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July 1999

Preparing Your E-Commerce Call Center With A Customer-Centric Technology Framework


The rapid expansion of e-commerce as a successful sales channel is driving customers to the Web. So it follows that e-commerce must be easing the burden on call centers, which were designed to serve more traditional sales channels, right? Not so. E-commerce is changing the way call centers manage customer interaction, forcing companies to rethink customer service and demanding greater efficiency from sales and marketing efforts - not reducing call center traffic. Why not? Because e-commerce offers customers a new set of options, and new options generate new questions. Who answers those questions? The call center.

Now, things are more complex than ever for call centers. Customers may telephone to respond to a marketing campaign they saw online, call to check on orders they placed at a Web storefront or follow-up on support issues that began in e-mail dialog. In any of these instances, customers will expect customer service representatives (CSRs) to be apprised of their situations and ready to help. This means that CSRs need immediate access to customers’ previous activity. This translates to complete integration of traditional and online marketing and sales functions at the call center layer. This is no easy task for information technology (IT) departments.

Fortunately, innovations in call center technology, combined with the right technological framework, help companies gracefully reinvent call centers to support e-commerce. Front office software, a step beyond computer-telephony integration (CTI), is at the heart of this transition. Front office software manages and supports essential sales, marketing and service applications from the call center — giving CSRs access to all the information they need to assist customers and ensure that customers don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Elements Of A Strong Technology Framework
In this atmosphere of escalating change and increasing customer demand, it is essential to use a technology framework that keeps everyone and everything fully integrated. The framework must be easy to implement, maintain and change, and must also leverage the systems that already exist. It must allow enterprises to manage workflow, no matter what systems people are working on or where the needed data reside. The framework should be compatible with applications from a wide array of manufacturers — and, of course, it needs to be up and operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

In addition to meeting each of these requirements, the call center system must deliver all of this in a way that always puts the customer first. This means the technology framework will offer the following benefits:

  • Increased customer satisfaction. Increased competition in the online arena means that customers are becoming more demanding. So the experience a company provides every time a customer calls or contacts a Web site must always be satisfying. The customer interaction framework must be designed so that CSRs can handle calls more efficiently. The days of juggling customers and putting them on hold to find information or to take other calls are over. Furthermore, for e-commerce to be successful, customers need to know they can call a CSR and get quick assistance if they have a question during an online order.
  • Increased revenue. Once the customer is on the phone and enjoying the kind of customized attention that a strong customer interaction framework supports, the CSR has an opportunity to generate additional sales by cross-selling or upselling. This becomes easy if the framework gives the CSR instant access to the kinds of products in which the customer is interested.
  • Increased productivity. Providing CSRs with the tools to access pertinent information not only improves customer service, it also shortens the time spent on each call and improves productivity — enabling the CSR to increase the volume of calls fielded in each shift.
  • Reduced training costs. When the framework that integrates multiple platforms across several departments is easy to learn and use, new call center employees can be brought up to speed quickly and veterans will pick up the ins and outs of new marketing campaigns with greater ease. In a fully integrated call center, CSRs no longer need to learn and navigate multiple applications.

In order to facilitate all of these benefits, the framework must be the central interface for managing customer interactions across multiple channels such as voice, the Web and e-mail. Additionally, it must have an open architecture so IT professionals have the flexibility to plug in different components, depending on their needs, and to change certain components over time.

Because not every business is the same, the framework must include applications that address the specific needs of the organization using it. These include applications for order processing, financial services, account management, billing, service provisioning, workflow management and fault management. No matter what the need, the system must be able to integrate a new application or retrofit an old one.

Front Office Software As A Framework
Companies can easily lose sight of the customer’s needs amidst the sea of changes, both organizational and technical, that are required to blend e-commerce systems with call centers. It is important to remember that all of these changes are being made to better serve the needs of customers — from their first call to their hundredth purchase, and throughout every service need in between. Figure 1 below illustrates how customer management should occur throughout an enterprise.

