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July 2000


People, Prcesses And Technology:
Eight Tips For Web-Enabling Your Call Center


These days, it seems almost anything can be done on the Internet. From buying groceries to purchasing a new car, from selecting health insurance or getting medical advice to listening to the latest music, it's all available at the click of a mouse. Companies across all fields now offer their products or services online. But what happens when something goes wrong and the user (customer) cannot "connect" to the electronic storefront?

If you have ever spent an afternoon mystified by your computer's stubborn refusal to upload a certain file or if you have been suddenly greeted with the unfriendly phrase "ACCESS DENIED" after an attempted network log-in, you know the frustrated feeling many network users regularly experience. Relatively few people have the technological know-how required to easily resolve a thorny computer problem. When such problems arise, the user needs somewhere to turn.

That somewhere is the call center. Whether the problem involves hardware, software, network access or operations, the ISPs', e-businesses' or vendors' friendly call center is the place to turn for any type of end-user computing problem. But today, users are demanding more than just traditional phone support -- they want choices.

Customers want to decide for themselves how they will receive support -- by phone, e-mail or the Web. Some customers prefer the option of self-help, while other users would rather submit a trouble ticket electronically and receive an answer the same way. Still other customers want to pick up the telephone and receive support in the traditional manner.

As businesses across all industries turn to electronic support to enhance customer service, it's important to guard against the temptation to eliminate traditional phone support and replace it with Web-based services. At first, Web-support seems like the perfect replacement for the costly call center -- build a Web site, post an e-mail feedback form, dismantle the call center and watch the savings roll in, right?
Wrong! Although Web-enabled support offers a number of benefits to customers as well as to the companies that employ it, it is an addition to, not a replacement for, telephone support. It's all about giving the customer choices.

The following are a few tips to help you through the initial phases.

Tip #1: Don't underestimate planning time.
Designing a smoothly working, professional and efficient integrated electronic and telephone support call center is not an easy task. A successful planning project must tackle some tricky issues, such as telephony and Web tool set integration, personnel retraining, call center objectives and goals, future growth and technology advancement. These issues take time to address. Extensive planning time is a necessary first step to achieving a first-rate operation.

The project's team members must gauge current call center needs and predict the near-term challenges. There is a fine line between being pragmatic and forward-thinking. It takes time to plan where you want to be in three years, what applications will be supported and what technologies will get you there. Don't short-change the planning phase.

However, it is also important to note that the world is moving at Internet speed, and customers' expectations increase while their patience decreases. Don't get so bogged down in the planning cycle that you never get to execution. To be effective, you may find that a maverick style will work best for you.

Tip #2: Technologies are important, but so are people and processes.
When adding new electronic services, a lot of time is focused on the technologies that make it possible. However, while technology does play a key role as an enabler in the integrated Web-phone support project, it is the people and processes that must be put into place that will determine the success or failure of the Web-based offering. Find the technologies that push your experts and their knowledge as close to the customer as possible, while maximizing the efficiencies of your people and processes.

Tip #3: Focus on the customer.
A successful Web-enabled call center focuses on the customer, not the technology. Customers usually want the option of using traditional telephone (dial-in) support or using their computers to get help. By giving customers a choice of obtaining assistance from a support specialist, browsing a knowledge base in self-help mode, scanning preloaded FAQs to get answers, corresponding via e-mail with the call center or asking to be called back with a problem resolution, the customer has choices. With these options available, and the ability to switch back and forth between them, telephone support is joined on an equal footing with e-mail and Web-based support services. The customer can contact the call center at any time by whichever channel he or she chooses.

Now, with all of these components in place, the call center must be made easy for the customer to access and use. Customers want one thing: answers. They want these answers quickly and without hassles. Pay particular attention to interfaces, procedures and application tool sets.

