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November 1998

The Web-Enabled Call Center: It's All About Information


It doesn't take a genius to realize that giving bad advice is a bad idea. And it doesn't have to take a genius to change the way corporations provide information to customers. What it does take is an understanding of how technology and the World Wide Web can help an organization better manage and distribute information to both its customers and call center employees.

Call center managers are faced with the daunting task of providing high-quality service, while reducing support costs and increasing customer satisfaction. Web enabling the call center provides one of the most effective solutions for achieving these goals. The Web is the only forum that offers a high level of global accessibility, low cost, and exceptional ease of maintenance. By integrating the advantages of the Web into the call center, organizations can reap the benefits of reduced call center costs, heightened customer satisfaction, and increased agent productivity.

So the question becomes, how do you quickly integrate your call center with the Web while addressing your business and customer needs?

The two primary ways to Web-enable your call center include creating a self-service application that allows your customers to answer their own question on your Web site and creating an intranet-based application that allows your call center agents to answer calls more effectively. Depending upon your company's specific requirements, you may determine that one way works better for your call center or that combining the two approaches will allow you to create the most innovative and cost-effective solution.

Early attempts at customer self-service usually consisted of a FAQ list posted on the corporate Web site or a search engine linked to the corporation's support database. While offering some benefit, these solutions were clearly insufficient for full-fledged customer support. Both solutions underestimated the customer's need for guidance and personalized service. For instance, FAQ's usually address only a limited set of questions and often lead to end user frustration because of their limited scope. In addition, as an organization tries to capture more information in a FAQ format and the number of FAQ's proliferate, it becomes more difficult for end users to find the information they need.

By the same token, allowing direct access to your existing support information by placing a search engine on your Web site presents its own set of problems. First and foremost, this approach makes it extremely difficult for a non-expert to locate the correct solution, because an improperly formatted search will return either no matches or too many solutions. Secondly, the quality of information in many support databases is too technical or full of jargon for an end user to understand, and some databases may even contain information you do not want a customer to see.

The inescapable conclusion is that your Web site needs to provide an experience that is similar to working with a support professional. It is vital to have a site that helps customers refine and solve their problem. To this end, organizations need to create a Web-based self-service application that intelligently guides end users to the right solution for their needs. Because this online session closely mimics the interaction of a customer with a live agent, it presents a comfortable and positive experience for the end user.

The right self-service solution must have a few key features:

Guided Advice
The ability to intelligently lead users to the correct solution by prompting them with questions and providing rank ordered solutions and intelligent navigation. This feature interacts with the individual customer, gathers information about their situation, personalizes the problem solving session, and quickly guides each end user to the solution that best matches their particular situation.

Flexible Problem Resolution
Each of the four traditional problem resolution methodologies - natural language search, case-based reasoning, decision trees, and expert modeling - offer their own strengths and weaknesses. While natural language search is a quick way for experienced users to find a solution, each of the other methods provide unique benefits that help guide less experienced end users to the correct solution. Because end users possess various amounts of knowledge, they require different levels of guidance to effectively solve their problems. Thus an optimal software solution must be flexible enough to utilize the methodology best suited to each individual customer in a way that is transparent to the end-user.

Clearly, every question an end user answers on the Web results in one less call to the call center -- an indisputable benefit in terms of reducing call center costs and increasing customer satisfaction. But an effective solution should also provide the ability to easily escalate an unresolved issue to the call center. And, it should track and report everything that occurred in the self-service session, so that the call center representative has the benefit of knowing everything that has transpired during the online session. This enables the call center representative to quickly resolve the escalated issue without having to repeat questions that the end user has already answered.

The second way to Web-enable the call center occurs within the call center itself. The same software that provides an intuitive self-service interface for end users can also be an indispensable tool for support professionals -- if you choose the right solution. By selecting an Internet-based knowledge management system that is appropriate for both end user and call center support, the call center can dramatically improve the way its agents capture and deliver information to its customers.

When located on the corporate intranet, a Web-enabled knowledge base ensures that all support agents are delivering consistent, up-to-date information. It also allows novice support professionals to benefit from the accumulated expertise of their colleagues, without slowing down the call center by stopping to ask them questions. In addition, the right call center solution can dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to train new agents, the number of calls they need to escalate to more senior colleagues and the amount of time they need to spend on the phone servicing each customer.

As with the self-service model, features such as flexible problem resolution are critical components for the call center support staff, enabling them to quickly and easily find the right information. In fact, a comprehensive solution will let support professionals locate information in the knowledge base in the way that makes the most sense for them; an interactive, guided approach to solving customer problems for novice agents, and a more direct route to the information for seasoned call center representatives. The optimal software solution will be able to utilize the methodology best suited to each individual call center representative in a way that is transparent to the agent.

At the core of the Web-enabled call center is, of course, the knowledge base that call center agents and end users depend on. But simply creating a knowledge base isn't enough if you can't easily keep it up-to-date and inclusive. You need the ability to easily maintain, expand, and modify the knowledge base with new product information, newly reported problems, and new solutions.

