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March 2000

Web-Integrated Call Centers: Gain Or Pain?


Businesses are rushing to embrace Web-based e-commerce strategies with the goals of growing revenues and reaching a broader customer base, at potentially lower costs than traditional brick-and-mortar or catalog call center operations. Yet initial successes can be short-lived if a business is not actively focused on providing ease-of-use and a level of service that works to retain Web-based customers. According to research recently published by Datamonitor, online businesses lost more than $1.6 billion in 1998 by failing to properly support their online customers.

The Web has the ability to improve service by providing the customer a variety of self-service options through a rich user interface. But if businesses are interested in moving their Web-based customer service to the next level, it will likely require offering real-time interaction between live agents and customers while customers are using the company's Web site. By providing real-time services and support to Web customers, businesses can create a competitive advantage, and improve their ability to attract and retain customers.

For this reason, a focus on Web-integrated call centers is beginning to take shape by blending the strengths of two powerful customer service mediums: The traditional call center and the Web. If implemented properly, the benefits of integrating these technologies can include higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty, higher close rates, and increased revenue resulting from increased customer volumes. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that, Spiegel, a direct marketer, found that 60 percent of the people shopping on the company's Web site in 1999 were new customers to the company. Further-more, Web shoppers who shopped both online and through the Spiegel catalog were spending three times more than other customers.

However, if potential quality and performance issues are not carefully considered, the integration of voice and Web technologies can backfire and have exactly the opposite effect - frustrated customers and increased operating costs.

Unifying traditional call centers with the Web is made possible, in part, through new, emerging technologies such as VoiceXML, DSL, ISDN, cable modems, and Voice over IP (VoIP). As an initial step, some companies are starting by implementing "call me" buttons on their Web sites. A customer needing assistance clicks on the button and submits his or her name along with a phone number. When the request is submitted, it is automatically distributed to an available call center representative, and the customer's Web browser is synchronized with the call center representative's browser. This allows the call center representative to call back the customer and then view the same pages the customer is viewing along with the capability to "push" new pages to the customer in response to inquiries.

Integrating call centers with the Web holds out very real benefits, the most important of which is enhancing the customer experience. However, this integration also has the potential to create a whole new set of quality issues. For example, if the Web site does not function correctly, or the customer encounters slow response times, it will likely increase the time agents spend with customers helping them resolve questions or waiting for pages to download instead of helping them place orders. This has costly implications in terms of the number and skill-level of agents required to support a Web-integrated call center.

Therefore, managing the integration of these independent systems must include measures to control quality as call-center integration is added to a Web site. To ensure the Web-integrated call center truly works to strengthen customer service, businesses must organize and implement adequate quality assurance measures. The four dimensions of quality that must be addressed are usability, functional correctness, performance/scalability, and availability.

Usability testing investigates the logic of how a Web site is organized. Is information easy to find? Are directives clearly written, easy to understand, and simple to navigate? Do appropriate "key words" lead a customer to the information necessary to solve a problem, and is the information itself useful in helping even the novice user? The more difficult and time consuming it is for customers to locate the information they need, the higher likelihood they will need assistance. Businesses then begin to incur costs by having to provide additional training to both their agents and their customers because their site is too complex or organized poorly.

Functional correctness is another key quality consideration. Are all of the page links active and do they follow the appropriate paths? Do all of the interactions between front- and back-end systems function properly and return the requested results? How do high traffic volumes affect site functionality? Web sites that return errors or lead to dead-ends cause customers to become frustrated and may drive them to a competitive site that is just "a click away."

Of critical importance to testing this new environment is performance and scalability validation. That is, how quickly will the Web and call handling systems respond when there are many concurrent users browsing, calling, and performing business transactions? Load/scalability testing is critical for non-integrated Web sites and call centers, but is even more crucial for applications that interconnect the two technologies. Voice-enabling Web sites adds another layer of media to the Web environment and can stress networks and application performance. There-fore, businesses will want to measure and tune application and system response times under load to eliminate potential bottlenecks and maintain adequate service level requirements. It is important to understand how security layers affect performance, and make sure that the load-balancing algorithms are optimized to achieve the highest level of application performance.

Understanding performance in the pre-production testing phase is a must to ensure that the system will reliably handle the anticipated traffic volume. However, the quality assurance process shouldn't end there. Because one of the key business benefits of Web-integrated call centers is the ability to provide continuously available customer service, it is important to continuously monitor site availability and performance. Guaranteeing 24x7 uptime requires tests that continuously monitor the performance and functionality of the Web applications and telecommunications systems, and which will alert system managers when the Web site or call handling systems begin to show signs of problems.

To manage the risk of interlocking the voice call handling and Web technologies, rigorous, thorough testing and performance monitoring is critical. The testing process needs to be consistent, repeatable, and continuous. To achieve the best results, incorporating automated testing tools is highly recommended since manual testing tends to be very inefficient, and cannot simulate the load-related faults that are common in Web and voice applications.

You will need automated testing tools that can simulate both Web and call traffic and perform functional verification, load/stress testing, and continuous quality assurance monitoring. Seek to find testing tools that are easy to use and can respond quickly to the frequent changes common in Web applications.

Uniting traditional call centers with the Web to create interactive, voice-enabled Web sites offers great promise. Businesses benefit by tightening their technology infrastructure (centralizing databases), gaining higher productivity from staff not bogged down with call center assistance, and controlling overhead costs while offering top-notch service and support to greater customer volumes. Customers benefit from an improved, more interactive Web experience and continuously available service and support when and how they need it. However, without careful attention to quality and thorough automated testing practices, the "pain" for agents and customers alike may outweigh the desired business gains. c

Steve Caplow is the director of marketing and business development for RSW Software, a unit of Teradyne, Inc. Drew Knowland is the director of marketing for the call center business group of Hammer Technolo-gies, a unit of Teradyne, Inc. Hammer Technologies' CTI test systems are used by leading call centers like Fidelity Investments, State Farm Insurance, Aetna, Ameritech, and Merrill Lynch for performance verification and continuous quality assurance monitoring of call center telecommunications systems. For more information, visit Hammer's Web site.

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