How to Give Customers High-Touch in High-Tech Web Contact Centers

Going, going … almost gone are the low-tech days of unattended Web-based customer services, including time-consuming downloadable brochures, lengthy lists of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), E-mails to the Webmaster and come-one-and-all chat rooms.

Today’s contact-hungry American consumers are beginning to demand live and more interactive consumer contact through robust Web-based customer interaction applications such as real-time text chat, Web page push (or two-way co-browsing), instant messaging, white-boarding, E-mail response, artificial intelligence “bot” technologies, voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video. According to a recent survey by Yankelovich Partners, 63 percent of the study respondents said they wouldn’t buy over the Web until sites offer more human interaction. The loss of those customers could prove costly to e-commerce. A 1999 Datamonitor report estimates that companies selling online could have increased sales by an average of 35 percent with better customer service; Jupiter Communications predicts that companies could lose as much as $173 billion in sales over the next five years due to the lack of customer service at Internet storefronts.

By and large, most Web-based communications applications can offer customers a more consistent, real-time response, cut telephone toll charges, boost customer service representatives (CSRs) productivity, level out CSR workloads, provide more opportunities for cross-selling, improve customer satisfaction and allow for a more targeted and expanded channel access to top-level (higher value) customers and prospects.

According to a Forrester Research survey of industry-wide call center managers in October, the majority agreed that contact centers (next-generation call centers that blend phone-based contacts with Web-based interactions like e-mail, chat, and collaboration) are important to their company’s future – with 70 percent calling them “critical.” Yet despite the general corporate enthusiasm for contact centers, only one-quarter of the companies had actually implemented any Web-based contact center application. The companies cited integration as their biggest challenge and most remained hesitant to hand over control of contact center infrastructure to outsourcers.

Perhaps a great majority of the caution on implementing e-contact centers is the predictable controversy and confusion over the use of new forms of information technologies (IT). So let’s define and debunk the differences between some of the current IT options in the world of Web-based communications channels.

Channels Defined

The following is a simple breakout of the various Web-based customer interaction systems and their concepts of customer service and usage provided by the Yankee Group.

  • Queue-based E-mail response – Uses queuing and workflow to manage large volumes of inbound E-mail. CSRs author and determine the appropriate response for each or most individual inquiries. These systems are useful in responding with CSR intervention to a large volume of E-mails.
  • Chat – An online dialog between two or more people. Often used in conjunction with “push.” Chat sessions are persistent, continuing until the participants end the session. Chat can be useful when the customer/prospect is looking to engage in a dialog encompassing a series of questions. They must be willing to wait briefly while the chat session is initiated, however.
  • Instant messaging – Pop-up messages sent one at a time. Instant messaging sessions are not persistent. These are similar to E-mail except that they pop up on the screen. Instant messages provide immediate customer gratification because they appear on the screen very quickly.
  • Real-time push – The act of sending a specific Web page, form, or file to a client over the Internet. Instead of directing a customer to specific URL or Web address, the CSR can actually push a series of Web pages to them so that they don’t have to do anything. Co-browsing allows both the CSR and consumer to send (or push) a Web page.
  • White-boarding – The activity of sharing a virtual electronic white-board among people in different locations. Users write on the white-board in real time, marking up documents.
  • Voice over IP (VoIP) – Voice conversation (just like on a telephone) that takes place using IP telephony over the Internet.

The Yankee Group predicts that two groups of users will be the first to embrace Web-based interaction: Web commerce organizations and traditional call centers. Web commerce organizations will begin to embrace Web technologies so that they can grow revenues through the increased brand loyalty associated with better customer service, and traditional call centers can find a new way to trim costs and improve service. CSRs can easily juggle multiple near-synchronous communications such as text chat, increasing their throughput. Although these calls may last longer than telephone communication, the rep’s ability to handle multiple contacts outpaces the added duration – effectively reducing the number of reps required to answer a set number of calls in a given period. With 100 CSRs, a call center might reduce the salary, overhead, and computer equipment expense associated with 10 reps, saving $500,000 or more per year (exclusive of the cost of installing and running a new Web-based system), reports the Yankee Group.

