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Feature Article
August 2001

Call Centers Get A New Voice -- Web Merchants And Marketers Find The Missing Link To Connect With Customers


[ Go Right To: The Theory Of Customer Relativity ]

When it comes to customer service, nothing has more impact or relationship-building power than a conversation. It is one of the guiding principles of business. But with the advent of the Internet, many companies tried to cut customer service out of the equation, creating a self-serve environment where "contact us" links on Web sites left Internet users wanting. Because of the lack of human interaction and personal service, many people weren't comfortable buying online -- and some still say they won't buy online until they have the option to actually talk with company representatives or call center agents. Coupled with the recent dot-com shakeout, such feedback has given companies reason to pause.

Smart companies realize that it takes more than just a Web site to acquire customers and build a loyal customer base. Many are changing their online business strategies to provide a better experience for consumers -- one that more closely aligns with the experience consumers associate with the offline marketplace.

Many companies have discovered that voice on the Internet is key to duplicating that experience. By placing voice-call buttons on their Web sites, e-mail messages, and banner ads, they're inviting an open dialogue with prospects and customers. One push of a button enables users to speak with call center agents over the Internet or on a traditional phone call established via the Web.

"Voice appears to be the missing ingredient for advertising, e-mail campaigns, and Web sites," said Joe Cartagena, developer and CIO of New England Yellow Pages (NEYP) Online, which includes a new division called PushNCall for advertisers who want to enhance their listings with real-time voice communication. NEYP Online launched in December 2000 and includes more than 850,000 business listings.

Cartagena continued, "The benefits are many, but the bottom line is that people have questions and want answers immediately. The organization that can service a client in this manner is more likely to establish a relationship -- and we all know that relationships usually lead to sales."

Club Med, BriteSmile, and The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino are just a few companies employing Internet voice services to communicate with prospects and customers. Such companies are connecting with consumers when they're most interested in buying, and they are taking advantage of the cross-sell and up-sell opportunities made possible by one-to-one interaction.

Others, including a France-based AIDS fundraising organization, offer voice call capabilities as an additional option for those Internet users who still aren't comfortable giving credit card information on the Web.

"This kind of technology allows the user more flexibility and freedom," said Jason Lee, IT manager of HotelCoupons.com, an Internet portal that allows travelers to search online for hotels by location and offers coupons for special rates. The 2,500 hotels listed on the site have the option to include voice call buttons within their coupons, enabling travelers to call the hotel's call center or front desk directly from the portal.

"Some people on the Web are just not comfortable letting a computer make a reservation for them," Lee added, explaining that they often want to speak with a real person when making travel and lodging arrangements.

HotelCoupons and NEYP Online were early movers in the directory space, making voice on the Internet technology available to hundreds of thousands of merchants and marketers. Buttons placed within the directory listings ring directly to advertisers' call centers, company headquarters, or even specific company representatives.

Offering voice on the Internet services is the obvious next step for online directories, especially if they want to stay competitive by adding value for their advertisers, according to Cartagena. After all, users go to directories to find a company's phone number, and they're more likely to contact the company if they can make the call right then and there. It's the ideal way for directories to deliver prospects directly to their advertisers' call centers.

"Think about it: With the exception of the fire department, what business doesn't want the telephone to ring?" asked Cartagena.

According to Cartagena, he had a waiting list of PushNCall customers even before the service went live on the NEYP Online site. Lee has had a similar response from HotelCoupons' advertisers and expects that at least one-third will convert to voice-enabled listings by this fall. Both companies are also enabling advertisers to put voice buttons on their own Web sites, e-mail messages, and banner ads, in addition to their directory listings.

Companies that use voice on the Internet for customer service don't necessarily need to have a Web-enabled call center, as they would if using a text chat or e-mail response system. And, unlike text chat or e-mail, which require additional training for personnel, voice on the Internet services utilize the call center agents' existing phone skills.

Those call centers that are Web enabled, however, can complement voice communication with "page push" or collaboration technology to offer an even more personalized experience. Such technology enables the agent to sync up with the consumer's browser and share forms or send pages with additional items and information that might be of interest.

