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October 1999

Web-Enabled Contact Centers Move Into The Mainstream


Just a few years ago, the Web-enabled contact center was a novel idea, with only the boldest of early adopters moving toward implementation. Today, as the customer contact center becomes an increasingly vital point of contact within the enterprise, the Web-enabled center is entering the mainstream, delivering competitive advantages, improving customer retention and ensuring customer loyalty.

The Web-enabled call center holds great potential for organizations from nearly every business sector. When implemented properly, it can open valuable new channels for customer contact, achieve greater operational efficiency and enhance customer relationships. Success is not guaranteed, however. Selecting the correct technology, employing stringent quality assurance procedures and preparing agents to work in this new environment are all necessary to harness the true potential of this valuable technology.

Call Center/Internet Linking Technologies
Integrating the call center with the Web can take many forms, encompassing real-time and/or delayed communication. The selection of the appropriate interaction method or methods is dictated by a center’s purpose and its customers’ needs. Technologies that link the contact center and the Web include:

E-mail. E-mail, often through “contact us” links, is the most common way online consumers communicate with contact center agents. While e-mail is a popular and well-established technology, it poses challenges for the contact center and the consumer. First, e-mail communication is not live and usually does not allow the consumer to receive instant information. In addition, because e-mail is such a popular way to communicate, many contact centers are deluged with messages and are not equipped to answer them in a timely manner. While online supersites can provide e-mail order confirmation in just a few minutes, this level of service is not realistic for most call centers, which can take days to respond. To improve response times, some organizations are turning to automated e-mail programs that identify key words in the customer’s message and deliver a prepackaged response. Automated e-mail programs, while effective in responding to the most basic requests, cannot address sophisticated questions and often have the unintended consequence of generating even more e-mail messages as frustrated customers write back for clarification.

Hotlink Or Callback. The manual hotlink, a popular vehicle for contact, integrates call centers and Web sites using the personal computer and the telephone. The hotlink is activated when the customer calls a toll-free number posted on a Web site for assistance or further information while continuing to browse the Internet. This technology can provide visual collaboration for the customer and the agent, a tool that boosts the effectiveness of either method.

Another common option is to introduce a system that captures data on consumers as they browse and then allows them to request a return call. When a consumer requests a callback, Web site software communicates with a telephony application server to locate an available agent who is able to address the consumer’s issue. The telephony application server can send a message to a PBX or carrier switch to launch the callback.

While callback options are feasible for business-to-business communications, these options present obstacles for home use because they require two phone lines for real-time communication.

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP). The most sophisticated form of live Internet interaction is VoIP, in which a customer speaks to an agent directly through a multimedia PC. While a consumer needs only one phone line for this option, his or her computer must be equipped with an Internet phone that accepts VoIP calls. Existing technology makes it possible to achieve a live link via VoIP, but there remain several practical obstacles to widespread use. Security and privacy remain concerns. In addition, most households currently do not have sufficient bandwidth for viable VoIP service.

There are two basic types of VoIP. When a VoIP gateway is used, a call placed from the customer’s PC travels to a gateway (a server dedicated to providing access to a particular network) and the gateway converts it to a circuit-switched call and routes it to a contact center for agent service. When this method is used, the necessary assembling and disassembling of the data packet can cause delays, simultaneous speech, echoes and scrambled transmissions.

VoIP Internet ACD, the second form of VoIP, keeps the call as a data packet and delivers it to an Internet phone on the agent’s personal computer. It enables more natural communication than a VoIP gateway, but the technology does not currently support vital call functionality such as hold, transfer and conference.

With either VoIP or text chat (described below), the agent can simultaneously speak with the customer and use “escorted browsing” to enhance the contact.

Internet Call Waiting. An emerging VoIP technology that is barely a blip on the screens of industry analysts, Internet call waiting would provide a virtual second line so customers could receive incoming calls while connected to the Internet. There are several products new to the market, offering such features as the ability to remain online and answer the phone or a screen pop with the caller’s name and number and call management options.

Text Chat. This form of Web interaction, which uses the same technology as Internet chat rooms, is currently the preferred means of real-time live service. In addition to providing an instant response to the customer, state-of-the-art text chat software helps boost contact center productivity by allowing agents to handle multiple contacts simultaneously by “pushing” stored responses to typical inquiries. Some text chat packages even allow agents to proactively contact a consumer who has been browsing on a site to see if he or she needs assistance.

Text chat has three advantages over VoIP in its current form. It is easier to implement, more consumers have access to it and are willing to use it and it makes more efficient use of agent resources. An agent can handle three or even four chat sessions at once, depending on skill level and the complexity of the inquiry.

New Frontiers, New Challenges
There are three primary challenges to implementing a Web-enabled contact center. The first is a technological issue. The Web-enabling software should be compatible with an organization’s existing contact center technology. For advanced users, the ideal is to integrate the software with the center’s existing call management system. For organizations just entering the domain of the Web-enabled contact center, this option may not be technologically or financially feasible or desirable. In such cases, the Web-enabling capabilities can reside on a separate server that runs parallel to the center’s call management system. In either case, data access and data management are special concerns. The center’s technology must allow agents serving customers on multiple communications channels to access vital customer information, regardless of where the “call” originates.

