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Interaction In An E-Commerce World
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
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.
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.
most obvious example of this is the tidal wave of e-mail,
companies now receive via their web sites.
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:firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
they are on the site.
applicable market offerings.
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.
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"
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.
path the customer followed through the web site hierarchy.
price of the products currently sitting in the customer's
amount of time the customer has spent on a specific page.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
is an accepted standard for Internet telephony that has been
implemented and widely deployed in Internet phone applications
such as Microsoft's NetMeeting.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
who are accustomed to the non-real-time nature of e-mail are
likely to submit requests 24 hours a day.
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.
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.
response systems also provide reporting tools that are critical
for call center managers to measure the performance of their
operation and their agents.
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.
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 ICCvia
e-mail, voice call or pager.
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.
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.
some scenarios, the customer and agent may conduct a single
transaction that requires multiple interactions across multiple
communication channelsfor 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.
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:
customers can help themselves, which will lower the requirement
for expensive person-to-person interactions.
agents can leverage the knowledge and become more effective
when responding to future customers.
knowledge base keeps improving, evolving into a storehouse
of the experiences of both past and present agents.
"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.
4: The Magic Of Delighted Customers
The benefits of a well-designed Internet Call Center are enormous:
increase as you gain market share and address a large
volume of customers over the web.
decrease while profits increase because of more efficient
handling of transactions and by enabling customers to
customer satisfaction results in increased loyalty, which
drives repeat business.
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".
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.
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.
Courtesy: Nortel Networks.