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Feature Article
July 2002

Web-Enabling Your Call Center: A Strategic Evolution


Initially designed as a solution to deliver phone calls to customer service representatives, call centers are emerging as competitive tools in the global economy. The Internet has been the catalyst for a profound shift in the role of the call center. It has introduced new communications channels to the enterprise, including e-mail, self-service, and online interactive sessions. Incorporating these channels into the call center has become vital to a company�s success. According to Datamonitor (www.datamonitor.com), businesses lost $3.2 billion in revenues in 2000 by failing to offer live online customer service. The addition of Web-based interactions has positioned the call center as an essential and strategic business tool � a means to increase customer loyalty and retention by delivering superior service.

The term �Web-enabled call center� is defined as a center that is linked to a Web site and allows customers to execute real-time interactions with customer service agents while online. One of the critical challenges for businesses seeking to Web-enable their call centers is to leverage existing infrastructure investments while incorporating the necessary Web elements.

The new customer interaction channels, as introduced by the Internet, vary by cost and customer intimacy (Figure 1). Contact types vary, ranging from the self-service functionalities (IVR, e-mail auto-replies, Web self-service�) to one-to-one synchronous communication. Businesses are becoming increasingly more aware that customers drive the method of interaction, and therefore, businesses must implement a customer interaction management (CIM) solution that manages all interaction channels. As evidenced by the abandoned shopping cart phenomenon, Web self-service alone is not sufficient to address customers� needs. Hence, the Web-enabled call center emerges as a means to deliver service differentiation and improved customer satisfaction.

In a Web-enabled call center, the customer can interact with an agent via one of the following methods:

1) Text Chat
Text chat enables customers visiting a Web site to engage in real-time text communications with an agent. The chat session can be initiated through a �Chat Now� button embedded on a Web page. The chat request, along with pertinent customer information, is routed to the appropriate agent based on specified business rules implemented by the enterprise itself. Once the agent receives the session, they can interact with the customer on the same Web page. The agent can pull from a knowledge base to provide the appropriate response to the customer�s inquiry. In the case of an eCommerce transaction, the agent can use text chat to guide the customer to a buying decision.

2) E-mail Management
One of the key indicators examples of service inconsistency is the way that businesses manage the influx of e-mail from their customers. In a traditional voice-only environment, customers have become accustomed to receiving a fairly immediate response to their inquiries. In the case of e-mail, a response may take days, if it comes at all. The ability to properly control and route inbound e-mail has become an essential feature for a Web-enabled call center. When a customer e-mail inquiry is received, it can be routed to a customer service agent, or be automatically responded to through natural language processing. Agents can also utilize a knowledge base of suggested answers to expedite the response to customer e-mail inquiries.

3) Web Callback
A customer browsing a Web site can schedule a callback from an agent through a callback button embedded on the Web page. The customer can specify the appropriate number and time that they would like to receive the return phone call. The system then triggers an outbound call to the customer and connects them to an agent at that specific time. In a multimedia environment, the agent receives pertinent customer information and proceeds to the Web site to best address the customer�s issue.

4) Web Collaboration
Web collaboration is an interaction where the customer and agent are simultaneously navigating through a Web site. The agent and customer browsers are synchronized, allowing both parties to view the same information while online. The agent has the ability to assist the customer in the navigation by pushing the appropriate URLs to their screen. The agent can also monitor the customer�s path through the Web site and direct them to the appropriate pages.

5) Assisted Forms Filling
Assisted forms filling is an enhanced method of collaboration where the agent can assist with entering information into an online form that the customer is completing. A key concern of many online customers is Internet security. Through assisted forms filling, the agent can decrease the customer�s hesitation and guide them as they complete the transaction.

6) Web Call-through
The Web call-through feature utilizes voice over IP to enable the customer to converse with an agent via their PC. This function eliminates the need for multiple phone lines at the customer premises. It also enables customers and agents to engage in a voice conversation while simultaneously navigating through the Web site.

7) Web Self-Service
Web Self-Service is a set of online tools that enables customers to utilize a knowledge base and independently find answers to their inquiries. The knowledge base consists of a series of frequently asked questions and answers that can be dynamically updated by the business. Through the use of natural language processing and artificial intelligence capabilities, the knowledge base can deliver the most relevant response to the customer.

8) Whiteboarding
Whiteboarding is an electronic backboard that enables an agent and a customer in different locations to view the same information on a computer screen. The agent has the ability to analyze any desktop application the customer may have problems with and direct them to a resolution.

9) Video
Video allows a customer and agent to engage in an interaction that includes the benefits of both visuals and sound. This functionality, although sparingly used at present, will increase in application as bandwidth improves at the customer premises.

