The Web Meets the Call Center

The e-commerce explosion is forcing companies to make a Web customer's experience as easy as using the phone.

Corporations have invested millions of dollars to make the call center the ultimate vehicle of customer service. But now customers are beginning to demand that same level of service over the Web.

"The call center is really the nerve center of a corporation's customer relationships. And now we're seeing the tele-based organization become a clearinghouse for new Web-based marketing campaigns," says Jay Gauthier, executive vice president of Boston-based Berkeley Enterprise Partners Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in call centers and customer relationship management (CRM) application integration. "As a result, the call center will need to manage Web-based collaboration, chat and large screens of e-mail."

Analysts predict it will take about 18 months before most corporate call centers will be able to support Web-based presales and postsales help.

"In the early days of electronic customer interactions, everyone focused on the phone, with maybe a handful of people to get to e-mail when they could. We're getting past that," says Patrick Bultema, president of Monument, Colo.-based Bultema Co., a consultancy that specializes in CRM strategies. "Now, merchants must put as much emphasis on electronic media interaction as they do on the phone."

Not only is this shift imminent, but it will also overturn existing customer relationship processes, change the overall culture of the call center, stretch the call center staff's capabilities and require an entirely new approach to training call center agents.

"There's a real push in call centers to handle customer inquiries the way the customer wants to respond," says Jim Dickie, a managing partner at Insight Technology Group (ITG), a CRM project benchmarking company in Boulder, Colo. "We think the trend will be to couple sales force automation, e-business and call center systems together."

In the Web Game

Internet superstore Buy.com Inc. has integrated live agent chat on its Web site.

Information technology project leaders will find that it won't be easy to build a system that ties the shopper's current Web experience into the phone system and back-office systems for customer history. Today's software offerings are, at best, fragmented, say analysts. There is no single product that will link the Web shopper — and the shopper's current Web activity — to customer history and then connect it all to a live call center agent at both the phone and browser levels.

Electronic businesses are having trouble marrying all the data and applications, say analysts. For that reason, few electronic businesses (a little less than 30%, according to an ITG study) have successfully integrated their call centers with the Web.

One of the few trailblazers in this area is Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose. Cisco offers more than one online live customer help feature, including live chat and e-mail. But the most advanced application is its telephone button. When customers click the button, they — and the Web page they're on — connect directly to a Cisco call center agent over the phone.

"When we pick up the call, our screen will pop up (and tell us) what the customer's seeing at that point," says Theresa Volney-Wilkinson, manager of Cisco's customer response center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "Now we're speaking to that customer, we can see right where that customer is, and we can take over their browser and guide them to where they want to go."

With this interactive application, the customer doesn't need to explain the situation repeatedly. And the agent can even fill out forms for the customer, using history data already in the system.

The Cisco team began by analyzing its customer service response workflow, such as keystrokes, screen shots and agent actions. It discovered myriad inefficiencies — agents moving through a variety of applications, screens and even other machines — that needed re-engineering before the new application could be built.

The chief reason such projects fail is that IT teams forget this vital first step, according to Gauthier.

Step 1 at SafeCo: Re-engineering

SafeCo Property and Casualty Insurance Cos. in Seattle recently completed a similar evaluation of its workflow processes. As a result, SafeCo is consolidating its 28 call centers into four centers with common processes, so that the company can beef up its Web-based customer service offerings.

"Even before we get these technologies, we have to overhaul our call center processes to achieve consistency," says Jeffrey Ward, who is responsible for organizational design, workflow and training for SafeCo's call center initiative. "We're also mapping out the business processes to see who all our players are — the insured, the customer service rep, the claims department, even our auto body shops. We're also looking at all of our forms, papers and e-forms to understand how the new technologies will influence them."

The ultimate goal is to prepare each call center to handle policy and billing questions from insurance agents, customers and claims agents, from a variety of mediums.

"We want one-contact center experience for all our customers, regardless of where the call is routed from," Ward says. "This will require us to take a very comprehensive look at all our training materials. We need to identify gaps, analyze them, fill in the gaps and do some redesigning of these processes."

The group has determined that the entire call center process needs regular quality assurance reviews and customer feedback, which could also be handled over the Web.

Step 2: Building Technical Infrastructure

The next hurdle SafeCo must face: building a comprehensive end-to-end system like Cisco's. Much of this work must be done by manually coding links from the Web-based customer service applications to the call center and back-end systems that store customer history.

SafeCo has begun by restructuring its architecture with currently available technologies:

  • Computer/telephone integration tools are being used to marry computer-based systems to data received over phone lines and to present that information to a call center agent before he answers the phone.

  • Interactive voice response technology sends voice data from the phone to the back-office systems and helps route customers to the right representative.

  • A desktop application from Clarify Inc. integrates business-specific applications with customer information files.

"This gives us a base to build on," says Tammy Bare, SafeCo's contact center project manager. "In the future, we want to look into chat, voice over IP and other Web service models. But because of everything else we're introducing, we're looking at implementing such technology in the next 12 to 18 months."

SafeCo has two main reasons for building a Web-based customer service system. First, the company agrees with analysts' assessments that customers will soon demand Web-based services. And second, SafeCo sees automated routing of Web-based queries as ultimately more efficient.

"Right now, we're screen-scraping data off the Web and dropping it into an e-mail format, which goes into an e-mail box for which we promise a 24-hour response," Bare says. "The reps check the Web box between calls. But with the Clarify product we're introducing, some of the manual aspect of this will change. It will take these queries directly off the Web and put it into peoples' work queues."

Step 3: Training

When SafeCo rolls out its Web customer service applications, the next step will be to address the cultural-change issues among call center staffers themselves — something Ward is already bracing for. "We're looking at pretty much everything — negotiation, customer management skills," he explains. "We know some of our call center staffers are very good technically, but they'll need to beef up their interpersonal skills, and vice versa."

Several other cultural and training issues will also arise, Bultema adds. The call center will need to focus less on efficiency and more on the customer's experience. The application must be easy to use, with attractive options, and be strongly personalized, he says. And service agents must be able to close the loop so customers don't end up stranded somewhere in the system.

"Customer service agents and managers are threatened by all this technology, but it's really just an awkward transition," Bultema says. "They just have to prepare to interact in a different role."

At Cisco, the payoff is the customer's response when a call center agent answers the phone correctly, says Rhonda Lowe, a customer service associate.

"Whenever a customer uses this application for the first time and I answer the phone, 'Thank you for calling Cisco. How are you today, Mike?' they say, 'Wow! How do you know my name?' " she says with a chuckle. "Not only do we already have their name, we have their contact information and their question. It's a great 'wow' value."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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