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August 1999

The New Call Center Can Make Or Break Your E-Business Initiative


Want to feel like an outsider? Try talking about enterprise software without mentioning the Web. Chances are good that all businesses of all sizes are in some stage of planning or implementation for Web-enabling their enterprise applications. No longer can IS organizations view the Web as separate from their internal networks � it's time to welcome the Web into the enterprise.

More and more companies are realizing that the Web can help them manage their business more effectively and efficiently. It boils down to customers � taking care of existing ones and acquiring new ones.

Companies are realizing that the Web can help them serve existing customers better by allowing those customers to help themselves. Most companies now give customers and prospects access to product information. Many are also allowing them to purchase products over the Web. However, only a few have integrated their selling process with their call center, or their Web operations with the rest of the enterprise.

Web History
Most companies started their Web operations without a deep strategy for doing so. To their credit, they had the foresight to initiate these pilots. They knew it was going to impact their businesses, and that they needed to build a presence on the Web. What they found was both gratifying and terrifying. Gratifying because customers and prospects used the sites; terrifying because usage patterns were vastly unpredictable and threatened to bring down the entire system. As a result, traditional companies moved slowly to make the Web a revenue-generating operation, opening the door for Web-only businesses � the “.com” companies that offer traditional goods and services solely via the Web.

But both have found it more difficult than expected. Web-only businesses quickly found they could reach hundreds, even thousands, of customers virtually in seconds � customers who, at some point, might want to speak with a live person. But integrating traditional call center functions into their Web application proved difficult. On the other hand, traditional businesses started to build a Web presence to stay competitive, but found it was not easy to integrate the Web into their existing call center processes.

“E-Business” Means “E-Commerce,” Right?
For most companies, e-business is synonymous with e-commerce, but e-commerce is only the transaction component. E-business means leveraging the Internet to connect vendors, suppliers and employees to create a personalized interaction that drives customer buying decisions and loyalty.

The problem with the Web alone is that it does not inherently build customer relationships. Unlike doing business face-to-face or via the telephone, there is no human-to-human interaction. This factor, combined with the fact that competitors are just a click away, means that customer loyalty is more difficult than ever to achieve and keep.

The moment of truth for customers or prospects often occurs when they move beyond the passive viewing of Web pages to actually doing something � like placing an order or talking to an agent while looking at a site. Companies that demonstrate they can handle these Web interactions are rewarded with loyal customers. In contrast, otherwise happy customers get annoyed when their Web interactions do not measure up to their expectations or to the level of customer service they have come to expect from talking to a call center agent.

Successful E-Business Must Be More Than A Transaction
Let’s face it; we have only ourselves to blame. We spent the past 10 years becoming customer-focused and getting close to the customer in order to make superior customer service a differentiating point. We have done our best to make the call center the nervous system of the company and to transform customer service from an expense to a corporate asset.

The problem is that customers now expect this same level of service regardless of how and when they choose to communicate.

These expectations have created frustrations for customers as they have taken advantage of e-business: “What do you mean I can’t return that book I bought from your Web site?” “Why does your Web site treat me like a first-time buyer when I’ve been a loyal customer for three years?”

E-business solutions that are set up as islands in the IS landscape will frustrate prospects, turn away customers and disappoint management. To maximize the opportunity that comes with e-business, companies should integrate their e-commerce functions with traditional call center operations. Following are essential customer integration areas for building a customer-friendly e-business solution.

Integration with back-office data. Information stored in traditional back-office applications, such as credit, inventory availability and personal account information, is essential to maintaining a seamless customer experience on the Web.

Integration with the call center. The Web goes a long way toward helping the self-sufficient customer. But even long-time customers occasionally want to speak to an agent about ordering problems, returns, shipping schedules or order status. Tying the call center into the e-commerce application allows companies to leverage internal systems and customer information to provide more consistent customer interactions regardless of the channel of communication.

