In the Web-enabled contact center, two complementary business models
bolster each other's weaknesses and multiply each other's strengths.
Picture two businesses in the same city:
One is a catalog retailer of outdoor clothing and accessories. One is a
computer software company selling PC applications over the World Wide Web.
One takes orders by telephone; the other processes orders submitted over
the Internet. Neither has a store front. Each benefits from a business
model that allows it to sell throughout the United States without
burdensome real estate and personnel expenses. And both are leaking
profits through big holes in the business model.
Keypad Or Keyboard?
More and more enterprises enable customers to conduct business over long
distances using either the telephone or the Internet. Currently, these two
technologies support more or less distinct business models.
Telephony-based commerce is conducted over PSTN networks. It depends
heavily on more traditional long-distance commerce methods like direct
mail and toll-free number promotions. And it centers around a contact
center staffed with agents trained to answer questions, take orders, and
in many cases cross-sell and up-sell.
Internet-based commerce, or e-commerce, takes place over IP networks.
It takes advantage of direct mail and print advertising too, but also
relies heavily on the World Wide Web as a promotional arm, and tends more
Both models are more cost-effective and have a wider reach than
"bricks-and-mortar" storefront commerce. But the simple fact is,
in spite of their advantages, each business model has a costly downside.
Talking In The Dark
Everyone has a telephone. Customers know that they can they can get
personal service over the phone. With technologies like IVR, speech
recognition, and text-to-speech becoming ever more capable, self-service
over the telephone is becoming more convenient and more flexible, too. And
from the business's point of view, the telephone presents an excellent
opportunity for well-trained contact center agents to cross-sell and
But there are definite drawbacks. For one thing, the telephone has no
imaging capability. Companies that want their customers to see their
products have to send them a catalog, display the product on television,
or find some other way to generate the initial interest that causes
customers to pick up the phone. And that leaves a costly disconnect
between enticement and action. Not everyone who sits at the dining room
table and admires a well-crafted catalog gets around to placing an order.
There is no way to measure the rate of this kind of transaction
abandonment, but common sense says that it is significant.
And once the call is made, the customer and the agent have to
communicate everything verbally. Transferring large quantities of data is
an awkward and error-prone process, with customer and agent trying to
record the conversation with pencil or keyboard. The efficiency and
duration of the transaction -- and the toll charges -- are determined by
the verbal and listening skills of both parties.
Successful cross-selling and up-selling are also dependent on agent
skills. Customers call to conduct business, not to shop, and it takes a
capable and well-trained agent to put the customer in the right frame of
mind to consider another purchase, present additional product offerings
well without any visual assistance, and close secondary sales. Which makes
staffing costs another major expense in telephony-based commerce.
The Lonely Browser
E-commerce, on the other hand, is an excellent, cost-effective way to
present products dramatically to potential customers. Web pages can
combine text, graphics, recorded audio, and video. Customers can browse at
their leisure, and when they're ready to buy, conduct transactions without
the assistance of costly staff. And that crucial link between enticement
and action -- between the effective product advertisement and filling out
the order form -- is an instantaneous link, increasing the chances of
closing a sale. The Web interface is also a much easier to use, more
accurate input method than the telephone keypad.
But Web-based e-commerce has a weakness too, and it can be summed up in
two words: No people.
Customers can move from page to page, they can look, they can order --
but they can't ask questions. And while unassisted self-service can be a
convenience in some situations -- buying a book you already know about at
a discount, for instance -- for some products, some customers, and some
situations, the lack of human assistance results in abandoned transactions
and lost revenue.
The Web is still a new business model to many people, and some need
reassurance that they're clicking the right buttons. Others are reluctant
to perform high-value transactions like stock trades without contact with
a live person. According to the results of a USA Today poll, 67
percent of all online transactions are abandoned because customers have no
way to contact a customer service representative for answers or
The Combined Model, And The Technology That Supports It
This cursory glance at strengths and weaknesses reveals an interesting
fact about telephony-based commerce and e-commerce: The strengths of each
counteract the weaknesses of the other. So a compelling case can be made
for combining the two. A telephony-intensive business that can integrate
the Web and the contact center, or an e-commerce vendor that can add
easily accessible live customer service to the Web-based model, stand to
gain attractive business benefits. Increased efficiency. More streamlined
staffs. Customer satisfaction and retention. More effective cross-selling
The technology is available now. New interactive Web applications make
it possible to publish two-way Web sites that Web-enable the telephone
contact center. Products from various vendors offer different combinations
of functionality, so selecting a solution with the right features is
Quick, Convenient Personal Contact, From Your Browser
The best solutions enable customers to contact an agent directly from the
Web user interface. With a mouse click, the customer either initiates an
IP telephony call or is presented with a form that will send a telephone
number to a contact center agent for a callback. It's best to offer both
options, since the customer may not have the necessary sound card,
speakers, and microphone for IP telephony.