Remember that when dealing with customers electronically, you also lose some of the personal touch that comes with telephone interactions. Reassure the electronic user by over-communicating. Get the electronic call to an engineer immediately and have that engineer show ownership by confirming receipt to the customer via e-mail. Follow-up after a solution is provided to ensure that both the solution and the electronic experience met the customer's expectations.

Tip #4: Ensure a pleasant customer experience.
Customers have different preferences, which may change depending on circumstances. Some will prefer electronic contact (Web, chat or e-mail), others prefer the telephone. Integrate the two. If it's a burning issue, even the Web-oriented user will probably pick up the telephone as it provides a sense of immediacy ("I know someone is working on my problem"). Or, a typical phone user may submit a non-urgent trouble call via the Web and follow-up later with a phone call to the support specialist. Focus on providing the customer a pleasant experience by offering contact choices that meet their criteria.

To wean customers off of the telephone, ensure that first-time Web users find interface tools to keyword search engines within a knowledge base, the case reasoning database, the FAQ listing, etc., readily available and simple to use.

To further reduce telephone reliance, consider implementing "fire fighting" Web options, such as integrating into the call center a Web collaboration environment. Options include chat, voice over IP and real-time, Web-based communications. By adding routers and switches onto a PC, it is possible to obtain the same level of functionality as the telephone.

Ideally, a customer should be able to submit an initial trouble call through the Web or by phone and follow it up later via either medium and, using an assigned case number, always be routed to the same responsible support specialist working on the case.

Tip #5: Retraining support personnel.
Making the new Web-enabled support system work requires more than just the integration of Web and call center technology tools. People are a key element in the success of e-support. First, the technical staff must learn to share knowledge and not hoard it. The creation of a knowledge-sharing culture must become a priority to replace the "pockets" of knowledge that usually exist among engineers and other technical experts. It should be made clear that, in this new environment, the engineer who shares the most knowledge, not necessarily the one who is the recognized expert, is the most valuable. Having the biggest, fastest search engine doesn't mean much unless your people have shared their knowledge. Managing this basic culture change may be the most challenging of all of the issues.

Retraining of call center personnel will be required to improve upon and gain new skills needed for electronic services. With Internet-based support added to phone services, more than good telephone techniques are necessary. Call center personnel must also skillfully interface with customers via e-mail, Web documentation and online chat sessions. This requires good writing, typing and documentation skills.

A Web-based support system deals with text and pictures, makes it easier to gather large files and is visual compared to its telephone counterpart. It delivers much of its findings electronically and focuses on not only solving the problem and answering customer questions, but also on clearly documenting the answer and placing it on the Web for self-help users. Call center support staff must learn how to develop written content and learn how to clearly and concisely answer e-mail from customers.

Basic troubleshooting skills must be relearned when supporting customers electronically. Without the real-time feedback the telephone provides, support specialists must learn to think ahead as they exchange troubleshooting information with the customer. The specialists must learn to document scenarios that take the customer through a decision tree, allowing the customer to execute multiple steps in the troubleshooting process. Without this, the interaction becomes bogged down and the time-to-solution will increase to the point of severe customer frustration.

Tip #6: Integrate and use existing tools before inventing new ones.
As many "off-the-shelf" and existing solutions as possible should be incorporated into the Web-enabled call center before resorting to "home-grown" solutions with their added lead times and expenses.

Ideally, you want to work toward a set of integrated tools to replace the dozens of tools commonly used today. CTI/multimedia integration of all customer touch points (phone, fax, Web, e-mail and chat) is a must for simplicity in call center operations and will provide an improved customer contact experience. The employees of a typical Web-enabled call center need about 10 applications active on their desktop to manage these functions. Consider implementing software that will act as a possible tool integration point solution to manage the workflow of all call center activities. The goal is to loosely integrate telephone and Web so a support specialist sees all requests for his or her services integrated in the same tool set.

Also, look at Web-based diagnostic tools that can be integrated into your workflow systems. With the implementation of these tools, customers can self-diagnose problems and the computers can fix some "soft" faults themselves (such as drivers, BIOS, etc.) without major user intervention or the need for direct support personnel interaction.