Until recently, Internet voice services were only within the financial reach of larger companies with sizable e-commerce, e-CRM, or IT budgets. The equipment and personnel costs associated with installing and maintaining these services would have easily reached six figures, depending on the complexity of the system.

"Today it's very affordable and within reach for even the small guy," said Cartagena, explaining that with the help of application service providers (ASPs) and resellers, any company can put a live voice link at any customer touch point online.

The ASP simply provides a few lines of HTML code, which "creates" a button programmed to call a specific destination number. In most cases, the ASP hosts the button and only charges the company a flat fee or cost-per-thousand (CPM) fee for each completed call regardless of duration.

"Basically, you're building a communications center that doesn't require an infrastructure," says Lee. "You simply add the 'magic string' of code and within a matter of minutes the button is available for calling. It's that easy."

Melissa Freels is a member of the E-commerce Product Marketing team at ITXC Corp., the leading provider of worldwide Internet voice services. ITXC's patented Push to Talk service enables companies to add real-time voice communication capabilities to their Web sites, e-mail campaigns, and banner ads.

[ Return To The August 2001 Table Of Contents ]

The Theory Of Customer Relativity


Einstein had his E=MC2. The Theory of Relativity revolutionized our understanding of how things, space, and time interact -- which is fine if you're considering intergalactic travel or building a time machine. But how do businesses, customers and partners interact? Albert's theory isn't much help there.

We need a new theory...a Theory of Customer Relativity. Allow me to present S=QCN where S represents customer interaction success, CN represents the quantity of communication channels available to customers and Q represents the quality of those contacts.

S=QCN illustrates that success depends on both the quality and quantity of contact channels available to customers and business partners. Ok, ok, it's not based in scientific or mathematical fact. But S=QCN does help demonstrate the power of Internet protocol technology, through the use of Web-enabled call centers, to revolutionize how organizations interact with customers, business partners, and even themselves. So let's break down the equation.

The Explosion Of C
When IP technology burst onto the communications landscape in the 90's, it began a revolution the likes of which hasn't been seen since Bell transmitted those first crackly words: "Watson, come here. I need you." Nearly overnight, e-mail and Web chat emerged and are quickly joining voice as preferred channels of communication between companies and their customers.

S=QCN indicates that one of the variables upon which success (S) depends is the number of channels available for interaction (CN). Really, this means that today's customers want communications choices. Organizations offering one-dimensional access, i.e., voice only, are effectively cutting themselves off from all those current and potential customers that prefer other channels.

E-contact Is Essential For A Successful Web Site
Imagine a Web shopper. Looking for a hockey jersey for her son's birthday, she uses a search engine to find Kidshockeyjerzeys.com and Sportsjerseyworld.com. She starts with Kidshockeyjerzeys.com and quickly finds her son's favorite team but she also wants to know if the jersey will shrink when washed. The site offers a customer service phone number but no e-mail or Web chat links. Like most Internet users, she's using a dial-up connection and would have to log off to call. So she simply clicks the "back" button instead and finds Sportsjerseyworld.com. This site offers the same jersey and a click-to-chat link. She clicks, starts a chat session with a service agent, and her question gets answered. The agent also mentions that pucks with team logos are on sale. Happy with the service, she buys both the jersey and a puck from Sportsjerseyworld.com.

This scenario is more common than you think. Lack of customer service is the number one reason for abandoned Internet shopping carts. Chat offers a very easy way to interact with Web customers as they are making purchase decisions. Their questions can be answered before they hit the dreaded back button on their browser and find a competitor.

Click-to-e-mail links are equally important. Customers often prefer e-mail to Web chat or voice. When responses are prompt and accurate, e-mail can meet customer needs just as effectively. Offering multiple access options assures that any customer can get service in the channel they prefer.

What's On The Horizon
IP technology is enabling new options for customer service channels that build on chat, e-mail, and voice. As high-speed Internet connections become more prevalent, PC-to-PC voice calling will emerge as a popular communications channel. Click-to-talk links on Web sites will be as common as e-mail links. High-bandwidth connections are enabling vastly improved video streaming. Soon, customers will enjoy access to video as a service tool, such as a demonstration of how to use, install, or repair a product.

