TMCnet - The World's Largest Communications and Technology Community
ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

Innovative Management Information
June 2001


Take Your Agents To The Net


Your interaction center is your most intimate connection with your customers and prospects. You have worked hard to develop the strategies and processes that work for phone-based interactions, but increasingly, your customers want to connect with you via e-mail and text chat. Studies have discovered that most companies have not adjusted their business practices to accommodate the online channel, and as a result, their Web interactions are failing.

The most common mistake companies make is to assume they can replicate their telephone service practices and people for the online medium. In fact, there are significant differences between the two, and the way companies handle these differences can make or break their support centers.

Net reps are agents who interact with customers via Internet channels such as e-mail and text chat. One of their most important roles is to manage customers' online experiences and build loyalty. Net reps are a company's brand shepherds, and their interactions with customers can build Web share, increase revenues made online and boost customer satisfaction. Building online relationships is critical, since customers often require the integration of a human touch with their electronic contact. Customers do not perceive a relationship with the medium itself, but rather with the company as a whole. In other words, it's not the technology that makes a Web center, it is the people. The most important step for online success is finding the right net reps.

Traits that make a great net rep are different from those that make a great phone agent, but companies tend to think of these employees as interchangeable. A study we conducted found that 66 percent of companies use existing phone reps to handle Internet-based customer interactions. Most of the representatives had been with their employers for some time, were immersed in the company culture and were experienced in delivering good service. They had not, however, been screened specifically to handle Internet-based customer contact.

To have a successful Web-based interaction center, companies must incorporate Web-based activities and testing into the hiring process. In addition, organizations must develop a profile of an ideal candidate to use as a benchmark to find employees who can handle the demanding technological and written aspects of the job, as well as those who connect with the company's essence. Only in that way can they deliver the desired company message effectively.

There are several traits that differentiate excellent net reps from their traditional phone rep peers. This knowledge can be used to effectively build a company's "ideal candidate" profile.

Technology know-how. Net reps must be well versed in the use of search tools, browsers and online technologies that link them with customers. On a typical day, net reps will handle traditional and automated e-mail responses, and will call the customer back while looking at a screen pop of relevant data. They will find and deliver graphic images and text documents that help answer a customer's queries. For advanced centers using VoIP technology, agents need to understand how to use and be comfortable in that medium. They may occasionally find themselves processing these requests simultaneously. It is important to find people who are comfortable with technology, want to learn more and can multitask with ease. Consider your phone agents for net rep positions, but make sure they pass the technology test before you move them into the Web interaction center.

Written communication skills. Phone reps can use inflection of voice to guide them through an interaction, but net reps often communicate by written words alone. They must feel comfortable with the written language -- not only in crafting their own responses, but in accurately interpreting the true requests of the customer. Fast and accurate typing, spelling, grammar and word choice are all essential, and usually not screened with phone rep candidates. Comfort with all facets of the written word is an obvious, but often overlooked, differentiator.

Stress test. Phone reps face stressful situations, but they generally deal with one customer at a time. Net reps maintain multiple, simultaneous "conversations." Make sure your candidates are able to handle the stress that comes with that kind of activity.

Essence and culture. Often an overlooked characteristic, finding a rep who embodies your company's essence is one of the most important factors for customer interaction center success. Like phone reps, net reps are your company's front line. It is worth your time to find agents who fit into your company culture and embrace your message. Not only will these agents be more able to communicate your brand promises, agents who are properly aligned with the company culture turn over less frequently than those who aren't a match.

Consider this scenario: if your company has branded itself as a trustworthy, stable financial partner, your reps need to be restrained in their communications with customers. Their spelling and grammar should be impeccable, and without the use of many abbreviations or "emoticons" -- those keystroke-created faces that smile, frown, wink or laugh -- in their communications. On the other hand, if your company's aim is to be innovative and hip, or on the leading edge of style, then by all means, direct agents to use the latest symbols, abbreviations and other "netspeak" elements as they are created.

Once you have candidates, remember to run them through at least one Web-based scenario. You would not hire phone reps without hearing how they handle themselves on the telephone; make sure your net rep candidates can craft responses and communicate with ease via the online channel.

When you have identified your net reps and have team leaders in place, it's time to train them to handle Internet-based interactions for your company. Traditional training on product line, company history and policies and escalation procedures are important, but training created specifically for the online media is essential. Each step of the customer interaction process requires its own training.

Understanding a customer's true intent is one of the most important skills for a net rep, yet it is often overlooked in online training courses. Gather information and statistics about your customers' experiences with your Web site or online interactions, and use them to develop training for your net reps. For example, many customers stall in their online purchasing experience. A traditional salesperson would never knowingly let a frustrated customer abandon a shopping cart full of merchandise and leave the store. Most would approach a customer, determine what was missing in his or her experience, and do their best to resolve it.