Web-enabling the call center involves several technological challenges. A traditional call center environment typically consists of numerous elements that provide the necessary functionalities to manage phone calls. These range from the Private Branch Exchange (PBX) and Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) system for routing inbound calls, the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system for self-service, the Predictive Dialer for outbound calls, the Fax Server for handling high volumes of customer faxes, a recording system, several reporting engines and a Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) element for functionality such as screen pops.

The Internet adds new complexity to the already delicate call center environment. In order to provide all of the functionality necessary for a multimedia solution, additional elements such as a Web server, e-mail server, and collaboration server must be incorporated. Managing and operating this complex environment is extremely difficult. Attempting to successfully accomplish this while delivering consistent service levels to customers is a near-impossible task. To address these challenges, businesses are looking towards comprehensive CIM solutions with a single interface for managing the numerous contact typesthat manage all forms of customer interactions.

In order to address the demands of the Web-enabled environment, businesses need a method to adequately staff for the various customer interaction types. One method is to segregate agents into groups by functionality, including inbound-only agents, outbound-only agents, e-mail agents, collaboration agents, and chat agents. However, this approach has two main shortcomings. First, in the current economy, it is extremely difficult to acquire and retain new employees, especially in the contact center. Second, segregating agents by contact type yields tremendous inefficiencies in agent productivity and inconsistencies in customer service. Businesses are looking, once again, to multimedia multi-channel solutions for resolving this issue.

Multimedia multi-channel solutions allow all interaction types to be blended to each single desktop. This means that one pool of agents can handle telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, and all Web interactions � tremendously decreasing the number of agents required in the Web-enabled center. In addition, agents are consistently more productive because as the volume of one type of message drops, they are able to handle other contact types. For example, as inbound voice traffic slows, agents can fill time by responding to e-mails or launching outbound voice campaigns.

A common objection to a multi-channel solution is that not every agent is capable of handling every type of interaction. However, this is not required. Our studies have shown that if even 20 percent of agents in a center can handle two or more interaction types, that provides enough flexibility to dynamically shift priorities and responsibilities based on interaction traffic to simultaneously optimize customer satisfaction and agent productivity.

Call center managers, traditionally trained to manage the phone systems, must now expand the scope of their operations to include all of the Web-based functions. These managers are tasked with operating the Web-enabled call center environment and ensuring that customers receive the appropriate level of service, regardless of the communication method they utilize to interact with a business.

Web-enabled call centers have emerged as the key to delivering superior service and improved customer satisfaction. Call center managers must look closely at the technological impacts of integrating the call center and the Web. As they do, they will turn to comprehensive multimedia multi-channel solutions technologies to solve the growing issues at hand. Companies that implement a Web-enabled call center will have a competitive tool that increases customer satisfaction and loyalty and enables their business to thrive in the global economy.

Serge Hyppolite is a product manager for Concerto Software, a provider of customer interaction management (CIM) solutions to more than 1,100 businesses worldwide. The company�s solutions are designed to enable businesses to more effectively manage their interactions with customers via voice, fax, e-mail, and the Web � therefore improving communications, reducing operating costs, and delivering superior service. For more information, visit them online at www.concerto.com.

[ Return To The July 2002 Table Of Contents ]

Web-Enabling Your Contact Center For Maximum Performance Optimization


The Internet. It�s changed how we do business, how we search for information and how we make product/service purchase decisions. And the Internet continues to evolve into one of the most preferred communications channels. As its popularity has caught on, the Internet has created a savvier, more knowledgeable consumer that has come to expect quality service and affordability at the click of a mouse. This forward momentum has led many companies to reexamine their service levels as their call centers evolve into Internet-enabled contact centers. In an industry that has for years focused on a single communications channel � the telephone � the diversification of touch points adds new pressures. Consistency and quality of service are two of the most visible. Customer sales/service representatives (CSRs), or agents, who are accustomed to verbal interactions must now be equipped to respond through written communications as well. They also must master the customer relationship management (CRM) systems designed to make their jobs and performance more concise, and demonstrate a more thorough knowledge of their companies� offerings.

Industry experts recognize customer interaction recording software as one of the most effective ways to measure customer satisfaction across all of these communications channels. This is why many forward-thinking organizations have begun implementing automated quality systems with �business-driven recording� capabilities. Armed with this type of software, companies can selectively record and evaluate e-mail, collaborative chat, and Web self-service transactions, in addition to traditional telephone contacts. While corporate marketing and IT departments have typically taken responsibility for these Web-based initiatives, this function is increasingly shifting to the contact center, where it can be better managed and where Web-based service can be streamlined with other more traditional channels.

