Web-Enabled Call Center Agent
Recently, while looking for information on companies that produce customer support and
help desk products, I went to the home page of a small software company with which I was
largely unfamiliar. Within about 60 seconds of arriving on the site, I received a chat
initiation window, which read something like, "Mary Ann of Acme Software would like
to chat with you. If you accept, please enter your name. If you do not wish to chat,
please click 'cancel.'" Despite my extensive travels across vendors' home pages, this
was the first time I had encountered this contact option. (Which tells me that not nearly
enough organizations are using this valuable technology.) Curious, I typed my name in and
clicked "accept." A few seconds later, Mary Ann sent me a pleasant greeting and
asked if she could be of assistance. I typed back, explaining I was looking for some
company contact information to include in the listing, and she provided me with this
information rapidly. In addition to her faultless grammar, rapid typing and professional
demeanor, I was impressed that she was able to give me the name of the marketing manager
for the product line in which I had expressed interest, seemingly off the top of her head.
This agent was well versed in sales methods, Web-savvy, well-spoken, able to type quickly
without errors and familiar with the company she represents.
So where did the software company find her, and where can more agents like her be
I, like everyone else in the country who owns a phone, receive many solicitation calls.
I have also called a great deal of toll-free numbers requesting product information, such
as "Help! Your bathroom cleaner has turned my porcelain tub orange. Can I expect this
to go away or do I need to buy orange bathroom accessories so I can be
color-coordinated?" One major thing I notice with agents I encounter is that the
person on the other end of the phone is reading (usually poorly) a script at me and has
little understanding of the company he or she is representing. Usually, these people are
bored, monotone, poorly informed about their company's products and give me the impression
that if the entire company were swallowed up by a crack in the earth's crust overnight,
they wouldn't care in the slightest.
The call center is the natural link to e-service. This is a company's front line and is
the only unit of the company that has both the manpower and the technology in place to be
that link between the customer and the company. With the advent of Web-enabled everything
and the growing importance of a company's Web site to its sales, it is the call center
employees who are the logical choice to handle e-service. But Web-enabling has upped the
requirements of a call center worker. In the old days, he or she only needed to be able to
make or take calls and read a script or a list of frequently asked questions. Today, a
call center agent needs to be a contact center agent, not only making and taking calls,
but answering e-mail, initiating or responding to chat sessions and even
"pushing" Web pages to browsing shoppers. In many "blended" contact
centers, the agent might be conducting many of these tasks simultaneously.
Chat and e-mail, obviously, require a person who can compose grammatically correct
messages and type quickly without errors. I understand that in our speedy world today,
many people feel that they do not have the time for proper grammar or punctuation in
e-mail and chat. While I am willing to accept an e-mail from a friend that reads "do
U want to go to a film tonite?" I'm not likely to be impressed if a company
representative uses similar shortcuts or has blatant misspellings or grammar errors in his
or her communications to me. Being an editor, I'm probably biased in this department.
(Remember that high-school English teacher you had who was such a stickler for correct
usage? She would hate it, too.) But a company, particularly one that operates in the
highly competitive Internet arena, cannot afford to appear substandard to potential
Software packages that allow for the easy integration of all forms of customer contact
in the call center are readily available. Hewlett-Packard's
Smart Contact Call Center, Microlog Corp.'s uniQue, MATRAnet Inc.'s M>WebTouch2.0, Acuity Corp.'s WebCenter, Servicesoft Technologies' LiveContact and E-mail
Contact products and Apropos' Apropos Version 4 are
just a very few of the products that help integrate the Web-based customer communication
channels into an easy-to-use format for call center/contact center agents. But the trick
is finding agents who are both willing and able to become proficient in handling the
Web-based tasks enabled by these products.
The need to have agents work on different communications channels simultaneously might
seem like a drawback at first. You might argue that it's easier to have a group of agents
dedicated to e-mail, another to outbound calling, another to inbound calling and a fourth
to Web site initiated chat sessions. But consider that your goal is to hire and retain
intelligent, enthusiastic, computer-literate people. Put yourself in the call center. What
would make for a more interesting day: performing varied tasks such as answering calls,
typing messages via chat, responding to e-mails and participating in Web collaboration
sessions, or spending the entire day responding to hundreds of e-mails? Which group do you
imagine would become bored and disenchanted first?
In the long run, it can be said that carefully and thoroughly training your contact
center agents to operate in a Web-based, blended environment is the single most important
task you can undertake to ensure the success of your e-service, and therefore your
corporate bottom line. But as with any other project, your final product will be only as
good as the raw materials you started with. Call center agents' salaries are often so low
as to be laughable. The old saying "You get what you pay for" most certainly
applies in this instance. Consider my example of Mary Ann. She was interested and
motivated enough to initiate a chat session with me, was friendly and professional,
comfortable with the technology she was using and was knowledgeable and able to answer my
questions. How much is a person like that worth to your company? How can you attract
people like her to your contact center? And most importantly, how can you keep her there?
First-rate customer service is what puts you above your competitors. First-rate contact
center agents are what make your customer service better than the rest. In today's
Web-enabled sales and service environment, it's time to ante up and realize that the
health of your organization lies in the hands of your contact center agents.
Reward them and they will reward you.
Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.