Some of the current vendors in the Web-interaction space include SilkNet, eShare, Acuity,, netDialog, Aspect, Adante, Lipstream, Web Line, Cosmocom, Kana and numerous others. Energy companies should select its mode of Web-based communication (or a combination of) channels based upon the type and needs of the customers they are serving, industry and competitor customer service offerings, call volumes, information technology costs and current infrastructure, and corporate goals.

Once your company purchases a Web-based customer application for its contact center, it will need to be put to its most effective use – by forming “centralized” customer information repositories and integrating it seamlessly within your IT infrastructure.

Putting it all Together

“What we hear from our customers is the need for a unified customer repository,” said Natalie Burdick, v. p. of product management for the Gold Mine division of Colorado-based FrontRange Solutions. “Customer information comes in over the phone, the Web, HTML validation forms, e-mail, faxes and more. And because the information comes in through diverse forms, it ends up in different areas … The second problem is customer information ends up in different areas due to the recipient, as in the cases of sales inquiries going to sales and customer inquiries going to customer service, technical or an accounting division rep.”

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Customers want to know why can’t all of the information – even if it comes in through diverse means – end up in the same place? Burdick said.

In fact, the latest trend in customer call centers calls for an even further “disaggregation” of divisions and information repositories. These decentralized call centers are not new. But their use has mainly been limited to large, Web-centric firms, such as Dell Computer (nasdaq: DELL) and (nasdaq: AMZN), reports Forbes magazine, that need to route Internet, phone and fax inquiries to workers scattered around the globe and the well-funded technology providers that support them. The magazine reported that one such call center, Alpine Access, is barely “centralized” at all. While its corporate staff of 20 full-time computer network technicians work under one roof, the bulk of the company’s work force (200-350 part-time agents) work from home.

So with all of this decentralization and de-humanization of customer contact, how can companies continue to retain and recruit customers?

Giving the High-Value Customer Lip Service, Priority

One privately held company, Cupertino, Calif.-based Lipstream Networks thinks it has a high-tech (yet high-touch) answer: They’re out to give the E-customer lip service.

The company provides real-time Internet voice communication to e-businesses through its PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone Live Voice services, providing the back-end-networking infrastructure required to deliver real-time voice communication over the Web.

“Customers like the warmth of the human voice,” said Tom D’Arezzo, Lipstream director of product management. “A study showed that 90 percent of online customers want customer interaction,” he said, referring to an October 1999 Jupiter Communications study on e-commerce. The study also showed that the online shopper’s desire for human contact leaps once the purchase price exceeds $50.

To use the Lipstream service, consumers need only a 28.8 kbps or above Internet connection, speakers and a microphone. The software is an ActiveX control or Netscape plug-in that downloads in less than a minute and auto-installs on most browsers. The service fee is based either on a per-seat or per-minute basis (companies are able to purchase “buckets of minutes”) basis. Since the company’s product launch last year, it has taken on the likes of e-business giants like American Express Company, Alta Vista, Compaq, eShare, Excite, Kana, PeopleLink, ServiceWare and others as clients.

But some would argue that many costumer service techno-innovations – with time efficiency and belt-tightening objectives in mind – often serve to further alienate rather than to include a consumer.

“We’ve got this whole emphasis on moving to the Web and automated response,” said FrontRange’s Burdick. “What’s getting lost in all this is how the customer feels about it, especially customers of higher value. Are they going through the same ‘push 1,2 or 3’ millwork as everyone else?”

That’s the next issue for call centers to address, Burdick explained. Next-generation contact center applications should support customer categorization or stratification based on service-level agreements with the company. “When I call as a frequent flyer today, I have to first give them my ID, even though I only call from one of two numbers. There’s this great opportunity being missed to treat high-value customers differently. That’s the next step for technology in call centers – to make the call of real value to the caller.”

Consider this: Ninety percent of consumers choose a Web site based on its customer service offerings (Forrester Research). So if you’re not providing some form of personalized, value-added, real-time and/or attended customer service in your Web-based contact center, you may be fast on your way to losing some of your valued customers to a competitor who puts the “high-touch” in its high-tech contact center.

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