The New Call Center Can Make Or Break Your E-Business
BY RON PERROTTA, THE VANTIVE CORPORATION
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.
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
Successful E-Business Must Be More Than A Transaction
Lets 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
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 cant return that book I bought from your Web
site? Why does your Web site treat me like a first-time buyer when Ive
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 companys 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
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Work the plan. Coordination of otherwise disparate systems is essential for a
smooth implementation. Dont forget a testing phase, since these systems may work
well in isolation, but system performance may be drastically different in real-world
- 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.
- Performance counts. Keeping people on hold does not create customer loyalty in
todays call center, nor does slow online response time. Set performance benchmarks
and staff to them.
- 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.
- Customers want self-service. Thats 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.
- 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. Dont build
applications and procedures that are islands.
- 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.
- 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.