Figure 1

Initial customer interaction begins at what we’ll call the front office, which includes the call center, integrated with sales, marketing and service/support functions. The customer request is then processed through a series of back-office applications that may include finance, engineering or manufacturing, depending on the product. The back office is integrated with the company’s suppliers. The ideal framework is one that is integrated with sales and marketing applications in the front office and with back-office applications, while also providing CSRs access to a wide variety of customer and product-related information. Front-office software is designed to accomplish this feat. Here is an example of how a suite of front-office applications can work together to serve customer needs on a number of levels:

As customers interact with a company via telephone, e-mail and the Web, the front-office-enabled call center routes information accordingly, giving CSRs an informational edge and ensuring that customers do not get lost once they hit internal data channels. For example, a customer of a major Internet service provider (ISP) may e-mail a question about a software upgrade to one of the CSRs, but also use a Web self-service mechanism to search for the answer. If at some point in the process the customer calls the ISP, it will annoy him or her if the CSR is unaware of the e-mail and Web tracking that has already occurred. Customers don’t have patience with a disconnect between various aspects of service. To successfully do business with customers on the Internet, call centers need e-marketing, e-sales and e-support functions to work together. For maximum efficiency and reliability, each of these call center applications should be preintegrated at the call center level. This creates a complete front office strategy with the following benefits.

E-marketing application benefits:

  • Increased revenue through Web-based marketing campaigns,
  • Better management and utilization of the customer funnel,
  • Greater customer intimacy though personalized communications.

E-sales application benefits:

  • Increased customer satisfaction through higher quality support and self-service, combined with a live agent,
  • Customer retention by building loyalty through value-added services tailored to individual needs,
  • Lower cost than traditional sales channels.

E-support application benefits:

  • Increased agent productivity,
  • Better customer service and shorter call times,
  • Reduced time-to-deployment for reduced project risk.

Hardware Platform As A Foundation
The call center needs to interface with many internal and external devices. To support these interfaces, the call center’s hardware platform must be able to grow with the organization’s needs, and it must work harmoniously with all other call center components (e.g., telephony switches, Internet service providers (ISPs) and a variety of NT and legacy applications). Windows NT, UNIX and other legacy systems are the most common environments in call centers, requiring the call center platform to integrate disparate systems. Call center configurations are like chess openings: there are variations for every new situation encountered.

For example, in an inbound call center scenario, CSRs field customer questions, orders and service requests. Inbound calls need to be routed to a CSR as quickly as possible. Once the CSR gets the call, he or she needs access to a variety of databases to properly service the customer’s needs. In building the call center, the company first chooses the call center applications it needs, then selects telephony hardware and then chooses a software framework to manage call center operations. Finally, the company decides which server platform will best support this structure.

Integration Is The Key
The bane of organizational managers is not having access to key information from other departments. The bane of IT is a series of disparate systems holding the front office together, none of them working in sync. The bane of the customer is a lack of good service. Their solution to substandard service is taking their business elsewhere.

There’s no way around it. Although “integration” may be gaining a reputation as one of the most used buzzwords since “total cost of ownership,” it is the key to successfully building a framework that merges the call center with current and future e-commerce needs. What began with computer-telephony integration has blossomed into e-commerce integration. The software that links companies’ computer systems and call centers must also be able to “talk” to a range of applications at the call center level and operate smoothly with applications in the back office. The more open a framework is, the better. Furthermore, the more preintegration capabilities offered by the front office software, the faster a company can provide a reliable, satisfying customer experience.

Bruce Talley is manager, sales and marketing operations, for Hewlett-Packard Customer Relationship Software . The group offers call center solutions to help customer service managers quickly adapt to new channels, new markets and new customer demands. HP’s solutions are installed worldwide in industries ranging from telecommunications and manufacturing to financial services and utilities.

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