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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, [email protected] CENTER Solutions

[October 20, 1999]

The Multitasking, 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 found?

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 customers.

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 troth@tmcnet.com.

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