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Customer Interaction In An E-Commerce World

The Internet is changing how business does business by introducing entirely new channels for completing transactions and providing customer care. Web-based electronic commerce (e-com) has already enabled new competitors such as Amazon.com and eTrade to capture market share in the retail and financial services industries, and the travel business also has seen new, web-based alternatives appear.

The business impact of e-com is simple but profound: It helps lower cost structures while offering the potential for superior access and services to global markets. It is also revolutionizing customer care by offering a visual, interactive medium for finding information and solving problems.

As web-based e-com and customer service continue to grow, the whole dynamic of customer interaction changes, as do the kinds of assistance and support customers require, and expect, from the firms they do business with.

The most obvious example of this is the tidal wave of e-mail, companies now receive via their web sites.

This flood of e-mail is a symptom of a larger issue: Simply put, given the chance, customers who use the web are ready to interact. But many businesses have been caught off guard by the overwhelming response to one line of code that appears on their web pages - mailto:customer_service@acme.com. It is extraordinarily easy to enable customers to send e-mail from a web site but much more difficult to handle the messages when they arrive.

Step 0: Get Your Facts Straight - The Data Repository
An important element of electronic business is the data repository, the warehouse that stores key enterprise information about customers and products.

It is the source of meaningful content that agents working within an Internet Call Center (ICC) will rely on. Without a sound foundation consistent, timely and meaningful data even the most elaborate customer interaction scheme will not succeed.

Storing data in a central repository makes it possible to offer consistent information to customers across every communication channel, including the web, integrated voice response (IVR) and ICC agent terminals. For example, if a customer orders a product over the web and then phones the call center to check the status of that order, the agent will be able to provide an accurate, up-to-date report on the progress of the order.

The data repository can be spread across disparate data sources, including legacy hosts and relational databases. Through careful planning and execution, these data sources can be presented to customers and ICC agents as a seamless, integrated information resource. Web-to-database and data mining technologies can help accomplish this.

Step 1: Self-Service Helping Customers Help Themselves
E-com and web-based customer-care applications are broadening at a dramatic pace. Retailers are having great success selling everything from books to CDs to flowers and clothing over the web. On-line brokerages are gaining market share by offering powerful research tools for individual investors, while also giving them deep discounts on trades. Many industries are seeing customers shift to the web as their preferred channel for product inquiries, purchases and support.

The de facto expectation among web citizens is that they'll essentially help themselves. But enabling effective "self-help" goes beyond providing simple FAQ (Frequently Asked Question) lists. Intelligent search engines should be employed to provide context-sensitive information to customers based on:

  • Where they are on the site.
  • Their account profiles.
  • Their buying histories.
  • New applicable market offerings.

Images, voice, screen cams, animation and video clips can add tremendous value to textual information. Some vendors offer application-development tools to help corporations implement effective, dynamic web experiences for their customers. Alternatively, system integrators and service providers can develop and host complex web sites.

When implemented properly, a self-help experience reduces the requirement for direct person-to-person interaction. Since the web exposes a business to a huge population of consumers, it would be inadvisable to place a "call-me" button on every page of a web site. The call center would be swamped with calls, and no one neither the caller nor the call center staff would get much out of the experience. By optimizing the web presence around the principal of "self help," the Internet Call Center can focus its human resources on helping customers with unique problems and on interacting with "high-margin" customers.

Another important implication of a self-help orientation is that customers will be roaming around your web site. There is technology click-stream tracking that monitors and records a customer's movement around the web site, and the click stream tracking server can be programmed to identify and target specific customers for human interaction. This selection can be based on:

  • Customer information in the data repository.
  • The path the customer followed through the web site hierarchy.
  • The price of the products currently sitting in the customer's "shopping basket".
  • The amount of time the customer has spent on a specific page.

Click-stream-tracking technology has exciting possibilities, but it must be implemented with care: Deployment must be done in a way that eliminates the possibility of a customer perceiving that he or she is being spied on.

Step 2: When Self-Help's Not Enough Human Interaction
While the number of customers who use self-help services continues to grow, self-help doesn't work for everyone all the time. Essentially, there are two forms of human interaction, real-time and non-real-time. Both play important roles.

For example, a click-stream-tracking server might identify a customer as "high margin" by looking up his or her buying history in the data repository. To "close the deal," this customer would be offered real time interaction with a "call-me" button. Conversely, a low-margin customer might be offered non-real-time interaction via a web form or e-mail button. This customer is still important, but the inquiry can be handled at a lower priority during traffic lulls.

