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Stepping Off the Curb with Internet Technology
Don't let uncertainty over the array of new technologies sway you from improving your customer care.
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Having a variety of technological options can be a blessing or a curse. Call center managers, hoping to transform their workplaces into customer interaction centers, can be overwhelmed by choices and fearful of implementing the wrong solution at the wrong time. Some may elect to do nothing- like refusing to step off the curb for fear of being hit by a bus. Or, they may try to implement too many different technologies at once, overwhelming their agents and customers.

Why the pressure to adopt new technologies? Both dot com and brick-and-mortar companies entering the e-commerce space need new ways to differentiate themselves from the competition in order to succeed. Since the Internet has dissolved geographic advantages, you can't get away with providing mediocre (or worse!) customer care because you are the only game in town-competitors are only a mouse click away.

Many new technologies can help improve customer satisfaction and retention. However, it's difficult for call center managers to determine which technologies are appropriate for their center now and which may be appropriate in the future.

Take it Slow
Although it's important to assess a technology and estimate its business impact, you needn't be a computer engineer to make an informed choice. You don't need to adopt every new technology at the same time-in fact, it is better to implement one feature at a time, reducing the stress on agents and enabling a better measurement of results.

Most new features have little demonstrable data to prove how well they work. This can be unnerving for an industry that is dependent on average handle times, numbers of calls, upsell percentages and other data. Another good reason to test one solution at a time: If you implement four new initiatives and productivity goes down, it's very difficult to determine which feature is the culprit.

There are five technologies that provide service interaction with Internet customers:

  • 800 number
  • e-mail
  • voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
  • text chat
  • call back

The 800 number that is provided on the Web site is probably the least threatening to implement. Agents are used to handling 800-number calls, and consumers are used to making them. Unfortunately, it's also unwieldy and inefficient. Most consumers only have one phone line, forcing them to log off the Internet to make the call. The agent has to ask for customer data that might already have been available on the Web site. All in all, this is not the best way to provide state-of-the-art customer care for consumer-to-business transactions.

E-mail contact is also ubiquitous, with nearly every Web site including a "Contact Us" button. As with an 800 number, e-mail is a technology that the customer is familiar with, but it cannot provide instant contact. In worst-case scenarios, the customer could spend days, even weeks, waiting for a response. This gives him plenty of time to contact a competitor whose site may offer more immediate ways of getting the information.

VoIP is good in theory, but in practice it's cumbersome. Because it relies on existing Internet connectivity, its performance is constrained by bandwidth. When the Internet gets backed up, VoIP slows down and packets get lost, which causes the sound to break up. The poor quality transmission forces agents and customers to repeat themselves to get all the information across. When bandwidth increases, VoIP will become a viable alternative, but for now, it lacks quality and dependability.

Text chat allows immediate, two-way communication between the customer and the agent. Agents must be able to type quickly, spell accurately, and form complete sentences-all while answering customer questions. This technology is best served, of course, when the customer is also adept at those skills. Text chat has been shown to increase the average handle time markedly and entails additional training for agents to handle calls appropriately.

Call back is a robust way to communicate directly with the customer and to access customer data in real time. When a customer clicks on the "Call Me" button on the Web site, a form asks for his name and phone number and when the return call should be made. The ability to direct the timing enables customers with only one phone line to complete their online session and speak with an agent at the most convenient time. If the callback system includes computer-telephony integrations, the agent's screen displays the customer data, including the page the customer was on when the call was requested. This prevents the customer from having to repeat everything, thus reducing both handle time and customer frustration.

Take the Leap
Virtually all call centers will implement one or more of these five technologies during the next 12 months. Call back is a great place to start, because it provides state-of-the-art services with little or no risk. Agents don't need special training, and customers get the service they want when they want it. It's also easy to ascertain how the feature improves customer service-calls are monitored, documented and reported, providing the valuable feedback that savvy managers require.

To succeed in cyberspace, your company needs to provide better customer care than your competitors. This means answering questions and solving problems quickly, efficiently and in the manner the customer expects. Taking the first step is the most difficult, but it will benefit your customers, your agents and your bottom line.

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