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February 1999

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E-Commerce Fuels Call Center Growth


Any psychologist will tell you that people who work with computers on a regular basis soon become accustomed to the instant gratification computers provide. I first learned of this concept when I was a student in engineering school at the University of Connecticut. Although I was in the engineering school, we were required to take nontechnical elective courses. It was during one of these courses that the professor explained the computer/instant gratification concept. He revealed that people who work with computers on a regular basis become accustomed to immediate feedback that computers provide - something often lacking in interpersonal communications. Therefore, it becomes difficult for these people to adjust to the various and much slower response times of human interaction.

Along with the instant gratification, computers bring increases in productivity and efficiency: people who worrk in an automated environment are much more productive than those who do not. As an example of efficiency increases that computers provide, I think back to how I communicated with others in my office before we implemented e-mail. In the "bad old days," as I call them, to communicate in written form to a number of people a message had to be typed, printed and then copied on a machine that was remote from your desk. Frequently the copier jammed and you spent the next 5 minutes elbow-deep in a mesh of gears and toner residue. When you finally made your copies and scrubbed the used toner off of your arms, you then placed a copy of the message individually in each person's inbox. Contrast that to today's method of interoffice communication where simply addressing an e-mail to "All Team Members" accomplishes in a single step what took many annoying steps before.

As you might imagine, I am comfortable with technology and love to receive instant feedback, allowing me to work more efficiently and quickly. I was thrilled when I found out that e-commerce would allow me to purchase almost anything faster online than with a call center agent. I am experimenting with e-commerce as often as possible. I have purchased books on Amazon.com and done research on various products I wanted to purchase, as my past columns have discussed.

One of my more recent e-commerce purchases was of airline tickets for a holiday-time vacation. Using Microsoft Expedia I was able to quickly find the cheapest fares to Florida, where I could escape the frigid December weather of Connecticut.

I was happy with my airline ticket e-commerce experience and arrived safely in Florida. As I sat in my air-conditioned hotel room in toasty Florida, I gloated a bit as I viewed TV news weather maps of the U.S. showing record low temperatures all around the country. Meanwhile, Miami was exceeding 80 degrees on a daily basis, so I decided to extend my trip.

But how would I change my airline tickets when they were purchased through e-commerce? It is embarrassing to disclose, but what is a story without the juicy details? Although college was supposed to make me well rounded, perhaps a few more electives were needed to keep me from bringing my laptop and working on my sunny Florida vacation. I figured while I had the laptop, a visit to Expedia's Web site would aid in rebooking my tickets. No such luck - if changing your tickets is on Expedia's site, it's buried behind the scenes, and who has time to navigate menus? I'm on vacation.

So, of course, I dialed Expedia's call center. How else was I supposed to figure out what to do? My experience with e-mailing companies is that the average return response time is around three days. I would be shoveling snow in three days - I needed instant gratification as always. Guess what? My call to Expedia was answered in a matter of minutes - boy was I a happy camper. I rebooked my flight and chuckled - e-commerce seems to be the best thing to happen to the call center industry in years. Microsoft sets up a Web site to sell tickets and vacation packages and has to build and staff a call center to answer questions the e-commerce site produces.

The formula of e-commerce and a responsive call center works for Expedia - they are experiencing rapid growth. Expedia's recent sales for 1998 were $250 million including a record $8.5 million worth of business during the week after Thanksgiving. Expedia recently disclosed that 1998's sales were 150 percent above 1997. A recent CBS MarketWatch.com interview with Expedia's product manager, Suzi LeVine, revealed that the company's customer service representatives were busy during the holiday season and beyond, helping customers whose travel plans had been disrupted by bad weather. I found it interesting that the manager of an e-commerce site put such emphasis on the importance of its customer service reps when talking with the media.

It seems very clear that the variety of new e-commerce sites that are being established are going to need customer service representatives as well. Are consumers really going to tolerate getting books and other products that have been damaged en-route with no easy return mechanism? How do customers send defective products back to e-commerce vendors? E-mail response in its current state is a mockery compared to the relatively instantaneous response a call center gives customers.

A few important lessons from Expedia. First, if you want to start an e-commerce site, please don't forsake the human aspect of customer service - this will likely be a key differentiator between successful e-commerce implementations and failures. Second, if you are already working in a call center environment selling products and you haven't explored e-commerce, you are perhaps a year behind. If you think the call center market moves quickly, Internet time, as it is called, will blow you away. To keep up with vital industry information, you should read every issue of C@LL CENTER Solutions™ and CTI. These publications are written to help you absorb only the important details in this new world of unlimited e-commerce and call center automation opportunities. If you study the latest publications and trade show information sources like a diligent college student, your call center and company will not be left behind by technology. Just as in college, it is important to be well rounded - well rounded in your call center knowledge and business acumen. I wish you all the best of luck in harnessing the wonderful wealth of opportunities available to all of us, and look forward to seeing you at CTI EXPO™ in Washington, D.C. May 24-26.


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher

Announcing Consultant's Corner at CTI EXPO™

You have come to expect all TMC™ products to deliver the most objective, in-depth and useful information in the fields of voice/data convergence and call centers. TMC™'s entire family of publications - CTI, C@LL CENTER Solutions™ and INTERNET TELEPHONY - are all leaders in the fields they serve - publications you can turn to when making decisions about product purchases as use to provide a gauge for future technology trends.

CTI EXPO™ adheres to the same level of quality and integrity as our publications and is the leading show in the computer-telephony integration field. The seminar sessions at all CTI EXPO™s are as objective, in-depth and educational as the pages of any TMC™ publication - our seminars are second to none as the many testimonials on our Web site attest.

The trade show experience only as good as the sum of its parts: conferences, keynotes, networking, exhibit hall conversations, keynote presentations, show directories and more combine to produce a tremendous synergy. This synergy exponentially boosts the ability of trade show attendees to do their jobs more effectively. The more opportunities a person has to expand their understanding of the markets they are involved in, the better they will perform in their career. A wonderful example of a major differentiator between CTI EXPO™ all other related shows is our objective, free-of-charge learning centers, which are platforms that bring together industry leaders in a given leading-edge field to educate you, our valued attendee, on both products and technologies. TMC™ donates large amounts of exhibit space to these industry-leading vendors in order to enable all attendees to have the opportunity to educate themselves objectively and without undue hype, hoopla or sales pitches. We change the topics of these learning centers from show to show to keep them fresh and on the leading edge of technology. CTI EXPO™ is the first and only trade show in the field to have learning centers. In fact, our first-ever CTI EXPO™ had learning centers following the same high quality standards that we adhere to today.

The leader in any field must be the innovator and CTI EXPO™ is the innovator in the fields it serves. Beyond learning centers and free keynotes, all attendees are now able to attend our new Consultants Corner. Consultants Corner is an area of the exhibit hall floor dedicated to objectively educating our attendees on various subject areas. We will have all the obvious types of consultants on hand who will share their expertise in the fields of Internet telephony, CTI and call centers and, given enough demand, we will bring in additional consultants to cover whichever fields you request.

If you are interested in participating in Consultants Corner as a consultant, please e-mail Stephanie Bauer at sbauer@tmcnet.com. TMC™ will handpick the most knowledgeable and thorough consultants available. Attendees can meet with them at no cost during the exhibit hall hours of CTI EXPOTM.

If you are interested in speaking with the consultants at CTI EXPO™, register today for the exhibit hall while it is still free at www.ctiexpo.com. CTI EXPO™ takes place May 24-26 in Washington, D.C. I look forward to seeing you there.

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