yearend 2003. Brightware has a 24.4% share of the worldwide revenues for 1998, International Data said.

A Jupiter Communications Inc. survey released last week found that businesses are lagging in adopting customer service technologies.

The study, which surveyed 125 popular sites that provide travel, retail, and financial services, among other services, found that 46% took at least five days to respond to a request. That figure was up from 38% in a similar study conducted a year earlier.

"Considering the number of highly publicized customer service problems that sites experienced last holiday season, it's very troubling'' that service has worsened, said Ken Allard, a vice president at Jupiter. "This declining service rate offers a chance for Web ventures to differentiate their efforts based on customer service performance."

John Knightly, senior vice president and director of corporate marketing at Brightware, said that although many banks are engaging in electronic commerce, "what is missing is the customer hand-holding piece."

Brightware has sold its e-mail response software - which costs between $150,000 and $200,000 - to 40 financial services customers, including Countrywide Credit Industries, Homeside Lending Inc., Michigan National Bank, and TD Bank. The company also targets retailers and computer companies.

Brightware will use the new funds to pay for continued research and development investments, marketing, and strategic partnerships. The investors are CDIB Venture Management, United Overseas Bank Group, Concord Venture Capital, Woodside Fund, Starwood Capital Group, and B.T. Investment Partners. Past investors are Norwest Venture Partners, Venrock Associates, and Advanta Partners.

The privately held company did not disclose its sales or revenues, but said it is not profitable. Officials said Brightware, which has 175 employees, is in the early stages of exploring an initial public stock offering, but they did not disclose details.

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