Real-Time Interaction: Real-time interaction can take many forms, ranging from simple text chat to video. "Click-to-talk" buttons enable a customer to request immediate interaction. From focus group studies we know that customers expect immediate response from a knowledgeable representatives who understands the customer's prior interaction on the web site. The technologies for real-time interaction are summarized below.

  • Circuit-Switched Callbacks: Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) technology enables sophisticated processing of customer requests for call backs to an available phone line. Software on the web site communicates with a telephony-application server to identify an agent who is both available and skilled in the subject about which the customer inquired. Having found this agent, the telephony-application server can then send a message to a PBX or carrier switch to launch the callback to the customer.
  • Voice-over-IP Gateway: Most people who surf the web from home are likely to be using the only phone line they've got. If the customer's PC is equipped with an Internet phone that accepts Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls, he or she can receive a callback while still being connected to the Internet.

There are many variations on this. In some applications the Internet call is placed from the customer's PC immediately, and the call is terminated on a gateway. The gateway converts the VoIP call into a circuit-switched call and routes it to a traditional PBX- or Central Office-based call center where it is queued for an agent. These are known as PC-to-phone calls because the call originates from the customer's PC and is terminated on the agent's telephone set.

H.323 is an accepted standard for Internet telephony that has been implemented and widely deployed in Internet phone applications such as Microsoft's NetMeeting.

VoIP Internet ACD: Another option is to keep the customer's VoIP call in the "packet" domain by delivering it to an Internet phone on the ICC agent's PC. The advantage of these "PC-to-PC" calls is that they allow for more elegant coordination between the voice connection and the data session.

The current standards and endpoints (Internet phones) do not adequately support important call-control features such as Hold, Supervised Transfer, Conference and Observe. These and other VoIP issues are the focus of significant research and development.

There is little doubt that call centres are evolving toward "blended" architectures, in which circuit switched and VoIP calls are managed centrally. This will be accomplished by taking call routing and reporting functionality out of the media device (e.g., switch, gateway, router) and moving them into a centralized call center server. This server will be media-independent and network-agnosticthat is, it can be used for implementing business rules and it can be used for implementing business rules and routing logic for all types of calls. It will also provide a consolidated management system so call center managers can have a single interface for real-time and historical reporting.

Real-Time Text Chat: There is a growing segment of the population the "AOL generation" that grew up with virtual communities and chat forums. These people are comfortable with real-time chat and know how to use it effectively, and they are the ICC customers and agents of the future. Real-time text customer service in many cases, a targeted and instantaneous response to a simple question will satisfy a customer. The software that executes on the customer's desktop is typically "light weight" it is a small "executable" with fast performance.

Visual Collaboration: While the term "visual collaboration" includes video, it isn't restricted to it. Visual collaboration features include agent-led web application demos and application sharing.

These features can significantly enhance real-time text and voice interactions, and they enable an ICC agent to dynamically send relevant content to the customer. For example, an agent might push a promotional web page as a "deal closer' or do a split screen comparison of his or her company's product with that of a competitor.

Collaboration server usually include reporting features that log details about the customer/agent interactions from cradle to grave, which is also useful for agent training and identifying web site improvements.

Most visual collaboration servers require that "executables" that is, previously installed applications, dynamically loaded Java applets or ActiveX controls be running on customers' PCs. These are required to create "connections" to the visual collaboration server.

The connections use proprietary protocols to keep the servers notified of the customer's state and to accept commands from the server to display specific content in the customer's browser. This combination of communication protocols and state machines is required to create "sessions" over the Internet. However, since these protocols are proprietary, they have difficulty penetrating firewalls, and IP translation in proxy servers can also inhibit some collaboration features. Vendors are solving the firewall and proxy server issues by using a technique called "HTTP encapsulation."

High-Speed Access: The response times or "throughput" of visual collaboration servers will be constrained by the bandwidth of the subscriber's access line. This is particularly noticeable when attempting to communicate using VoIP and simultaneously pushing pages over a single 28.8-kbps line. However, new access technologies are currently moving into commercial deployments. These include Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), 1-Mbps Modems and cable modems, and they'll help take web-based collaboration and e-com to a new level.

