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May 1999

When E-Commerce Meets The Call Center - Integration Strategies For Success


The e-commerce revolution is happening on many fronts. Companies are moving products into this new channel, retailers are thriving and marketing data gathered online continue to be refined and used in more sophisticated ways. The Web has emerged as a resource for technical support and product information that offers customers convenience and satisfaction. In the e-commerce revolution, everybody wins.

The question for companies, then, is not deciding if they need to go online -- that's a given. Companies need to determine how e-commerce will affect their customer relationships, and prepare for impending change. The challenge is how to re-think the current infrastructure of a business to get the most out of e-commerce. The solution may surprise some, as it does not focus on emphasizing the company's presence on the Web. Instead, the way to leverage e-commerce is to link the existing points of customer contact with online channels, and integrate customer-contact information with marketing, commerce and support applications.

To successfully integrate call centers and other methods of customer interaction (fax, e-mail, Web) with e-commerce requires company management to step back and take a look at how their firm currently provides customer contact, and whether or not systems are in place to coordinate customer contact with the departments that are developing e-commerce. Companies that successfully embrace e-commerce will have a well-developed plan and will opt for best-of-class solutions with open standards.

Customer Contact Today And Tomorrow
One of the main areas of customer contact is the call center. As companies develop new visions of what their customer-contact infrastructure needs to look like, the connection between e-commerce and the call center must become an integral part of their strategy.

In most companies, call centers have traditionally been designed to respond to customer complaints and questions, to process orders or to conduct telemarketing campaigns. Call centers have not been charged with developing or managing relationships. In fact, in many cases, call center personnel cannot address a customer's need because they have limited access to information. In addition, personnel usually operate one program that is designed for one transaction. Although they are instructed to maintain a customer-friendly attitude, they are often not trained to be service- or sales-oriented.

Web sites, on the other hand, appeal to a wide range of customers by using interesting graphics, special online discounts and the ability to buy instantly, if one so chooses. While it's easy to get to the Web site, it's just as easy to click away, especially if the customer doesn't easily find what he or she is looking for. In addition, e-commerce, while providing a self-service sales channel, generates more call center traffic at unpredictable intervals. The most obvious way a call center can complement e-commerce activity is by providing personal contact at the click of an icon. But when the call center and the Web site are truly coordinated, the possibilities extend beyond enhancing online revenues.

While companies are preparing for increased call center traffic from e-commerce, they can also design their Web sites to improve call center efficiency. When a Web site is easy to navigate, for example, users can find the answers they need to technical questions without calling technical support. And when e-commerce is coordinated with the call center, a history of the customer's online technical questions, as well as related purchases, will be available when the customer calls for help. This means reduced overhead at the call center, reduced calls to other departments that are not staffed to handle a large number of customer calls -- and a more satisfied customer.

Integrating the call center and the Web reaches beyond current customers to prospects. Data from online activities can be used to generate sales leads, and the presentation used in outbound marketing calls or direct mail campaigns can invite a potential customer to visit the Web site to register for a promotional program. In fact, the success of this kind of a telemarketing campaign depends on the coordination between the call center, Web management and marketing.

Here is a closer look at a few ways companies will benefit by integrating the call center and e-commerce:

Inbound Calls
Many businesses were caught by surprise when the appearance of their Web sites meant phones began ringing off the hook. The bottom line is, no matter how colorful or user-friendly your site, a majority of your customers will still want to interact with a human being, especially during the transition phase. When they have the impulse to buy a product or service they see featured online, customers want to pick up the phone, talk to somebody about the product and use this personal connection to help them decide whether or not to buy, because phone contact is where they are currently comfortable.

Call centers and field sales forces are still the primary channels through which products are sold, so companies need to drive online leads to these channels. Companies that succeed in e-commerce will use their Web sites to encourage shoppers to call, taking advantage of this opportunity to manage customer relationships and build market loyalty. Successful companies will offer a call center solution that responds to the customer's desire for personal interaction and at the same time mines the rich marketing data available online.

To achieve successful personal interactions, companies must employ responsive customer service representatives (CSRs) and be able to use the information garnered from the Web site to manage and improve customer relationships. When e-commerce shoppers call an 800 number listed online, they expect to communicate with representatives who understand the products and know their way around the Web site.

Here's an example that brings the integration of e-commerce and the call center to life: Let's say you're in the telecommunications business. In the pre-e-commerce paradigm, when a customer called in with a question about how to use a function on an old cell phone, the support agent would write down the contact information and then tell the customer how to invoke the function. Advanced call centers, which use a customer-contact manager, would be able to identify the cell phone as dated and offer to sell the customer a new one. If the phone still worked, the customer would probably say no, and that would be the end of the customer contact.

When e-commerce is integrated with the call center, however, the call center management software could take the old cell phone from the support application and feed it to a marketing application. This system would send the customer personalized promotional information via e-mail once a month about new cell phones. At some point, the customer will discover cost-efficiencies, or will otherwise desire a new phone, and will click on the Web site URL in the e-mail to go to a personalized Web page that the wireless carrier has created to address the customer's needs. There, the customer can click the "call me" button for a customer sales representative to call, or purchase directly from the page, or get product questions answered via the Web.

The level of training required to coordinate e-commerce activities with the customer call center has a large bottom line payoff - it helps turn the call center into a profit center. Once CSRs gain the skills to respond to the needs of e-commerce customers, they can use these new skills to increase the satisfaction and loyalty of shoppers who call in response to catalogs or advertisements, as well.

