Sound like the future? It's not. The technology to tie the Web to call centers is here today, from companies like eFusion, Beaverton, Ore.; MCI, Washington; and PakNetX in Salem, N.H. And not only will call center agents be able to talk to you live, they'll also be able to see the same Web pages you're looking at and to display pages on your screen--even if you only have one phone line.
But while the technology to do live call center support over the Web is available, and surprisingly easy to implement, only a few companies have taken advantage of it so far--perhaps 5%, says Paul Stockford, an analyst with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market research firm Cahners In-Stat. (Like PlugIn Datamation, In-Stat is part of Cahners Business Information.) Many companies, however, are taking other, simpler approaches to linking their call centers with the Web, including answering questions by e-mail, and shifting an increasing number of calls away from the phone lines and onto the Web by letting customers take care of routine business themselves on line.
Self service in a bull market
Financial services firms are at the forefront of the movement to integrate call centers with the Internet. Banks like Crestar Financial of Richmond, Va., BankBoston, insurance companies like Geico of Chevy Chase, Md. and securities firms such as Strong Funds of Menomonee Falls, Wis. and San Francisco-based Charles Schwab have found three benefits to call center/Web integration. It not only reduces reduces customer support costs and improves customer service, but it can also increase revenue.
Officials at BankBoston, Geico, Strong, and Schwab say there's a significant increase in business from the combination, according to an article in the May issue of Financial Service ONLINE. Bank Boston reports that 50% to 60% of customers that use its Web site and the call button open a new account, the article noted. Geico reported a 100% increase in the probability of closing a sale when an agent can talk to a Web site visitor. Strong found that Web visitors who contacted a sales rep were twice as likely to make a purchase as those who just toured the site.
Stock brokerage Charles Schwab, for example, has been moving toward increasing customer self service on the Web for several years. Schwab began offering stock trading over the Internet in late 1996. Today, less than a year and a half later, nearly half of Schwab's stock trades are executed over the Web, up from 28% in the first quarter of 1997. Nearly 1.5 million of the company's 5 million customers now regularly use its Web page to check their account balances, get quotes, or trade stocks.
To call center managers who are in a constant battle to reduce costs, customer self service--whether it's over the Web or through telephone-based integrated voice response (IVR) systems--makes immediate sense. Call centers' biggest expense is personnel, and the fewer calls that come in, the fewer agents are needed to answer the phones. "We save money with the Web because there are no people involved," says Ron Tenbush, director of information services at Harte Hanks, an Austin, Texas, firm that runs inbound and outbound call centers for some 100 companies.
This is particularly true for companies like Schwab, where highly skilled call center workers command a high rate of pay. All of Schwab's call center agents are certified stockbrokers, whose starting salaries can be $30,000 to $40,000 a year or more. The more of these broker's functions that can be shifted onto the Web, the bigger the payback.
While Schwab won't reveal details of how much it costs to process a stock trade over the Internet, when customers use Web-based self service it's "inherently cheaper" than spending time on the phone with a broker, says Schwab spokesperson Tom Taggart. This allows Schwab to charge customers 20% less for stock trades executed over the Web. And relieving Schwab's brokers of routine matters like providing stock quotes frees them up to spend more time with customers on more complicated issues.
There are also many people who would simply rather take care of routine transactions themselves over the Web, says Harte Hanks' Tenbush. Harte Hanks found itself pushed toward the Web by its customers: "We saw our (800)-number volume begin to flatten out, while our Web volume was continually increasing," Tenbush says. The company currently does about 40% of its business via the Web, and Harte Hanks expects that percentage to double in the next year.
Starting with e-mail
When Web surfers who are checking their account balances or doing some shopping on the Web have a question, their first instinct is often to fire off an inquiry via e-mail. The result, says David Cooperstein, an analyst with Forrester Research, is many companies are now "grappling with how to manage customer e-mail."
Many companies are moving to more sophisticated ways of handling incoming e-mail, often starting simply by asking the customer to use a form on the Web page to send e-mail. This can ensure the e-mail includes the customer's name and other relevant information.
Software vendors are beginning to provide tools that can be used to automate e-mail routing, says Cooperstein. These include search engines that can handle natural language, such as CasePoint Server from Inference in Novato, Calif., and ConText Server from Oracle in Redwood Shores, Calif.
There are also automated call distributors (ACDs) specifically designed for e-mail, such as Customer Messaging System from Kana Communications in Palo Alto, Calif. and Internet Message Center from Mustang Software Inc., Bakersfield, Calif. These tools could allow a bank, for example, to take an e-mail message from a customer, "determine whether it is from a private banking or small-business customer, ascertain if the loan is auto or home equity, and send it to the agent best able to handle the message," says Cooperstein.
Tools that put e-mail and phone calls in the same queue are not far over the horizon. Since e-mail does not have to be answered in real time, it allows for flexible scheduling. E-mail can be assigned to call center agents to handle at times when call volume is low.
