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E-Commerce, Messaging and Customer Assistance: Customer Messaging Is Not Your Father’s Voice Mailbox!
[August 25, 2005]

E-Commerce, Messaging and Customer Assistance: Customer Messaging Is Not Your Father’s Voice Mailbox!


Art Rosenberg, The Unified-View
 
Business communications cover three flavors of person-to-person contacts - intra-enterprise, inter-enterprise, and, most sensitive for enterprise revenues, customer contacts. In all three areas, the telephone and the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) have been the traditional common denominator for “real-time” contacts using natural, conversational speech to transact all forms of business between people.


 
While voice messaging became popular, first in the form of telephone answering machines, then with “voice mail” systems and services, the proprietary nature of enterprise telephone systems and Telephone User Interfaces, among other things, kept voice messaging from becoming a universal form of two-way communications the way the telephone had. Proprietary enterprise voice mail systems accommodated customer calls by creating all kinds of “special” application mailboxes for customized call flow interfaces and distributed caller voice messages to different types of mailboxes for processing (e.g., “round-robin” distribution). In the meantime, on the “data” side of messaging technology, the Internet and email created the messaging equivalent of the PSTN, an open, “Public Switched Messaging System,” and the World Wide Web enabled email to be sent directly to application mailboxes, rather than just personal mailboxes. 

 
IP-based multi-modal communications convergence is not only merging all forms of person-to-person contact, i.e., telephony, messaging and even video, but is also moving from the wired, desktop to mobile, highly personalized, handheld devices. Although cell phone usage in the U.S. has crossed the 50% mark, and much higher in Europe and Asia, the hard reality of wireless access is that it doesn’t necessarily make people “available.” Couple that with the fact that not all communications with people have to be two-way, real-time, or verbal, and the role of flexible, multi-modal messaging becomes both practical and realistic for all three flavors of business contacts.
 
The Web, Wireless Mobility, and Live Customer Assistance
 
Although VoIP and IP telephony technology will do wonders for reducing the costs of call center infrastructures and support, it doesn’t necessarily deal with the operational implications of either web site or mobile live customer assistance.
 
The traditional call center demand model assumes that customers initiating a telephone call are doing so because they have a pressing need for live assistance and they need it now! It also assumes that because the telephone has always been a wired location, that unless there is immediate resolution of the customer’s needs, the following bad things will happen:
 
·        The customer will hang up
·        The customer can’t be called back because they don’t just sit by the phone location
·        Operational costs will increase because more labor and communication costs are expended in completing the customer contact tasks
·        The customer will be unhappy because immediate live assistance expectations aren’t met
·        The customer will go to the competition
 
Good telephone-based customer service has therefore always tried to be immediately reactive to a real-time telephone contact with knowledgeable live assistance and expertise to provide “first call resolution” (FCR).
 
The problem, of course, has always been adequate staffing to meet the dynamic demands of customer call traffic. Even with tricks like network-wide routing, skills-based call assignments, and automated self-service applications (IVR), it’s a constant struggle to cost-efficiently staff customer-facing personnel at all levels of expertise.
 
With the growth of web-based consumer shopping and information retrieval at the desktop (PC, IP screenphones) and personalized communications access via handheld mobile devices, it may be time to rethink live customer assistance, including all forms of messaging and mobile contacts. This consideration is particular timely as enterprise organizations start to plan the migration of their legacy wired TDM telephone systems to VoIP and IP telephony infrastructures, and the new world of mobile, multi-modal communications.
 
Not All Talk! - Converging Online Self-service Applications and Live Assistance Options
 
Step one in rethinking the customer contact experience is to separate the new, online customer, who needs live assistance after using a self-service application, from the traditional telephone caller.
 
Talk about true Customer Relationship Management (“CRM”)! An online self-service interaction, that enables access to live assistance, can provide more useful information about what the customer really needs at the moment, than an incoming phone call with Caller ID, a customer CRM “screen pop,” or even the dynamic inputs to an IVR application. 
 
This leads to “Rosenberg’s Sixth Law” for customer contact support:
 
“The more capability that a self-service option offers, the more the enterprise staff will know about the customer’s requirements for live assistance.”
 
As the options for multi-modal live assistance can now range from asynchronous messaging to instant messaging (chat and information exchange) to traditional voice conversations to video conferencing, the choices have to be determined on the basis of both customer needs and resource availability. An online customer who needs live assistance as a consequence of whatever online activity took place previously, including checking FAQ information, can be more selective about the live assistance they really require.  Therefore, instead of assuming what the customer wants, tell them what options are available at the moment and let them pick their poison!
 