The same is true for Web interactions. Find out where your customers are abandoning your site, and position Web agents to guide them through the tough spots. Teach your net reps to figure out if customers want to place orders or are merely seeking more information on a product. Discover if customers are trying to express frustration with a negative experience, or are just undecided about a purchase. Because net reps are often missing many of the visual or verbal clues a traditional salesperson could use to determine the customer's intent, it is important to train reps to reach out and probe customers' attitudes and wishes.

Writing. Web communication differs from traditional letter writing. It is, for all intents, a new language that is informal, colloquial and often "live," so net reps must be able to improvise. Training should focus on applying your company's style to interactions, and should incorporate drills, exercises and quizzes. Content should include ways to write with brevity, while still communicating all relevant information. Reps need to be able to craft clear, concise responses to customers that advance the sale, provide excellent service and deliver your company's brand online. If your center allows the use of abbreviations and emoticons, agents should receive training on these elements, as well as proper grammar and other elements of "netiquette."

Sales and service. Whether your customers contact you to get answers to questions or to purchase products or services, your reps must be trained to handle their inquiries. Your net reps should adapt these skills to provide proper Web-based interactions. For example, not every browser will actually make a purchase. Net reps need to be trained in skills to move the customer beyond browsing to buying. Rather than rehash data and information that is readily available on your site, your reps should be asking both rhetorical and probing questions to invite waves of communication, which is essential in building online relationships and selling. This area of a training curriculum should also include techniques to upsell and cross-sell, which can significantly boost the average online order price.

Good net reps also need to provide swift service: many online customers use the Internet medium because they perceive it to be faster. A response time that might be perfectly adequate for a phone message is perceived as dreadfully slow by an online customer. Know your customers' response time thresholds, and make sure your reps know, too. That way, they can time their responses to ensure customer satisfaction.

Technology. Make sure your reps understand the technologies they will use on the job. Give them guided tours of your company Web site, and supply ample time for them to browse and discover site nuances on their own. You would not allow a phone rep to handle live conversations without first knowing how to use your telephone system. Make sure you offer that same courtesy to your net reps, and remember that instead of one system, you will often need to develop a course that addresses multiple technologies, including e-mail, VoIP and Web chat tools, as well as the phone.

Role playing (or "e-plays") is an important part of the training process. Well-crafted e-plays allow your net reps to have real-life experiences without the pressure of making mistakes or potentially damaging customer relationships. It also allows team leaders and coaches to evaluate net reps on criteria they will use on a day-to-day basis. Consider the following exchange.

A customer is having a hard time ordering a jacket from a Web site. The order screen says, "click here to order this item," but the customer wants the jacket in a different color than what is shown in the photo, and is reluctant to order.

Customer: "Help! This jacket is supposed to come in blue, but the picture shows it only in green. If I click to order, will I get a green jacket?"
Net rep: "Hi, I'm Lisa with ZipIt.com, and I'll help you out. First, click on the button that says ORDER. I'll stay online with U, OK?"
Customer: OK, thx. But won't that mean I'll get a green jacket?"
Net rep: No, but I see how U might have thought that. It will take U to the next screen, where U can pick color and size. Are U ready to click?"
Customer: "Yes."
Net rep: "Now U can choose size and color. BTW, 2nd jacket is 1/2 price this week...R U interested?"
Customer: "Oh, good idea! I need a gift for my dad."
Net rep: "Anything else I can help you w/?"
Customer: "No thx. I'm all set."
Net rep: "Thx for visiting ZipIt.com, come again soon. Bye :)"

After the role play, you can discuss the various skills of the net rep, including understanding the customer's intent, the use of abbreviations and emoticons, command of the language, ability to upsell, and length of time needed to help the customer.

Every traditional call center has applied measurements to ensure that each phone representative meets quality, productivity and results standards while interacting with customers. The Web interaction center needs the same level of measurement, but tailored for online interactions. In our practice, we call them Netrics. These are the benchmarks upon which each rep is measured, and they determine areas of strength, as well as areas that need further training and focus.

Developing your company's unique measurements depends on the objectives of your interaction center. Some obvious choices include the number of interactions handled per rep and the ability to respond within acceptable time frames. If your center is a sales outlet, then volume of sales closed, including upselling and cross-selling, are valid measurements.

Yet, to truly evaluate the performance of your net reps, it is crucial to measure beyond plain numbers. For example, an important measurement is how well your net reps support your brand implementation. Relationship building and affiliation should be monitored, as well as the reps' ability to build e-mail "waves" of communication with your customers.

A successful Web interaction center isn't developed overnight, and it isn't a once-and-done proposition. It is a continuum that includes continued attention to and refinement of the key steps: determining the brand promises and personality that net reps must convey, finding the people with the skills and personality to thrive in your online environment, training them how to deliver and measuring their results. Your business and your customers deserve nothing less.

Jill Leigh is president of Initiatives Three, a customer interaction consulting firm founded on the principle that the call center intimately connects a business to its customers.

[ Return To The June 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas

Subscribe FREE to all of TMC's monthly magazines. Click here now.