Non-Real-Time (a.k.a "Asynchronous") Interaction: The technologies for non-real-time interaction voice messaging, e-mail and fax may not have the "sizzle" of VoIP or visual collaboration, but they're familiar, everyday parts of our lives.

Customers who are accustomed to the non-real-time nature of e-mail are likely to submit requests 24 hours a day.

The arrival rate of these requests in the call center may be very sporadic. Budget and headcount restrictions will require that call centers process web requests throughout the day, rather than immediately, in real-time. This will enable call center managers to spread agent work volume across the entire workday and to fill the lulls of inbound calling activity. Two methods of non-real-time interaction are described below.

Email Response: Many products have emerged to deal with the deluge of customer e-mail messages originating from web sites. Auto-response servers use artificial intelligence to formulate responses automatically, while other systems route e-mail based on agent skills and provide response "templates" to reduce the agent's handling time.

E-mail response systems also provide reporting tools that are critical for call center managers to measure the performance of their operation and their agents.

E-mail response systems offer an immediate solution to cope with a high volume of e-mail in the call center. However, over time, business will offer a more sophisticated form of asynchronous interaction than e-mail Web Messaging.

Web Messaging: offers a rich user interface using HTML and browser technology. Customers can post inquiries (publicly or privately and then either return on their own to the web site to pick up the response or be contacted by the ICC—via e-mail, voice call or pager.

The technology building blocks for Web Messaging are readily available. Call centers servers will route inquiries to the appropriate agents, and desktops tools will help agents assemble multimedia responses text, images, screen shots, hypertext links, streaming audio and video clips. These interactions must be carefully tracked to completion, taking into account that customers may ask for additional information and that multiple agents may be required because of schedule and skill constraints.

For both real-time and non real-time interaction, the user interface will be the critical determiner of a customer's satisfaction. The user interface must be intuitive, efficient and fast. Customers will not tolerate confusing graphics, cryptic instructions or long delays. Conversely, positive first experiences will bring customers back and encourage them to "push the button" the next time they need service.

In some scenarios, the customer and agent may conduct a single transaction that requires multiple interactions across multiple communication channels—for example, web, phone and e-mail. Managing these transactions requires that they be "threaded" that is, some common information element, such as a transaction identifier, must tie the interactions together. If the customer is to receive consistent service during the life of a transaction, ICC agents must be able to see the entire interaction thread.

Step 3: Knowledge Feedback To The Repository
When a customer's request has been satisfied, the work is still not complete. Other customers may encounter the same problem or question. Why solve the same problem over and over again? The knowledge gained should be published back into the knowledge base and made available to new customers over the web. This has several benefits:

  • Subsequent customers can help themselves, which will lower the requirement for expensive person-to-person interactions.
  • Other agents can leverage the knowledge and become more effective when responding to future customers.
  • The knowledge base keeps improving, evolving into a storehouse of the experiences of both past and present agents.

This "feedback" process updating the knowledge base can be completed by the agents as part of their wrap-up activity. Alternatively, it can be queued as follow-up work for specialized agents during traffic lulls. This is a closed-loop architecture for information processing that creates a powerful, stable information repository. The net effect is improved efficiency.

Step 4: The Magic Of Delighted Customers
The benefits of a well-designed Internet Call Center are enormous:

  • Revenues increase as you gain market share and address a large volume of customers over the web.
  • Costs decrease while profits increase because of more efficient handling of transactions and by enabling customers to help themselves.
  • Finally, customer satisfaction results in increased loyalty, which drives repeat business.

Customer satisfaction is critical, because opinions get wide distribution through discussion groups and online forums. In a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, was quoted as saying "In the physical world, if I make a customer unhappy, they'll tell five friends..... on the Internet they'll tell 5,000".

By the same token, positive "work of mouth" on the web can have an equally positive result. While the benefits from Internet Call Centers are compelling, the process of implementation will be challenging. Disparate data repositories are difficult to aggregate, and it's never easy to coordinate separate organizations and business units customer service, marketing, information technology, operations. Moreover, coping with and financing "Year 2k" projects is consuming precious resources. Given these issues, many call centers are turning to outsourcers, systems integrators and consultants to help new capabilities on line.

Electronic commerce and the web are affecting every sector of the economy. The ways in which businesses interact with their customers are transforming dramatically. The time to prepare your business for this change is now.

Information Courtesy: Nortel Networks.

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