Contact routing on the receiving end is also an important factor. Web
customers expect a quick response. If they become impatient with a 20- or
30-second delay while a graphic downloads, they can't be expected to wait
very long for the IP telephony call to be connected, or for the contact
center agent to call back. No matter how feature-rich the Web application
is, it will be ineffective if it isn't fully integrated into the call
routing scheme of the contact center so that Web customers are answered
just as quickly as telephone customers.
Controlling Traffic To Contain Costs
If nearly instant contact is an essential requirement, it also
presents a cost risk to contact center operations. There is no control
over the number of people who visit a public Web site, and Web surfers are
by nature prone to explore and experiment. Many businesses are reluctant
to consider the Web-enabled contact center for fear that agents will be
swamped with calls from people who just want to see what the button does,
or who take advantage of Web interaction to ask routine questions that can
be answered by text on the Web pages.
To guard against this risk, some interactive Web applications offer
dynamically enabled contact. This feature presents the option to phone in,
initiate a collaborative Web session, or request a callback only after the
customer has completed a predetermined set of Web interactions, such as
accessing an order form and selecting products on it. This lets window
shoppers browse while agents devote their time to customers who are ready
Powerful New Ways To Communicate
Once the customer is in touch with the contact center agent, interactive
Web applications offer a variety of new ways to communicate. In addition
to voice communication over the IP telephony link or the PSTN phone line,
interactive Web offers several options that enhance the ability of agents
to serve customers and sell products and services.
- Shared browsing. As they talk on the telephone, customers and
agents can view and manipulate the same Web pages at the same time,
with either the agent or the customer controlling the navigation.
Agents can push Web pages to the customer's browser, from the company
Web site or from any other site on the World Wide Web. Some
applications also present the agent with additional information such
as links to special offers or related Web pages. Others display a log
of Web pages visited during the transaction so that the agent can
better guide the customer.
- Text chat. Both agents and customers can type messages into
text fields that appear on both screens, effectively communicating
long strings of numbers or words with difficult spelling, or even
using text chat in lieu of voice conversation.
- Page markup. Also known as "whiteboarding," this
feature lets agents and customers draw on the screen, underlining and
circling Web page elements. What the agent marks, the customer sees,
and vice versa.
- Collaborative form completion. If transactions require
customers to fill out online forms, collaborative form completion
enables agents to assist by answering questions and verifying entries
-- even filling out forms for the customers -- to reduce frustration
and ensure accuracy.
- Web contact routing. Applications that integrate fully with
advanced telephone call routing systems offer the additional advantage
of options in how Web sessions are handled. Such functionality enables
Web contacts to be routed to specially trained agents and given
whatever priority business requirements demand. This is particularly
useful in cross-selling and up-selling.
Beyond The Web Application
A feature-rich interactive Web application can bring the telephone contact
center and e-commerce together so that each fills in the gaps left by the
other. But the Web-enabled contact center is also part of a larger
picture. Marketing, sales, and customer service functions performed in the
contact center are links in the overall chain that businesses now call
customer relationship management, or CRM. And effective CRM strategy
integrates systems, organizations, and processes across the enterprise.
To support CRM strategy, the Web-enabled contact center has to fully
integrate Web contact into the routing scheme. Queuing, routing, and
priorities have to be under the control of business rules defined by
business managers, and those rules have to be easily modifiable, so that
managers can react to changing business conditions. Both Web and telephone
contact solutions have to be integrated with corporate databases, so that
agents have quick access to customer information that helps them serve
customers better. Contact center functions have to be integrated with
front- and back-office systems, so that managers can streamline workflow
and manage customer relationships end-to-end. And information from Web and
telephone transactions has to be collected, retained, and made available
for analysis by business managers.
Companies with the vision and commitment to accomplish all this stand
to lead their industries in customer retention, cost-efficiency, and
Gary Barnett is vice president, Portal Platform, for Aspect
Communications. Aspect Communications Corporation is the leading
provider of customer relationship portals, a software platform for
building and deploying e-CRM applications that enable businesses to ensure
consistent interactions with their customers from one centrally managed
e-business system. Aspectï¿½s leadership position in electronic customer
relationship management (e-CRM) solutions is based on its 14-year-history
and more than 7,300 customer contact center implementations. Aspect is
headquartered in San Jose, California, with offices in major cities