A second substantial challenge to implementing a Web-enabled center relates to establishing quality-control procedures that ensure contacts made via the Web receive the same level of customer service as those made by telephone. Failure to do so forces the customer to telephone, resulting in a disgruntled customer and two contacts that the call center must handle.

Many contact centers, overwhelmed with e-mail, are taking days and even weeks to respond to urgent consumer requests. According to a recent report from media research firm Jupiter Communications, 42 percent of the top-ranked Web sites failed to meet customer service demands, taking longer than five days to respond to customer e-mail or not responding at all. In some cases, center management would have to decide whether a three-day-old e-mail should have preference over a call that has been in queue for two minutes.

E-mail requests are often routed to someone who is not trained to handle the real problem. Centers can mitigate this problem, in part, through technology. Manufacturers now offer unified queuing that allows centers to treat Web requests and e-mail with the same rules and priorities as they would a phone call. To facilitate responses to e-mail, some software packages allow users to build a library of suggested responses to frequently asked questions that can be pushed to customers quickly and easily. Parsing algorithms that try to determine the subject of the e-mail are a little more problematic. Call center managers should be particularly cautious of those that generate automated responses. If the response does not meet the customer’s needs, and the customer sends another e-mail, it is likely that his or her next e-mail will generate the same or a similar response, necessitating yet another e-mail — or a telephone call.

The third challenge to the Web-enabled environment is contact center organization and training, both of which impact the level of service delivered to online inquiries. Before implementing a Web-enabled environment, organizations must determine how they will handle online and e-mail requests. While the prospect of “blended” agents, who handle inquiries from multiple communication channels, sounds enticing, management must proceed with caution. Not all agents are capable of this task. Because an agent can speak confidently to a customer on the phone does not mean that he or she is capable of composing written messages for transmission via e-mail or text chat. In general, call center consultants recommend establishing a designated team, a subset of the total agent pool, to handle Internet/e-mail inquiries exclusively or handle both Internet/e-mail and telephone inquiries.

Agent training, more than any other factor, determines the success of a Web-enabled contact center. Agents using the Web will require training in the technologies and procedures associated with the Internet itself as well as in the use of the technology that enables Web contacts. In addition, contact center agents who are not involved with Web communication should receive some form of training related to the center’s Internet capabilities. All contact center agents must understand the global implications of Web capabilities and must be prepared to answer general telephone inquiries relating to the organization’s Web-based sales and customer service capabilities.

Enabling Technology
Technology is the foundation for the Web-enabled contact center. While the technology requirements for connecting the contact center and the Web are not extensive, compatibility of the various contact center components is critical to a successful multimedia implementation. One of the greatest challenges for organizations implementing a Web-enabled contact center is selecting technology that will work for the universe of customers on the Internet without their having to download software or overcome other technology challenges. This is a monumental task as there are many different browsers, hardware and software platforms and applications that must be supported.

The basic components of the Web-enabled contact center include:

Sophisticated Data Repository And Management Systems. This technology is essential to contact center success. As discussed previously, the center’s database and data management system must allow agents to access customer information across every communication channel to ensure seamless service.

Dedicated Servers. Powerful servers are the engines of the multimedia contact center. Depending on the type of Web access desired, the contact center may need a Web call server that immediately connects Web callers, via voice contact, to a center agent. The center may also require an automated message distribution server that manages the processing of e-mail messages and other forms of Web communication.

Internet Customer Interaction Software. This software ranges from e-mail capabilities to text chat and VoIP programs. While some organizations may choose to develop custom software for these applications, there are many solutions that are easily integrated and adapted to diverse contact center environments. The software developed or selected should be compatible with all browsers and browsing environments encompassing the wide base of existing and potential customers. The guiding factors in software selection should be a product’s functionality, scalability and its compatibility with existing contact center technology.

Skills-Based Routing Capabilities. To process inquiries from multiple communications channels, a contact center must have sophisticated skills-based routing capabilities. This functionality allows a center to queue requests, via telephone, e-mail or Internet, to agents equipped and trained to assist the customer. In addition, the center must develop a unified work queue for processing inquiries with consistent work rules.

Comprehensive System Management, Monitoring And Reporting Capabilities. These systems enable contact center managers to monitor operations across all communications channels and track the performance of the entire operation, as well as its individual agents. Sophisticated reporting and systems management capabilities are more critical than ever in the complex, multimedia contact center environment. Without the statistical information delivered by these systems, an operation has little chance of delivering quality customer service.

Additionally, security remains a concern for consumers conducting business over the Internet. To reassure customers and safeguard sensitive information, contact centers must develop, where appropriate, high-level security measures for their Internet operations.

Considerations Before Proceeding
The decision to implement a Web-enabled contact center should not be made on a whim because “everyone else is doing it.” Instead, this decision should be driven by valid business objectives, such as the desire to explore new channels of communication to increase sales and enhance customer service.

EIS International is a provider of solutions for outbound and integrated inbound/outbound applications for the call center industry. EIS provides systems for telemarketing, customer service, fund-raising, market research and collections. In 1997, EIS adopted the CORBA architecture as a platform for its future products. CORBA, developed by the Object Management Group, is supported by more than 800 software vendors, developers and end users.

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