New e-support call centers should purchase tools that can be easily integrated into in-place systems without mass customization. Otherwise, future upgrades will require continual investing in major development hours and ongoing infusions of working capital.

Tip #7: Quickly Web-enable problem resolution documentation.
New solutions should be placed on the Web as quickly as possible to increase customers' self-solve rates, thereby avoiding repetitive calls for the same problem. With a successfully implemented plan, about 80 percent of previously undocumented solutions can be placed on the Web within 24 hours, making the information available to customers using the knowledge base keyword searching tool.

This reactive creation of knowledge, based on customer incidents, is important. Also critical is the proactive creation of knowledge: finding areas that lack sufficient content and creating that content before a customer need arises. The most obvious of these would be when a new product is introduced; FAQs might be made available on the Web at the same time the product ships.

The remaining 20 percent of Web documents may go through a longer process, which requires a turnaround time of approximately two weeks. This is likely because these solutions are more complex and are placed in the case-based (tree) reasoning tool. This requires the services of professional writers who know how to precisely "fit" the information into the tree structure and very clearly document it.

Tip #8: Reward your Web users.
If the customer has tried self-help and wasn't successful, treat that call as a higher priority than one coming in over the toll-free phone number. By rewarding Web users with high-priority treatment, you will encourage them to use the Web again in the future.

In addition, take opportunities such as this one to not only solve your customers' problems, but to teach them how to better use your Web-based offerings. This will increase the likelihood of successful self-service in the future.

Integrated Support
True integrated support call centers allow the customer to combine electronic and phone support: for example, submitting the trouble "call" electronically and walking through it with a support specialist over the telephone. With total integration of workflow, call management, Web and voice tools, the customer can easily switch back and forth between them. Whether the customer contacts the call center via Web, e-mail or telephone, the same support specialist is reached for follow-up.

On the vendor's side, the benefits are equally impressive. The traditional approach of adding more people to meet increased demand does not work in today's tight labor, high-priced environment. E-support provides improved support delivery on a personalized or self-help basis while holding support costs in check.

Web-enabled support is popular with customers if it is perceived as an added bonus and not as a forced alternative to voice (telephone) support. When interfaces and tools are easy to use and understand, many customers enjoy solving their own problems and collaborating with a specialist electronically. Others like to switch between electronic and phone support as desired. It all comes down to giving your customers a choice!

Scott MacPhee is manager of HP's Electronic Support Operations. Hewlett-Packard Company, a global provider of computing and imaging solutions and services for business and home, is focused on capitalizing on the opportunities of the Internet and the proliferation of electronic services.

[ return to the July 2000 table of contents ]

The New Economy Demands Web-Enabled Call Centers


To say the Internet is changing the way we do business is a statement with which only the most stubborn few would argue. If you doubt this, your company is likely feeling the effects in its shrinking bottom line, or will soon. The reality of the "New Economy" is incontrovertible: People are flocking to the Internet (350 million by 2003, according to eMarketer). How are smart businesses responding? By being there to meet them when they arrive.

As companies embrace the Internet, they are finding that the old customer relationship management (CRM) model is no longer doing the trick. Why? For one thing, it is too slow. The birth of "Internet time" has seen to that. Traditional phone-based CRM programs tend to rely on separate customer touchpoints for marketing, sales and support, making timely communication with customers nearly impossible.

Complicating things further is the change in the balance of power occurring in the marketplace. No longer a seller's world, an empowered buyer is now driving the customer relationship. Today's customers know more, want more and demand to be in greater control. They expect one entry point and one solution for every interaction. Unfortunately, these are demands the popular "stovepipe" strategy cannot meet.