As a foundation to their quality assurance programs, companies are capturing customer contacts, observing the interactions and then analyzing customer experiences. Collecting such valuable customer business intelligence is empowering companies to make great strides in enhancing service, gauging business process effectiveness, responding proactively to product/service adjustments, and measuring new sales/marketing campaign successes. Recognizing that sales/satisfaction start with the contact center � where 70 percent of companies� customer interactions occur � it�s clear that having the right technology is critical, as is the ability for agents to provide quality service since they truly comprise the �front line� to building and optimizing customer relationships. To aid in rolling out a successful CRM program designed to drive customer loyalty, it has become an imperative for companies to Web-enable their contact centers with five core capabilities:

1. Mastering Sales/Service Via E-mail: A growing numbers of contact centers are interacting with customers via electronic mail. In fact, a 2001 AMR Research study found that e-mail applications accounted for 54 percent of CRM-related deployments. Unlike the telephone, communicating by e-mail requires a different set of skills that require CSRs to be well-versed in presenting information in a timely manner with proper grammar, spelling, and tone. The ability to selectively capture e-mail customer contacts serves as a strong way to enhance customer experiences and gauge how well companies can meet their needs through this growing channel.

2. Making Web Chat a Service Priority: The ability to communicate via collaborative chat is another important skill set to consider. Like e-mail, it requires agents to exercise a different set of skills to communicate effectively. Although Web chat lags behind e-mail as the touch point of choice, it is still a channel being leveraged with frequency. For recording and analyzing collaborative chat, instant messaging, and guided browser sessions, customer interaction recording technology is essential to help companies ensure customers receive consistent and accurate responses from the enterprise. The cost implications for businesses are also compelling. E-mail and Web chat channels have emerged as great cost savings vehicles for companies and their contact centers with the average interaction ranging from $2.50 to $30 per contact, compared to the average telephone call at $5 to $40 per contact.

3. Empowering Customers to Serve Themselves: Experts predict the number of individuals seeking on-line customer self-service will more than double in the next several years, approaching 70 million. Some industry analysts estimate that as many as two-thirds of all Internet shoppers who abandon their shopping carts do so because of inadequate customer service, insufficient instructions for completing their transactions, or poorly integrated checkout procedures. For these reasons, companies must focus now, more than ever, on improving their self-service offerings � else they face increased call volumes to their contact centers, lost customers, and missed revenue. By capturing samples of how customer interaction with a company�s Web site, the organization can replay the consumer experience and quickly gain insight into the site�s design, content, and navigation, as well as ease-of-use for information gathering and product/service purchases. While e-mail and Web chat are among the more cost-effective channels for companies to service consumers, Web self-service has emerged as the lowest � averaging about $0.30 per contact.

4. Proving Consistency Across Communications Channels: When integrating e-mail, collaborative chat, and Web self-service into the communications matrix, contact centers are recognizing the importance of establishing quality benchmarks to respond to customers across all channels. With quality service comes repeat business, customer loyalty, and great word-of-mouth, creating new possibilities and great opportunities for contact centers to thrive. But online, written communication � as seen through e-mail, chat, and instant messaging � has created the need for new quality checkpoints. Today�s businesses cannot afford the inefficiencies multiple service channels can yield. With the competition �just a click away,� it has become extremely important for businesses to establish �best practices� unique to each medium to ensure consistent, personalized service. Establishing standards for each channel and supporting them with an ongoing education/training program can be extremely effective in paving the way.

5. Addressing Agent Retention and Career Pathing: To provide quality customer service in an Internet-enabled world, agent training is one of the most critical elements. Most often, CSRs serve as the most customer-facing connection point between an organization and its customers. If their knowledge, efficiency, and skills aren�t up-to-par, customers can leave with a negative impression. Coaching and ongoing training � such as that offered by e-learning � serve as ways to both enhance customers� experiences, as well as retain agents and provide them with a career path that encourages them to say and grow with the organization. With ongoing training also comes increased productivity and skill advancement for multi-channel interaction � all of which translate into more effective staff that are better able to meet customer expectations.

A customer�s overall satisfaction level can be defined by a company�s weakest business channel. Even though a call center might be award winning, it�s not the only touch point customers will use. Those that have had positive experiences through your call center but have a bad experience on your Web site, for example, can regress from being loyal consumers to lost ones. Today, the importance of Web-enabling and streamlining all sales/service channels is at an all time high. Including captured samples of your customers� experiences can strengthen customer contacts throughout your company, fine-tune your processes and strengthen your Web offerings � encouraging customers to return time after time.

Oscar A. Alban serves as Principal, Market Consultant for Witness Systems, a global provider of multimedia customer interaction recording, performance analysis and e-learning software that enables companies to optimize their customer relationships. For more information, visit the company on the Web at www.witsys.com.

[ Return To The July 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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