Integration with internal business processes. Internal processes often make or break an IS application. The ability to map a complex application into a company’s business process provides tremendous flexibility, accountability and growth potential. By notifying related departments � like sales when a top customer has a support problem � customers feel companies are treating them as individuals.

Focus On The Customer, Not On The Transaction
Car maker Lexus and department store giant Nordstrom defined quality customer relationships in the last decade. With the evolution of the Web and other customer-friendly technologies, the door is wide open for others to lead the way in the future.

A Bear Stearns report from January 1999 states that “any company that wants to survive the transition to the networked economy has to focus on building better customer relationships.” Customers want a relationship with the companies they do business with and it is simply too easy for those customers to go elsewhere if their expectations are not met.

Costs are another factor. Managing customer relationships in the new networked world is not cheap. Integrating call centers with e-commerce applications requires an investment in infrastructure that, frankly, most companies do not have and are unwilling to spend the capital to acquire. However, when weighed against the savings involved in acquiring customers, the infrastructure costs are more reasonable.

Leverage The Call Center
An e-business application will inevitably bring more customers in touch with a company. Processing these orders efficiently, profitably and securely must be design requirements for any e-business solution; however, just as important is ensuring customer satisfaction. Integrating the call center with the e-commerce solution will enable companies to provide the same level of customer service to Web customers that is offered to phone or face-to-face customers.

Expanding the reach of the call center is not trivial, but also does not require massive investment. Below are some issues to consider when approaching this task.

  1. First, do no harm. For companies with existing call centers, treating the integration with an e-commerce solution casually will have disastrous results not only with online customers, but with traditional callers as well.
  2. Plan the work. Three key elements should be addressed when crafting an e-commerce/call center plan: the solution (hardware and software), the promise (message to customers) and the process (internal workflow).
  3. Work the plan. Coordination of otherwise disparate systems is essential for a smooth implementation. Don’t forget a testing phase, since these systems may work well in isolation, but system performance may be drastically different in real-world scenarios.
  4. Plan for the upside. Forecasting is difficult on the Web � usage can jump from 1,000 users to 100,000 users in a day, or even an hour. Systems need to be able to scale without bringing down the entire operation.
  5. Performance counts. Keeping people on hold does not create customer loyalty in today’s call center, nor does slow online response time. Set performance benchmarks and staff to them.
  6. Put customers first. Customers are the lifeblood of a company. Design the system around the needs of this biggest corporate asset. Analyze customers’ needs for information, access and corporate data, such as inventory or shipping status, and empower agents to provide customers the information they require.
  7. Customers want self-service. That’s why they conduct e-business in the first place. Make sure solutions can deliver Web self-service capabilities. Plan to let customers help themselves with the functions call center agents have traditionally helped them with. It will make them happier and, in the long run, reduce costs.
  8. Integrate workflow. Why have different escalation and reporting procedures for different systems? Efficiency comes from consolidation of systems into a single process and then ensuring that all applications feed that single system. Don’t build applications and procedures that are islands.
  9. New metrics. Existing metrics for call centers are based on handling 100 percent of calls via the telephone. Since e-business support will originate on the Web and will require a different formula to determine traffic, revised metrics are necessary for the call center.
  10. Opportunity knocking. Taking care of customers via the Web may feel like a burden, but it provides an opportunity to better understand customer needs and preferences � information for which marketing and sales teams pay handsome sums.

E-business is a relatively new idea for most companies. Since the tasks involved in implementation are formidable, few companies have spent the time integrating their e-commerce solutions with their call centers or other enterprise applications. To deliver the same, consistent service to call center customers that they do online customers, companies are tying together the two systems to provide a single, seamless face to customers. Just as traditional businesses will not survive without an e-business strategy, Web businesses will not survive without a strong call center. The key to success for every business today is to ensure that their Web site and e-business initiative are backed by, and seamlessly integrated with, an industrial-strength call center.

Ron Perrotta is senior manager of customer marketing at the Vantive Corporation. Vantive empowers companies to sell, support and service customers through any channel of interaction — the Web, call center, e-mail or directly through sales and service representatives.

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