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Rich Tehrani

On a blustery day at a Virginia Beach hotel a decade or so ago, a group of call center decision makers gathered to hear me speak on the topic of evolving customer service and technology.

During the presentation, I mentioned that companies needed to answer e-mail in real time. It was at this point a woman in the audience raised her hand and challenged this assertion. She said people should not get used to having their e-mail answered immediately by call centers. She was very vehement about the issue. I was in direct opposition with this notion, and my presentation turned into a debate. In the hundred plus presentations I have given since, I have never had a similar incident take place.

Thankfully, the ever-talented David Burd, who was the head of marketing at the company sponsoring the conference, stepped in, calmed the woman and allowed me to continue with my presentation.

I often think back to this woman when I e-mail companies and find they don’t immediately respond.

I still think I am right. At the same time, I’m aware that technology can change, and the adoption of such technologies and the speed at which they are implemented vary greatly from company to company. I happen to be the sort of customer who likes a company to respond to my e-mail immediately. I am more likely to buy from a company that responds to my online queries quickly.

Technology stands still for no call center, and it isn’t just e-mail that has transformed the call center into the contact center. IP communications, too, have dramatically altered the way we communicate and serve our customers. Agents located around the world can now easily serve customers. A company’s mailing address now has less and less to do with where the majority of its workers live and work, as the Internet has allowed corporations to find ever-more cost-effective ways to get work done without one central location.

If you are a long-time reader, you might remember me telling everyone in the mid-nineties to explore IP contact centers and numerous other technologies. Now it’s time for a new technology to be introduced into the customer interaction mix: If you aren’t aware of virtual worlds, you should be. The most popular of these is Second Life and it is slowly becoming the 3D Internet. It has plenty of competition — but this article is not meant to analyze its various competitors, but rather focus on the potential for virtual worlds to change customer service and sales as we know it.

In a virtual world, you choose an avatar — a representation of whom you wish to be online. You dress the avatar and walk (or fly!) from place to place. Your avatar interacts in this world and can chat and use VoIP to communicate with other avatars. There is usually search functionality so you could, for example, find a car rental agency or a store to buy clothes, get more radiant skin, get a tattoo or find anything else you might wish to buy in your virtual world.

Millions of people are experimenting in virtual worlds. They interact with one another and meet in night clubs, on romantic islands, in virtual conferences and in shops.

Some companies are turning to virtual worlds for business use. They utilize virtual worlds for training or to extend their brand with a virtual storefront, the same way they may have experimented with a Web page back in 1995.

Virtual worlds, like every new technology, need one or more champions. IBM has traditionally been on the forefront of speech, and Linux has championed green technologies, to name a few. To this list you can add virtual worlds, as IBM has been one of the biggest proponents of Second Life — buying virtual land and constructing virtual buildings.

But what brought IBM into my sights as a company worthy of coverage is their most recent virtual world announcement: they will staff their virtual business center with workers in Asia five days a week, 24 hours per day (see www.tmcnet.com/1126.1 for more information). They join others from North America, Latin America and Europe who started working there in May.

“There has been a huge surge in the popularity of Web activities like social networking. People are very accustomed to meeting each other online socially. We’ve just applied that concept to the business world,” said Paula Summa, general manager of IBM.com, the company’s decade-old telephone and Web sales organization. “Social networking and virtual world participation is skyrocketing in Asia. Asia is, after all, a hotbed for 3-D gaming. Why not 3-D business, too?”

“Although this started as an experiment, it has resulted in sales leads,” Summa added. “This is a new and exciting way for clients and IBM to do business.”

IBM’s Virtual Business Center’s technical support library gives visitors access to technical information including Redbooks and Systems Journals.

One advantage of going to a virtual world to get your information is that you can find it faster and easier compared to navigating a Web site. In the virtual Business Center, you can browse the 3-D book shelves, view a 3-D book or ask the librarian, just as you would in the real world.

I recognize that it’s very, very early in the adoption cycle of virtual worlds for business use. But I think many more companies will have a virtual storefront in the future. The potential for this technology remains tremendous, in my opinion. I imagine a future in which you will log on to your computer and your avatar will automatically come to life, and as you are searching the Web, you will be able click a link to place your avatar in numerous locations. For example, if you are surfing SaksFifthAvenue.com for a tie, you will be able to click a Second Life URL (known as a slurl) which will immediately transport your avatar to a virtual Saks where you can see the ties in 3D. The potential for the retail industry to take advantage of virtual worlds is immense. You can build an avatar which is a virtual match for your body and see how actual clothes will look on you.

If you think this is far-fetched, be sure to look at a company like FramesDirect.com, which lets you upload a photo of yourself and virtually “try on” different pairs of glasses before you buy.

Think I’ve lost my mind? Maybe I have. Just remember that whether the Web evolves to become “three-dimensional” or a service like Second Life, our default conduit to 3D is unknown. What is known is the 3D world is coming and now is a great time to get accustomed to the technology. Sign on to some of these virtual world services and play around and see what the potential is. You may even spot your competition setting up a virtual storefront.

Currently, there are people conducting meetings and business in these worlds and, just like on the Internet, there are many X-rated activities going on in Second-Life as well. This shouldn’t dissuade you from taking Second Life and other virtual worlds very seriously. Virtual worlds are open places where millions will visit for a variety of reasons, including buying products and services. I hope you will give these services a try and I hope to see you around in the virtual world in the future! If you want to meet me on Second Life, just send me an e-mail. I will try to respond immediately.

Call Center Quality

I recently had a conversation with executives at TeleDirect International (www.tdirect.com) about how measuring call center quality is an important part of managing a successful call center operation. This is an important issue as IP communications has allowed contact centers to become truly distributed and subsequently more difficult to manage.

The first step in this move was distributed call centers and, soon thereafter, the practice of using home agents allowed a more finely-tuned distribution of contact center resources. According to TeleDirect, implementing a proper quality monitoring solution can increase revenue by up to 15 percent. For this reason, I invited the company to write an article on this topic to help educate those call center decision makers looking to make their contact centers more productive and ultimately successful.

Please see www.tmcnet.com/1125.1 for the full article.

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