But companies thinking about combining e-mail and voice calls have to consider another issue: people. Communicating in writing with a customer on the Web requires a different set of skills than those required to field a telephone call. To take on e-mail in a call center, you need call center agents "who can type reasonably well, who understand punctuation, and who know how to put a sentence together," says In-Stat analyst Stockford. This may require better educated or better trained call center agents--who probably will cost more to hire or to train.
When e-mail is not fast enough
Vendors such as Contact Dynamics, Chicago, are now offering software that allows companies to offer a live "text chat" option on their Web page, where a customer can type back and forth with a customer service representative, and get questions answered in real time.
And a growing number of vendors, including AnswerSoft, Richardson, Texas, and WhiteCap, Wakefield, Mass., are offering technology that allows Web surfers to click on a button that says "call me," type in their phone number, and have a call center agent call them back. AnswerSoft's Six Sense Web product searches the company's databases for information on the customer, which it then displays on the call center agent's screen using HTML. It will also let an agent mirror a customer's Web activity in real time, and "push" a Web page onto the customer's screen.
The combination of a live phone call and shared visual communication over the Web--what Forrester Research calls "TeleWeb"--offers enormous possibilities. A call center agent, for example, can say, "Let me show you a picture of what I'm talking about," and push a Web page onto a user's screen, creating a virtual showroom. While this can be used for technical support or retail sales, the greatest potential, say analysts, lies in upselling big-ticket items like cars and homes, and financial transactions such as mortgages and credit cards.
The callback approach works fine if there are two phone lines. But now vendors such as eFusion, MCI, and PakNetX are providing the same service for customers who only have one phone line, routing the voice call over the same IP connection that the customer is using to surf the Web. Although Internet telephony can have irritating delays, says In-Stat's Stockford, they are much less noticeable when you're occupied looking at the screen while talking to an agent. The lag in voice transmission, he says, is far outweighed by the convenience of being able to talk to an agent live, and having him or her walk you through the Web site.
So far only a few companies have implemented live phone connections over the Web, but analysts believe that widespread adoption is not far off (see sidebar, "Call centers and the Internet"). "The interest level is exceptionally high," says Stockford.
Surprisingly, adding a Web component to an existing call center is not a technically overwhelming project, according to Stockford. In fact, he says, it may be "one of the easier things call center managers have had to face in the last few years."
The process can be a fairly rapid one. Harte Hanks, for example, which provides call center and telemarketing services for some 100 companies, had a prototype up and running in two weeks and was in production within a month using AnswerSoft's Sixth Sense Web product.
The biggest technology issues right now, says In-Stat's Stockford, are not so much implementation questions, but management issues. Call center managers, for instance, are used to tracking phone calls down to the second and knowing exactly how many times their phone lines light up each month. But once you start mixing e-mail or live interaction over the Web in the same queue as traditional voice calls, Stockford warns, you risk losing a lot of the management functionality from the call center management reporting tools.
While vendors are moving rapidly to provide the necessary management tools, compre- hensive systems that can handle customer contacts-- no matter how they arrive --are still in the future. PakNetX, for example, offers an ACD for Web calls that handles voice, data, and video--but it doesn't handle calls that come in the old-fashioned way, over telephone lines. And eFusion, whose software can handle both phone and Web calls, either by routing everything through the phone switch or by logging call statistics in an ODBC-compliant database, is not set up for e-mail.
Team work builds bridges between departments
Linking call centers with the Web can bring together groups within an organization who may never have worked closely together before. "This may be the first time that the IT manager, the call center manager, the telecom manager, and the marketing manager have all sat down at the same table together," says Ken Pawlak, director of market development for eFusion.
In most organizations, the project seems to generate lots of enthusiasm. Most of the time, the new collaboration works out well. Occasionally, however, some managers can get nervous about their role in a project that crosses so many departmental lines. Manny Tayas, product manager at vendor WhiteCap, recalls meetings where you could "feel the tension in the room," with telecom managers, for example, wondering if calls coming in over the Web were going to overload their phone switch.
The key to making this new type of collaboration work is good communication. Companies that have been through the process suggest putting a manager in charge of the project who will make sure that everyone involved is kept up to date on progress and problems.
All sorts of possibilities
Ultimately, say In-Stat's Stockford and other analysts, call centers will have to handle customer calls regardless of how they arrive. Customers may start their relationship with a company by browsing that company's Web page and then connecting live with a company representative over the Web. That may be followed later by an e-mail message, a call to the company's (800) number--or even a letter in an envelope with an old-fashioned stamp on it.
To succeed, the call center of the future will have to tie all these different options together in one seamless customer service environment. If it can do that, it will open up all sorts of possibilities for building enduring relationships with customers. //
Dan Orzech is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in technology. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and many computer industry publications.