What can satisfy them? The Web. A good place to start is by Web-enabling your call center. Moving your customer service program online will provide the infrastructure for a unified approach in which customer information and company resources can be integrated and shared across the entire organization. It will also allow you to give your customers the flexibility they desire. Do they want, for example, to communicate by phone, e-mail, chat or Web-based callback?

As you begin the process of Web-enabling your call center, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Do it now.
Waiting is something you cannot afford to do; something your customers will not do. The opportunity to provide a higher level of service to your customers online exists now, and many of your competitors may have already made the move. Businesses need to avoid the classical call center approach to this problem -- analyze, propose, review, test, re-analyze, review, test, implement. That just takes too long! It is better to be online now with 80 percent of the solution than later with 100 percent of the solution.

Don't be afraid to expose your knowledge to your customers.
Too many call centers have adopted the belief that they hold the "sacred knowledge" of the business and that it can only be volunteered to customers in the most specific of circumstances. That kind of thinking means ignoring the true power of the Internet. The Internet is about knowledge sharing, and the adage "information wants to be free" should be the primary design principle for your Web-enabled call center. Giving your customers access to as much knowledge as possible not only conveys a sense of trust, but also allows them to serve themselves, which is usually cheaper for the company by a factor of 10.

Help your customers indicate when they have found success on the Web and when they have found failure.
Think of the Web as a medium for dialog with your customers, with the call center being the place internally where the best listening must occur. When you give a customer access to the knowledge they need about your products and services, they often spend a lot of time hunting around for things they want. Help them refine that process each and every time by asking some simple questions:

  • "Did this solve your problem?"
  • "If this didn't solve your problem, why not?"
  • "Was this what you were originally looking for?"

The first question allows you to track the value of the solutions in your knowledge base. You should, over time, be able to achieve a solution re-use of 80 percent or better. The other questions, which are more qualitative, help you understand how your customers are using the system.

Use the same interface and software for internal help desk personnel as for your outside customers.
Don't cheat your users by giving them dramatically simplified or weakened versions of the software being used by your help desk personnel. At the same time, don't cheat your help desk personnel by making them use antiquated versions of the tools you provide on the Web. Using the same software and interface for both sides ensures that the experience of getting help is a shared one, and that customers can access information in the same way as employees. Businesses need to stop thinking of this as us versus them and start understanding that the Web is the great equalizer.

Integrate your call center's Web presence into your overall Web presence so both customers and non-customers can get access to it.
Moving beyond the customers your help desk has served diligently for so many years is an important part of this process as well. You should consider making all but the most highly confidential and customer-specific information available to everyone on the Web. Why is this so critical? Today, businesses are judged as much by their willingness to share information as by the information they share. Prospects want a flavor of how the business will treat them after they become customers. The argument I usually hear is, "But our competitors will be able to use it too!" If you still believe that your competitors do not have access to this information through many other channels, and if you are not willing to take the risk that informed consumers are more powerful than any competitive message, then perhaps Web-enabling your call center is not the top priority for your business right now. But know this: Your competitors likely feel differently, and that could prove to be a serious problem for you.

The Web-Enabled Call Center In Action
Here's a typical scenario. You are a large seller of rare, out-of-print and hard-to-find books. Years in the industry have helped you forge valuable relationships with fellow booksellers, restorers, collectors, antique dealers and a coterie of buyers. You maintain and service these connections by phone and mail, much as you have always done. It is an architecture that has served you well enough, you think. The mechanisms for meeting the demands of your customers are understood and comfortable. The market, as far as you are concerned, is familiar and has identifiable boundaries. You have your suppliers, your partners, your customers -- what more could you need? Welcome to the New Economy, where what you don't know can hurt you.

We'll get to that in a minute.

At a recent booksellers' conference, you hear talk about the Internet, things like knowledge base management, user interfaces and customer relationship software. Meanwhile, you are assured by colleagues that there are great advantages to be had by moving online. You do some reading and discover that while your business is chugging along like an old steam engine, the Internet is making sports cars of your competitors. According to one report, Internet commerce is forecast to reach $1.3 trillion by 2003 (Forrester Research). You begin to rethink the boundaries of your marketplace.