The customer choices should include multi-modal options for the following:
 
1. Immediate Assistance – We shouldn’t always assume that, like a telephone caller who is stuck waiting for a human voice connection, that the online user always needs an “immediate” answer. If the question is not pressing but does need human attention, why not simply exploit the power of basic messaging either in text (since they are already in typing mode), or in voice, if they have a convenient means to “click to (voice) message” (as opposed to “click to talk”).
The enterprise online options for immediate live assistance could be dynamically tailored to individual requests by a number of situational and customer-specific parameters, including:
- Value of the customer (Good old “CRM!”)
- Nature of any current self-service interaction activity (How much time was already expended by the customer and how?)
- Nature of the subject, which may require some delay in getting a response from a subject expert or a responsible authority level
- Customer contact traffic and the availability of appropriate staff resources
- Customer’s current mobility status/device which will determine the modality of the contact interface required, i.e., speech or visual text communications 
- Last, but not least, customer needs or preferences at that moment in time, which may include not waiting online and a willingness to submit an information request now (messaging), but getting the response later. The response may be a live contact (text IM, voice callback) to the mobile customer’s wireless device, or it may even be an automated application notification triggered by enterprise actions. 
2. Structured Message Forms for Initial Online Requests for Live Assistance – Initial requests for assistance cannot be efficiently processed unless they are both structured and complete. Free form messaging, as in normal email or voice mail, just doesn’t work efficiently without a context between people who don’t know each other.
Structured message forms, including space for some free-form comment, have always proven to be practical and effective for initiating customer contacts on the Web. Now they can be exploited to support all forms of subsequent customer communications including voice conversations, Instant Messaging connections, or free-form email messaging exchanges. Not only does the structured form provide accurate information for efficient assignment and routing, but also to assist the enterprise support staff to fully understand the context of the request.
3. Instant Text Messaging (Chat) – Online customers can also have the benefit of immediate live assistance without necessarily initiating a voice call through an instant messaging connection. Although not always as efficient as a voice conversation, it does allow the following benefits:
-   More immediate access to live assistance than for a voice call through presence and availability technologies
-   Immediate exchange of information between the customer and customer support staff, including internal expertise who collaborate with customer-facing staff
-   Customer assistance staff can flexibly multi-task multiple customer contacts, as well as interchanges with non-customers
-   Can dynamically enable a transmodal shift to conversational voice, if the situation warrants and customer contact devices permit (e.g., through IP telephony, softphones, or through callback phone numbers)
-   Text message exchanges efficiently provide a more accurate record of a customer contact exchange for follow-up action, quality monitoring, as well as for regulatory archiving 
 
It’s All About “Virtual” Customer Message Mailboxes!
 
The real difference for business messaging in the “customer contact” application is that messages from customers don’t go into individual, personal mailboxes; they must be queued for access by anyone who is qualified and available to respond to the message. The customer mailbox, in effect, is a message queue and a variety of operational priorities must be controllable and dynamically assigned to those messages based on a variety of factors, not just “first-in, first out.” Moreover, with the convergence of email and voicemail, the operational efficiency of recording a customized message response to an email text message, rather than typing it, is now a practical option for more efficient use of customer support staff.
 
For small business operations, simple asynchronous customer message processing can be controlled directly by the customer-facing staff by manually selecting a message from the “queue” to process. For larger, distributed operations, message handling assignments can integrate with real-time call and instant messaging in “universal queues,” with priority escalations when response time thresholds are crossed. Priority escalations can also trigger IM a call return to a mobile customer, depending upon the circumstances.
 
The bottom line is that, as online customers exploit asynchronous messaging for contacting enterprise live assistance, cross-modal message response processing must be added to the repertoire of contact center operations. With the transition of voice and telephony functions to standards-based application software, we should also see a partitioning of the traditional business voice messaging application for individual enterprise users (voice mail systems) from all forms of customer messaging.  However, interoperability between individual communications management and customer contact management will still be important for enterprise-wide “informal” contact center staffing. 
 
What Do You Think?
 
Do you think that online customers will exploit asynchronous messaging or always demand immediate live assistance? Will the growth of online customer self-services shift traditional call traffic to IM? Will mobile customers require higher call-handling priority because they are on the go and their cellular connections are more expensive? Will mobile customers exploit IM as an alternative to voice calls? How will mobile customer-facing staff be able to effectively support customer contacts while they are on the go? Should all customer messaging contacts be controlled through customer mailboxes rather than personal mailboxes? How will presence and availability management technology help more efficient customer contacts?
 
Let us know your opinions by sending them to artr@ix.netcom.com
 
Heads Up for Business Messaging Managers!
 
The convergence of business voice and text messaging (including instant messaging), sometimes labeled as "unified messaging," means that enterprise organizations will soon have to consolidate both their technology infrastructures, as well as their internal support for email and voice mail activities.
 
For the first time in the industry, two independent enterprise associations, one originally focused on voice messaging and telephony, the other on email, have scheduled their conferences at the same time and location. This will enable them to conduct joint program sessions of mutual interest, including several "virtual" highlight sessions that will be open to the online public.
 
The International Association of Messaging Professionals (IAMP), formerly the Octel user's group, and the Open Group's Messaging Forum, formerly the Electronic Messaging Association (EMA) will be meeting in Houston, TX on October 16-20. The "virtual" sessions will be panel discussions on converged communication applications by the leading industry messaging providers and by experienced enterprise end users on the challenges of migrating to converged communications and unified messaging.
 
For further details on the conference, go to the IAMP web site at www.iampro.org

Art Rosenberg is a veteran of the computer and communications industry and formed The Unified-View to provide strategic consulting to technology and service providers, as well as to enterprise organizations, in migrating towards converged wired and wireless unified communications. He focuses on practical user requirements, implementation issues, and new benefits of multi-modal communication technologies for individual end users, both as a consumer and as a member of enterprise working groups. The latter includes identifying new responsibilities for enterprise communications management to support changing operational usage needs most cost-effectively.

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