Contact Center Convergence

Call it the great contact-center convergence. CRM software vendor Kana released results from a study today on customer usage of telephone, Web self-service and email. The key finding: Web self-service is on the rise but still has a way to go before unseating telephones as the main method of communication at contact centers. Web-based customer support, which includes Web self-service, email and online chat, first broke onto the scene in early 2000, says Bud Michael, executive vice president of products and marketing at Kana. Since then, customer usage of the medium has risen dramatically, especially in financial services, retail and healthcare. "Today, the mantra is don't sell something over the Web if you can't support it over the Web," Michael says, adding, "Phone usage at contact centers [will] become less than 50 percent of interactions by 2005." The reason is that Web self-service, in particular, is becoming the fastest way customers can get questions answered. But is the customer or lower costs driving this market? The cost per customer telephone call can reach into tens of dollars, whereas Web self-service are mere pennies. "To be honest, we're doing everything we can to get people to find answers online," says a manager of a customer support group for a major telecommunications company, speaking on condition of anonymity. Finding a customer-service telephone number on her site is nearly impossible, she admits. Beth Devin, senior vice president of integrated client technology at Charles Schwab, also wants to reduce the number of telephone calls. Charles Schwab is using CRM software from Siebel to gain a better view of customers. The hope is to find out which investors are serious and which ones are not, and then allocating resources accordingly. As Devin puts it, non-serious investors tend to "talk up a storm. We're subsidizing them and losing money." Sound familiar? In the early days of America Online, searching for a customer-service telephone number was frustrating -- not to mention that Web self-service was rudimentary at best. Clearly, many vendors are pushing customers to Web and email, in order to cut down on expensive telephone calls. On the other hand, Kana claims customers wanting speed and simplicity are starting to use the Web on their own accord to solve their problems. And the financial services industry is on the cusp of this trend. Nearly 50 percent of the financial services respondents in the study said they would prefer to communicate with an organization via Web self-service. Thirty-five percent reported that they already use Web-based technology. All tallied, Web based interactions now represent more than half of all communications between customers and companies, relating to customer care in the financial services industry, according to Kana. Of course, this means the other half is largely still telephone-based. Apparently, many customers prefer talking to 'live' people about their financial accounts. Or they feel a telephone call is the fastest way to solve their problems. Contact-center convergence though, plays a major role in telephone interactions. Today's customer-service professional may be armed with real-time information about a particular customer's history. Why? In the financial services industry, customers demand contact-center representatives to be highly educated in the specifics of their account, answer questions on-the-fly and respond to needs quickly, regardless of the contact medium, reported Kana. Even in the finanical industry, "telephones aren't going away," says Michael. "But looking at customer preference -- telephone verses Web -- is the wrong approach." With customer service, it's all about getting questions answered quickly, and thus companies should look at which questions fit better in a Web medium than telephone. In the end, "Web self-service is faster and more accurate when it's done right," he says. Tom Kaneshige also writes for
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