To fully integrate call centers and e-commerce, companies must make sure CSRs have the ability to communicate with inbound e-mail inquiries with the same level of marketing savvy as they do on the telephone. Although many customers seek out human contact, others will choose to e-mail their questions. The answer the customer receives can make or break the sale, so CSRs must have the training and marketing resources available to facilitate a purchase.

Outbound Calls
Once e-commerce is coordinated with the call center, the world of telemarketing changes. Now the sales force has more precise customer profiles, so the script they use can be uniquely crafted to maximize the effort to market to the target audience. Callers will know if the person they are about to speak with has visited the company Web site, and will know the kinds of products they are interested in.

At the same time, when the call center receives an e-mail generated by a potential customer's visit to the Web site, the CSR's response becomes an opportunity for targeted marketing that may prove to exceed telemarketing efforts. In fact, integrating e-commerce and telemarketing may prove to become the new paradigm in outbound calling.

This is because e-mail messages can be scanned electronically to flag opportunities where products or discounts can be promoted. If the customer looking for a cell phone sent an e-mail request, the CSR can give him the information he wants on the phone, but with the prompting of the marketing department can also suggest voice mail, call waiting or other related products.

This inbound e-mail request can also become an opportunity to partner with other businesses for cross-marketing. The e-mail response sent by your CSR could include suggestions of third-party accessories, or it might ask if the customer needs pagers or data capabilities. When cross-marketing is done correctly, your customer feels taken care of, and your company benefits.

Customer Support
While a well-trained call center team with links to both marketing and the Web will support e-commerce, a well-designed Web site can also help call centers become more efficient by giving customers self-help for their support questions.

Customer support has become a great source of irony for many marketing departments, especially for businesses in consumer high tech. There are two reasons for this. First, although the marketing department values a customer's loyalty, the cost of responding every time the customer dials the 800 number can be burdensome. These calls are expensive and tie up staff who could otherwise be generating new purchases or solving highly technical problems. On the other hand, U.S. corporations lose half of their customers every five years; it costs seven to ten times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to retain an existing customer; and improving customer retention by five percent can double a company's profit margin.

Second, although potential customers do seek out CSRs to help make buying decisions, they often prefer to research and solve technical problems with the convenience of online assistance. Therefore, when a tech-help Web site is designed to be user-friendly and clear, customers often will choose to find the answer they need online.

It's Not Your Father's Infrastructure: How To Make It Work
By integrating the Web site and the call center, you will meet your customers' desire for personal connection when the company goes online. The technology to support seamless, comprehensive integration is available and will be explored later in this article. Before your company connects its call center to e-commerce, you need to determine how this integration will impact your existing business infrastructure.

E-commerce is a key part of a company's marketing strategy, not just another store front, an additional vehicle for taking orders or a mechanism for gathering names for an old-school telemarketing bank. To realize the marketing potential of the Web, the call center and online marketing departments need to work as one coordinated department.

The call center will require real-time updates and integration with other departments to have the details necessary to please the customer. When the customer who is shopping for cruise wear asks for a size 18 shirt in periwinkle, the CSR needs to know whether or not it is in stock and if it can be shipped to arrive at the customer's home in Chicago tomorrow. By keying in specific codes, the CSR can ask the inventory system if the shirt is in stock, and then find out from the distribution system that a storm in Iowa just grounded the Fed Ex flight the shirt would have been shipped on. The marketing system can then flash an alternative choice, complete with a picture (taken on a cruise ship) that is instantly popped onto the Web page the customer is viewing.

Plus, when the marketing department plans its next telemarketing campaign, it can now use this information to initiate customer contact. A friendly conversation that begins by inquiring about the trip (especially since the company is in the business of resort wear) will go farther than a cold call.

When integrated with e-commerce, the call center becomes a hub through which all sales-related information passes. This requires a change in recruiting and training, as the skills required to close on a sale are different from those needed to process orders. It also demands a re-thinking of where the call center stands in the eyes of other departments, as it now delivers an immediate impact to the bottom line.

Computer-telephony integration (CTI) software is needed to blend a call center with e-commerce and other departments. CTI enables call centers to manage customer interactions across multiple contact channels such as voice, the Web and e-mail. Also critical to integration, especially when you are managing a variety of departments and expectations, is the ability of CTI to work across multiple sites and accommodate different hardware configurations.

Once you look at the ways in which customer service and the use of marketing demographics are changed through e-commerce, you will realize that e-commerce must become a key part of your marketing strategy. The most important part of this realization is that e-commerce does not work alone. The foundation for successful ventures in e-commerce is not your Web site; instead, it is the integration between your Web site and your call center. By connecting what occurs online with what occurs over the phone, you can successfully manage customer relationships and build customer loyalty.

Finally, to build and maintain an online customer base, companies must integrate call center and e-commerce technologies. Therefore, if you intend to embrace the potential of online business, you must also create an infrastructure to support the connection between e-commerce and the call center.

Bruce Talley is manager, sales and marketing operations, for Hewlett-Packard Customer Relationship Software. The group offers call center solutions to help customer service managers quickly adapt to new channels, new markets and new customer demands. HP's solutons are installed worldwide in industries ranging from telecommunications and manufacturing to financial services and utilities. Find more information online at

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