To create an effective knowledge base, you must have global accessibility, allowing support experts to contribute knowledge from anywhere in the world. Global accessibility enables the knowledge base to leverage expert knowledge from throughout the call center, the larger organization, and even the organization's customers, where appropriate. Only a Web-enabled solution can provide these key advantages, which should include:

Web Authoring
Web authoring allows organizations to capture knowledge from their call center representatives and other experts through a standard Web browser. As new problems are reported, new solutions can be published, and thus the entire call center can immediately benefit from this timely information. This feature helps maintain an active, living knowledge base that delivers up-to-date solutions for both customer self-service and call center agents.

Workflow Control
Workflow control ensures quality control through a pre-determined channel of approvals. The channel can be modified for different authors, allowing a more stringent process for novice support professionals, and fewer approvals for expert staff. This feature sends new information through the approval process that best suits your particular business environment.

The company in search of a truly Web-enabled customer service organization should look for a solution capable of benefiting both customers in the self-service model and support professionals in an assisted help desk environment. The truly versatile solution will enable an organization to build and maintain a comprehensive knowledge base, while providing different levels of information to the appropriate audience.

The technology, tools, and time have arrived. Solutions for harnessing global customer service expertise and instantly guiding end users and support professionals to the right solutions via the Web are available today. Armed with the knowledge of what to look for, any call center manager can implement a Web-enabled customer-service application that will reduce costs, promote call center efficiency and increase customer satisfaction.

David Tarrant, president and CEO of ServiceSoft Corporation, has more than 15 years of experience in the software industry. ServiceSoft is the pioneer of Web-based knowledge management for customer service. For more information, contact the company at www.servicesoft.com or 781-449-0049.

Click To Talk: Web-Enabling the Call Center


Among the most exciting facilities fueling the growth of e-commerce is the "Click-to-Talk" capability. In its simplest form, click-to-talk enables a Web user to initiate an IP-based voiced conversation with a company representative in a call center. This article will address some of the capabilities that are being rolled out by several vendors.

In its purest form, the click-to-talk application enables a user to click on a button on a Web site; this initiates an IP conversation between the user and a CSR (Customer Service Representative). Generally, the user must have a preloaded version of the communications software on their PC. Alternatively, a Java-based client can be downloaded on-the-fly when the button is clicked upon. In the future, it is likely that the browser or operating system will have some standard client software (i.e., NetMeeting) available for this voice interconnection.

Under the covers, vanilla click-to-talk produces a voice conversation that is converted to a standard phone call (such as an 800 or 888 call). The advantage of this is that the call arrives at the call center as a regular call that can be monitored, reported on, rerouted, and the like, using existing call center capabilities. It also does not require any IP connection or equipment at the call center.

The disadvantage of the vanilla click-to-talk approach is that its simplicity is also its limitation. Without an IP connection to the call center, the CSR cannot carry on rich, multimedia conversations with the user.

The cost of the vanilla click-to-talk is usually reasonable. The vendor provides some sort of client software that performs the IP call and places it on the standard network. The vendor is rewarded with some per-minute or per-call remuneration.

If a gateway has been placed in the call center, the call center will have to pay - today these fees are in the neighborhood of about $1,000 per line. In such a case, the call center will also have to pay for the bandwidth to the server.

Vanilla click-to-talk can provide international coverage. If the IP server or gateway is located in the United States, then the click-to-talk user will perform an IP call to the U.S. over the public Internet - the 800 leg will then be completed domestically.

With an enhancement to the vanilla click-to-talk approach, there can be significant savings to the call center by avoiding the 800 call. Instead, an IP "terminating gateway" is placed on the call center premises. Thus, calls can be carried IP all the way -- completely avoiding the 800 leg of the program.

The alternative method for click-to-talk maintains the IP conversation all the way to the CSR desk. Now, the CSR can do much more for the user. For example, the CSR could "push" a particular Web page to the user to show a particular product. Video could be used to allow the user and CSR to view each other. Detailed information about the user who initiated the call could be shown on the CSR's screen. Interfaces can be made to coordinate the cyber-transfer of payment.

With the comprehensive method, a very sophisticated IP call center could be developed that would be far more powerful and flexible than the traditional call centers available today.

The cost of the comprehensive solution rests in upgrading the call center to be IP-capable. Traditionally, the CSR workstation area consists of some economical phone device for talking with the user. In our comprehensive solution, each desk requires a rich, multimedia-capable device. Although the total upgrade will be somewhat costly, the call center would quickly recognize the benefits - happier customers, more sales, less time in the customer relationship, and so on.

New and exciting click-to-talk models are being introduced on a regular basis. They will generally work to enhance the quality of the user-to-CSR relationship, and to help close the actual sale. As companies develop more powerful Web-enabled call center solutions, e-commerce will become the business medium of choice for users around the world.

David Greenblatt is the Chief Operating Officer of IDT/Net2Phone. Net2Phone's Click2Talk division is directed by Yonah Lloyd. For more information, send e- mail to lloyd@net2phone.com or call 201-907-5314. Net2Phone can be found on the Web at www.net2phone.com.


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