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January 2000

Web-Enabling The Call Center: Your Customers Are Only A Click Away


The Internet is changing the way companies do business. It provides a new, flexible, and effective channel for marketing, sales, service, and distribution. The Web also gives rise to a number of powerful customer contact opportunities and is, by its nature, interactive. For these and other reasons, many companies are looking to combine the Internet and the call center into a rich new means of interacting with customers.

Integrating the call center with the Web gives rise to exciting possibilities for customer interaction, including e-mail and online chats. Others include collaborative browsing, in which the Internet browsers of both the agent and the customer become linked and can be controlled by either party, and Voice over IP (VoIP), in which voice is transmitted over a data network.

While the convergence of call center and Internet technologies offers tremendous benefits, it also presents several challenges. Software technologies for Web-enabling call centers are becoming readily available — however, call center managers and agents may not initially be able to effectively harness the new functionality afforded by the Internet. Additionally, customers may be reluctant to try Web interaction, especially if they have had difficulty using the Web in the past. Several key technologies and techniques, including queue management and work blending, reinforced by the collection of real-time statistics and business intelligence, can pave the way toward faster technology adoption and accelerate an organization’s efforts to successfully leverage both call center and Internet technologies.

Call centers have been gradually evolving over the past few years from the simplest switch-only solutions to those incorporating detailed computer-telephony functionality. According to Datamonitor (www.datamonitor.com), a market research and consulting firm based in New York and London, “For companies wishing to combine the customer focus of a call center with the business potential of the Web, a Web integrated call center or multimedia contact center is the next logical step of development.” In the US, Datamonitor predicts that penetration of Web-enabling technologies will rise to 32 percent in 2002.

A Web-enabled call center allows a business to differentiate itself from competitors by providing new and useful services. Efficiency improvements can help boost company performance through reduced costs, or higher revenues for equivalent expenditures. For example, transferring expensive repetitive telephone-based operations to the Web can clearly reduce call center operating costs. Using a new distribution or service channel can provide new marketing opportunities, and capture new market sectors that the company has previously been unable to service or supply. The combination of Internet and telephone technologies can also provide around-the-clock customer sales and service, and improve customer loyalty and satisfaction, leading to an increase in repeat business and customer retention, directly influencing revenues.

Call-center-enabling the Web site also offers significant benefits. According to Datamonitor, “Many e-commerce functions report that around 70 percent of customers who enter a site and fill an electronic shopping basket abandon the contact before any transaction has taken place for one reason or another.” Adding Web “call me” and other human interaction can help close these sales. Agents will be able to reassure customers about security issues, and perform cross- and up-selling, thereby improving the revenue-generating function. Capturing some of these deflected customers will greatly improve online revenues and help improve call center efficiency.

In spite of these benefits, according to Datamonitor, Web-enabled call center penetration only reached about 10 percent last year. One reason call centers have been slow to integrate Web functionality is the significant time lag that can occur between implementing the new technology and the ability of call center managers and agents to use the Internet. For instance, agents who may be highly adept at selling on the telephone may not be able to rapidly and accurately type — a skill that is necessary for sending e-mails and conducting online chats. It is imperative to hire the right agents and train them appropriately to ensure that whatever technology is chosen is exceedingly easy to use.

Another challenge is the difficulty consumers have in using the Internet. For many consumers, simply connecting to the Web presents a dizzying array of challenges. Moreover, unless users have separate Internet and telephone connections, the technology can not really be utilized — unless they are using VoIP. Then, once they are on the Internet, many consumers find online shopping confusing. Unreliable connections and browser software crashes may further frustrate customers. Being able to successfully rescue agitated online shoppers will be key to retaining customers.

Within the call center, there are several ways to maximize the potential of Internet technology and to reduce the latency period between software technology availability and the propensity to learn and use the software by call center agents and managers. Agents must first be armed with sufficient business intelligence. They must be aware of every customer interaction (any contact between a single customer and a human or automated agent within the enterprise) that has taken place across all interaction channels. Without this knowledge, an agent may not be aware that a customer is already agitated from having an unsuccessful online shopping experience. The agent who knows if the customer is ready to buy or highly frustrated is the agent who will be successful in selling products, or improving customer loyalty by resolving an issue.

Further, business intelligence should utilize key indicators for managers to measure performance against specific business targets. When a central repository is used across CRM applications, it becomes easier to correlate operational performance in the call center with business results.

Technologies focusing on universal work queues and sophisticated work blending applications are being introduced that will readily adopt new media types via a standard media “access” interface. This will enable applications to operate with less focus on the details of a given medium, and allow software providers to focus on improving business application functionality that supports customer interactions. The media access interface will manage each media system for the agent application, whether it is a telephony, e-mail, or Web collaboration system. The architecture will also support flexibility in incorporating new media as they become available.

Ensuring that the Web site is fully integrated with the company’s call center is as important as integrating with a company’s other business systems (e.g., IVR, self-service applications, back office systems for shipping information or contract data). Without full integration, invaluable customer information could be lost or not fully leveraged. But with CRM applications linked to repositories of business intelligence, not only can customer information be used to its fullest, but also call center managers can better analyze and understand trends in customer interactions. This will enable companies to understand what types of skills agents will need today, and in the future.

The benefits of Web-enabled call centers are clear. They are poised to dramatically change the experience of interacting with companies for both customers and agents. Because the Web lets customers serve themselves for simple activities such as requests for information, agents will have to handle fewer repetitive, routine tasks. This alone could help to reduce turnover among agents. By taking advantage of self-help systems, companies will also be able to reduce costs and improve sales.

Steven Haines is senior director of product management for Oracle Corporation. Oracle software runs on PCs, workstations, minicomputers, mainframes, and massively parallel computers, as well as on personal digital assistants and set-top devices. As more and more companies transform themselves into e-businesses, Oracle’s Internet-enabled solutions provide a cost-effective way to expand market opportunities, improve business process efficiencies, and attract and retain customers. For more information, visit Oracle’s Web site at www.oracle.com.

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