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Feature Article
May 2000

Online Exclusive E-Commerce And The Contact Center Converge


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 toward self-service.

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 up-sell.

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 assistance.

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 and up-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 paramount.

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 to buy.

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 profit.

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. Aspect�s 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 worldwide.

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