Has The Internet Killed The Call Center
BY BRUCE TSUJI, MITEL BUSINESS APPLICATIONS
Has the call center been overshadowed by the Internet? Yes and no. The
Internet has opened a vast and ever-widening new window through which
companies can interact and transact with their customers -- territory
which, in the pre-Internet era, had often been the exclusive preserve of
call center operations. The Web has meant many former help desk callers
now get all the help they need online instead of over the phone. It can
handle many outbound and inbound marketing efforts formerly handled by
live agents. It's even starting to flex its capabilities as an alternative
to telephone-based public opinion and marketing surveys. So the Internet
has indeed usurped some of the call center's former standing.
But Voice Still Rules
Yet, at the same time, we increasingly realize that in the Internet
economy, one old rule applies: when the going gets tough, people still get
on the phone. The simple fact is, voice is the most natural and powerful
human interface, real-time or otherwise. That isn't going to change any
So, as customer relationship management (CRM) becomes the new mantra
and companies implement and integrate new ways of fostering one-to-one
relationships with their customers, live voice communication is not about
to disappear. Instead, thanks to new voice and multimedia technologies
that are largely available for deployment today, the call center and voice
communications are rapidly evolving into key, integrated components of the
new customer interaction equation. At the same time, many of the customer
interaction lessons learned in the call center and new technologies
developed to respond to them are now finding application in other parts of
the extended enterprise.
Let's take a look at some of the enabling technologies and applications
that are transforming call centers while reasserting the importance of
voice in the way companies interact with customers today.
Taking Control Of Myriad Media
Certainly the most dramatic adjustment faced by call centers over the
past decade is the increasing number and variety of media that companies
are now using to interact with customers. Traditionally, call centers only
had to worry about routing, queuing, tracking and reporting on real-time
voice communications -- and many proven solutions have and continue to
help centers do a great job of it.
Now, smart call centers are looking to apply that same level of control
and management to all contact types -- inbound and outbound voice, voice
mail, e-mail, Web chats, Web callback and fax. Building on their strengths
in call control and ACD, a number of manufacturers have responded with new
multimedia contact management platforms and solutions. Though now just
starting to gain market recognition, these new solutions will play a
central role in transforming the traditional call center into a fully
integrated customer interaction operation.
Recognizing The Potential Of Speech Recognition
Significant advances in natural speech recognition technology over the
past several years mean the days of talking to a computer "� la Star
Trek" are probably much closer than once thought. For their initial
speech-enabled offerings, some telecom manufacturers have concentrated
primarily on auto-attendant applications. These products can now reliably
handle and route calls based solely on the caller's spoken word...no more
pressing keys to navigate corporate directories or dialing by name.
Additionally, most offerings also support dial-by-voice for those within
the enterprise making outbound calls.
But auto-attendant and personal dialer applications only hint at the
potential speech recognition holds for customer interaction. How about
intelligent call routing that recognizes a customer's speech patterns and
puts them directly through to their own personal agent at the sound of
their voice? With its speaker authentication capabilities (even the best
mimic can't fool today's state-of-the-art systems), speech recognition can
provide secure agent access to call center network and application
resources. More significantly, authentication capabilities can be used to
provide callers with secure, voice-based access to interactive
applications and services.
Another term for this type of technology is "v-business." For
example, you are in your car and hear a report on the radio that suggests
you might want to sell some stock immediately. But you can't access your
online account in the car and you don't want to play telephone tag with
your broker. The solution? Pick up your phone, dial into your personal
account, identify yourself by speaking your name, then make your sale
simply by telling the system what you want: "Sell all shares of XYZ
Corporation today." The entire transaction is initiated and completed
by your voice commands. There is no fumbling with a keyboard, mouse or
dial pad, and no need for live agent intervention at any time during the
transaction. Is speech recognition technology that is available now
currently being used in this way ? Probably not. Could it be? Absolutely.
Thanks to speech recognition technology, v-business will rapidly take an
equally important place beside e-business -- and no virtual operation will
be complete without it.
Voice-Enabled Web Sites, Agent-Assisted Web Sessions
The fact is, people find it easier to say what they want than to type
or dial it. So, speech-enabled Web sites with "look and say"
instead of "point and click" navigation will likely be the norm
in the not-too-distant future. Won't it be nice to visit your favorite e-tailer
or supplier, log-in to your secure account by speaking your name, then
fill all the fields of your order simply by saying what you want? Saying
what you want...isn't that what shopping should be all about?
Of course, even when we are shopping at a real brick-and-mortar
retailer, we often need a salesperson to help us find what we want. The
online shopping experience needn't be any different. Today, converged IP
telephony solutions are taking over where traditional call center CTI
solutions left off, allowing Web site visitors to speak with a live agent,
who can actually join and share their Web session in real-time, help them
navigate the site, find what they want, complete their transaction and
even upsell them in the process.
Keeping Talented Agents On The Line
So instead of replacing live agents, the Web, once integrated with
real-time voice, could increase the demand for highly skilled agents.
Attracting and retaining good agents has always been a challenge for call
center operations and is often a key determining factor in the locations
chosen for new centers. Now, location need not be as much of a factor.
Thanks to converged remote access technology available today, agents can
now work out of their homes with the same level of access to voice and
computing services as agents physically located in the call center. This
incredible flexibility means a call center can retain the services of a
key agent, even if he or she moves three time zones away.
Let's face it; supplying a computer, telephone and high-speed line to a
remote agent represents a far smaller overhead investment than building a
physical center to house both equipment and agents.
Customer Interaction Beyond The Call Center
While remote access technologies are making it possible to take the
call center to the agent, new, converged wireless IP platforms and
technologies like wireless application protocol (WAP), wireless markup
language (WML) and Bluetooth are beginning to put call-center-like
resources and applications into the hands of people far beyond the call
Retail applications are a good example. On any given day, a local
franchise operation of a national hardware chain can often receive scores
of calls about product availability and pricing. Today, those calls can be
routed directly to a sales representative at the store. The rep's wireless
phone doubles as a bar code reader, allowing him or her to perform instant
inventory database lookups to provide the caller with the information he
or she needs. Here, and in many other sectors as diverse as health care
and hospitality, converged wireless technologies are providing people
across the extended enterprise access to customer interaction tools whose
pedigree and practice owe much to the traditional call center.
The Call Center Is Dead, Long Live The Call Center
The days of the standalone call center operation that is expected to
put through a maximum number of calls in as little time as possible are,
at best, numbered. Today, companies want to learn more about customers,
they want to use the philosophies of CRM to focus on high-value customers,
and they want to provide customers with as many convenient ways to access
their products and services as possible.
The new technologies touched upon here are just some of the solutions
that are allowing call centers to meet new challenges by integrating and
applying proven call center techniques to new interaction media like the
Web, by reasserting the importance and use of voice in customer
interaction and by providing flexible access to voice and data resources
that push fully supported customer interaction well beyond the boundaries
of the traditional call center environment.
Call centers and companies that recognize the potential and embrace the
value that some of these new and emerging technologies enable will be well
positioned to provide better, more competitive service in the years to
Bruce Tsuji is the Director of the Call Centers and Enabling
Technologies group within the Business Communications Systems Division at Mitel.
He is responsible for defining the positioning and North American market
direction for Mitel's portfolio of Call Center Solutions. Mitel
Corporation is a designer, manufacturer and marketer of semiconductors,
sub-systems and systems for the communications industries.
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