What becomes clear is that today's book buyer is different from the patient bibliophile of yesteryear. Both have a yen for, say, that first edition of The Great Gatsby, but now collectors want to be more detective than sidekick in pursuit of it. They want access to the same information you use and they want it now. Your book buyer has changed, and if the book buyer has changed, so too must the bookseller -- you. But how? What specifically does this new customer want?

This brings us to the issue of how what you don't know can hurt you. Today, companies are made and lost on the value of the information they provide. So you begin to ask yourself some tough questions. What do your customers need that you are not currently providing? What most often discourages first-time customers from using you again? How many calls a day do you miss due to call volume, inadequate call center staffing, etc.? How many of your customers are return customers and what are their buying habits and preferences? These and other vital questions provide an infinitely rich database from which to reorient your customer relationship model.

Start by Web-enabling your call center as quickly as you can. This means getting the fundamental information up immediately and making it easily available to customers, partners, suppliers, etc. It is not important that every book or resource be accessible to start. You simply want to establish this new channel of communication and introduce its features to your customers. In a short time, you begin to find you are being queried by more people than ever before. Your site quickly begins receiving hits from both established customers and wandering Web surfers. Sales are up, while expenses are down as book buyers are finding much of what they need on their own.

Now you begin populating your site with all the information currently accessible to your staff, making it available to the public. You include book catalogs, prices, industry news, auction data, shipping information, etc. By putting all of this within easy reach, you strengthen the sense of trust and reliability your loyal customers have come to expect from you. At the same time, you introduce your business to a whole new generation of book buyers. (Remember the eMarketer prediction of 350 million Internet users by 2003!) To both, you begin to deliver first-rate customer service and the kind of response time only possible with a Web-enabled call center. Again, sales respond and customer roles increase.

The online relationship is established, but you know there are things to be learned from these new interactions that you are missing. You begin to survey site visitors and are rewarded with an ever-clearer picture of their evolving needs. Your call center becomes the focus of this new communication. With their help, you continue to refine the relationship. These data you collect become a living knowledge base from which you can draw to better serve your customers. You know, for example, the kinds of books sought by particular visitors to your site. This enables you to immediately notify those buyers, via whichever means they prefer (e-mail, phone, fax, etc.), when titles of interest become available.

This database of information equips your call center personnel to be highly responsive, increasingly efficient customer service representatives. Shipping problems are handled faster. Orders are processed on the spot. Customer questions are answered in hours rather than days or weeks. In short, the time-consuming elements of their job are minimized, freeing them to concentrate on servicing the customer.

The short-term dividends for Web-enabling your store's call center are many. The first thing that happens is you immediately distinguish yourself from those competitors that have not brought their business to the Internet. Communication with your buyers, partners, sellers, etc., is also made easier. Resolution of customer problems is greatly expedited. You begin to use every interaction with customers to better serve those customers the next time they visit. These are real advantages that affect your bottom line. In the long term, your Web-enabled call center means developing a reputation in the marketplace as a company that trusts and values its customers. This translates to an increase in business, especially repeat business, the store's bread and butter.

Rising To The Online Challenge
The New Economy is here. Those who expected it to go the way of the eight-track tape have likely done so themselves. The Web is a powerful and evolving medium, providing today's companies with nearly inestimable opportunities to grow and advance their businesses.

Norman Guadagno is vice president of worldwide marketing for Primus. Prior to joining Primus, he served in executive marketing positions at Internet and electronic commerce start-up firms myGeek.com, Inc. and Pentawave, Inc. He held senior marketing positions with Oracle Corporation between 1994 and 1998, where he was responsible for worldwide marketing initiatives for Oracle's Internet products and strategic software architecture, Network Computing Architecture.

[ return to the July 2000 table of contents ]

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