As the e-commerce and e-service revolution picks up speed, enterprises are beginning to
realize the scope of the issues that influence the acceptance of Internet-based commerce
and customer service solutions. There is a historically proven continuum of acceptance of
new technology and interfaces for service; and IP-based self-service has not escaped the
rigors of historical precedent.
Technologists tend to dismiss, ignore, or underestimate the influence of several issues
that affect the rate of uptake and usability of IP-based commerce and service mechanisms.
Some of these are not even technical. The challenge of getting customers to accept the
Internet as a self-service medium will be in designing solutions that take into
consideration factors such as customer demographics, privacy, engagement expectations, and
We're seeing an emerging trend - "assisted service." It walks the middle
ground between the full service of the call center and the self-service of the Internet.
IP telephony, although relatively new, is a prototype for the "assisted service"
First, it is important to define a distinction between total self-service and assisted
service. Total self-service is where the customer does everything for himself, i.e., using
a Web site shopping cart. Assisted service is engaged when the customer has started to do
something for himself and then gets stuck. At this point the customer wants,
instinctively, to communicate with someone knowledgeable who comes into the conversation
where he is and keeps him from starting over. Or, as is likely today, he just abandons the
THE FIRST STEP: E-Mail
The Internet-based assisted service model can be compared to the voice world's "zero
out" option. It would allow customers a way to communicate with companies in real
time so the business doesn't lose the sale or worse, lose a problem resolution
opportunity. So far, e-mail has emerged as the Internet's version of the "zero
out." But due to a lack of proper planning and implementation, e-mail today for most
companies is more of a problem than it is an effective channel.
Increasingly the operations manager wants to know: why are you getting enormous amounts
of e-mail in the first place? They believe that, in most cases, e-mail is a result of
having not provided the online customer enough information in the first place. In effect,
companies put up stupendous Web sites that are terrifically entertaining and then they
close the door on that prospective customer. At the same time, nearly every enterprise has
a Web site with an e-mail address - e-mail that goes to who-knows-where from the customer
Without the proper planning and implementation - treating e-mail with the same care
that companies treat call center voice calls - e-mail is a surprisingly expensive and
inefficient way to provide service. Too many marketers have made the mistake of looking at
e-mail as a cheap, easy way of communicating with customers. In fact, the real cost to
respond to an e-mail is around $18 each. It can take considerable time and resources to
track down the right individual to answer an e-mail; and even then, time to respond might
not meet the customer'' need. By handling e-mail like voice calls - doing things like
routing messages to specific service representatives and monitoring service levels -
companies can indeed provide great service and cut down the associated costs.
Still, the emergence of the Internet is breeding consumers who want to communicate with
companies in multiple ways. So the best IP-based customer service is the most flexible.
Accordingly, voice over the Internet (VoIP) can be an effective addition to the total
The same principles apply with VoIP as with e-mail. Many companies advancing on the
service evolution path have mistakenly failed to understand that there is a significant
difference between providing good phone service from a call center, and just providing
decent VoIP service. Taking current call center best practices -- call routing, reporting,
etc. -- and applying them to VoIP minimizes this difference.
VoIP is clearly an area where the enterprise must understand the demographics of the
customer they are going after. VoIP is a growing, exciting phenomenon. But even as voice
quality becomes more reliable, not everybody is comfortable with it today. Using VoIP in
combination with e-mail (and its real-time counterpart, text chat) enables companies to
give choices and provide a wider base of customers with assisted service.
CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS: Privacy
Consumers' privacy expectations are another factor enterprises must consider while
advancing this model of assisted service. Unlike pure call centers with phone
interactions, customers may be skeptical of using a company's Web site in a self-service
This has a real impact on the effectiveness of the technology. Increasingly, we will be
seeing customer service chain executives debating whether or not to monitor their
company's Web site and observe customers. They will need to understand the challenges and
potential of this kind of technology-based interaction.
While we expect solid guidelines and clear expectations eventually (the promise of this
technology is too great for anything else), these issues today are far from being
resolved. In the continuum that goes from total self-service to full service, we must
understand which media has what expectations of engagement. For example, customers may
feel more secure in a real-time conversation (VoIP) than offering personal information in
a message (e-mail or chat). Once you get past the problem areas of today which lie
primarily with the messaging elements, the real-time elements available from the Internet
increasingly fade as problems and become opportunities. These opportunities include
expanding the enterprise reach and distribution, increasing market size and providing
enhanced customer service.
Some of the most promising advances in IP-based customer service are coming from companies
that do not have call centers in the formal sense of the definition. There is no voice
component at all.
One of the revolutionary ideas that the Internet enables is the concept of a company
that provides products and services completely devoid of a voice component. One of the
reasons that we see this most prevalently in e-business start-ups is that there is little
or no legacy investment to be protected.
However, even if an e-business has no need for a traditional voice call center, it
would be foolish to discontinue an evolving interest and relationship related to the
technologies of call centers. You are small but what happens when you start growing and
eventually need a traditional call center voice function? The smart investment is in the
solutions being created today that enable a migration path to those functions found in
traditional call centers. You do not want to wed your enterprise to a service solution
that eventually must be thrown out because it cannot perform fundamental call center
functions. You will want to have a migration map that can get you from the non-call center
Internet solution to the call center.
As we've seen, the very same capabilities found in formal call center environments are
the types of capabilities that will be necessary in the IP-based service environments.
These features include intelligent routing and queuing decisions. Like voice calls, you
will want to route e-mail or chat sessions to specific service representatives and you
will want to be able to measure those engagements. All manipulations of the multiple media
- text, chat and video - are skills best adapted from the voice side of the service
ASSISTED SERVICE: A Firm Middle Ground
There is often little consideration given to the human factors and elements that influence
the use of technology. Pragmatically, making technology work to enable total self-service
will rely on understanding the influence of things we traditionally have never considered.
The challenge of getting customers to accept self-service will be in designing
solutions with factors such as customer demographics, privacy, engagement expectations,
and security built in. Customer service technologists are going to have to build these
solutions in a very careful way so as to avoid wholly miscalculated flare-ups in how
The evolutionary middle ground lies with the assisted service model. And,
realistically, this is a model that has strong roots and experience from the traditional
call center end of the service spectrum.
When the enterprise begins to discuss not how to use technology, but why it uses
technology, the evolutionary efficiency and acceptability of assisted self-service becomes
apparent. Assisted self-service becomes even more of a viable solution when considering
the human elements that influence why customers do certain things or why engagements
should be structured in certain ways. The service technology winners will be found in
those enterprises that shift from solving problems to engaging solutions.
Laura DiSciullo joined Lucent Technologies in 1996 to lead a team responsible for
integrating emerging technologies, such as the Internet, with traditional call centers.
Prior to joining Lucent, Ms. DiSciullo held a variety of sales, financial analysis, design
and development positions at AT&T. Lucent Technologies, headquartered in Murray Hill,
N.J., designs, builds and delivers a wide range of public and private networks,
communications systems and software, data networking systems, business telephone systems
and microelectronics components. Bell Labs is the research and development arm of the
company. For more information about Lucent Technologies, visit its Web site at www.lucent.com.