CN - Q 1 S
No matter how many contact channels (CN) are available, if they are poorly managed it's right back to aggravating customers or, worse, driving them to competitors. What good is it to offer a click-to-chat button if customers have to wait 20 minutes? What good is a click-to-e-mail link if the reply takes two days? A recent International Customer Service Association/e-Service.com study found that poor handling of e-contacts creates up to 48 percent lower customer loyalty.

The Theory of Customer Relativity shows that multiple channels alone can't achieve success. In addition to customer-oriented personnel and processes, organizations need tools that enable quality interactions. That tool is the Web-enabled call center, better known as the e-contact center.

A Satisfying Customer Experience
The immediate benefit of the e-contact center is assurance that incoming contacts, regardless of type, are quickly routed to agents best able to handle them. E-mails are routed based on the "from" address or key words in the subject line or body text. Chat requests are routed based on the Web page from which they accessed the chat link or a brief survey panel to determine the nature of the inquiry. Like traditional call centers, e-contact centers can route voice contacts based on DNIS, ANI, an automated attendant, or customer-entered information such as a PIN.

If chat and voice contacts have to wait in queue, the e-contact center delivers automated messages to minimize abandonment. E-mail contacts receive an instant automated acknowledgment to assure the customer that an agent will reply shortly.

The end result from the customer perspective is vastly improved response times and a positive overall interaction -- exactly the experience they are looking for.

Vastly Improved Efficiency
E-contact centers provide easily accessible historical trending and productivity data. Managers can monitor agents working in any channel just like traditional call center managers can listen in on agents. Call center-wide information is available in real-time to agents and managers, helping agents know how much time can be spent with each customer and helping managers adjust staffing and contact routing on-the-fly.

IP Ushers In The Age Of The Virtual Contact Center
The e-contact center uses a VoIP gateway to convert PSTN calls to IP packets, allowing them to be carried, along with e-mail and chat contacts, on a data network. Because data networks are free from the switch-based network's spatial limitations, e-contact center agents and managers can be located anywhere, even hundreds of miles apart or in their homes, and work together as if they were in the same room -- creating a virtual contact center.

Opportunity Is Now
According to the ICSA/e-Service survey, e-customers across all industries expect acknowledgment of their e-mail within one hour. However, only 12 percent receive an acknowledgment within an hour and only 42 percent receive one within 24 hours. The study also found that only 36 percent of e-customers are satisfied with their experience.

The industry is full of statistics pointing to a wide-open opportunity for organizations to differentiate using e-contact. Organizations that provide well-managed, multi-channel customer interaction experiences can be the beneficiaries of the back button instead of the casualty.

Putting Theory Into Practice: e-Contact Implementation
The urgent need for most organizations today is e-mail management, but chat and other channels will soon be equally necessary. There are integrated e-contact systems that allow staged migration toward an e-contact center. These allow new channels to be added incrementally to the existing call center. Using an integrated approach, an organization could add e-mail capability while continuing to manage
voice calls through the traditional call center. The organization can then incorporate chat and other channels down the road without adding new, disparate systems
to the infrastructure.

Building an e-contact center doesn't necessarily mean abandoning current PSTN-based technologies. Most e-contact centers work well with major PBXs and newer IP switches. In fact, the major hardware required to Web-enable a call center is usually limited to a server, a gateway, and minimal upgrades to agent workstations.

Balancing The Equation
S=QCN is a simple equation to remind us of the most basic customer service law: The quality of customer interaction is as important as the interaction itself. IP technology has opened up a tremendous array of customer interaction opportunities. Organizations of all sizes can now offer customers access to information and services that were the stuff of dreams just a decade ago. The e-contact center can harness the opportunities and make those dreams reality.

Troy Gross is director of business development at Cintech Solutions, which creates Internet technology solutions to manage and analyze interactions with customers, partners, and associates for improved relationships and informed decision making.

[ Return To The August 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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