A Little Help From My Friends

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Until recently, help desk systems, which are integral parts of most companies' call centers, weren't linked to call tracking, customer databases and other CRM systems. That's changing, however, particularly in the high-speed world of Internet commerce.

"Customers are more sophisticated today; they have high customer service demands," says Oscar Alban, product systems consultant for Witness Systems, Atlanta, Ga. "If you don't fulfill their needs, the competition is only a click away."

"It's critical that companies have world-class support systems driving the business forward," says Pete McGarahan, chairman of Help Desk 2000, a help desk certification, education and membership organization. "It's an exciting area as support and technology become fully integrated."

Internet Help

Internet commerce is fueling burgeoning demand for help desk systems, especially with the holiday season on the way. This year, companies are trying to avoid many of the fulfillment problems that resulted in late shipments and disgruntled customers last December.

The need for Internet-linked help desk systems will intensify in the next few years, as well. Forrester Research predicts that online shopping in the U.S. alone will grow from $20 billion in 1999 to $184 billion in 2004. To support this business, e-commerce companies are expected to spend $9 billion on call centers in 2003, up from about $2 billion this year, according to Stephens, a Little Rock, Ark.-based investment banking company.

"The Internet has really created a paradigm shift in the way we communicate," says Ofer Matan, chief technology officer at Blue Pumpkin Software, Sunnyvale, Calif. "It used to be that the telephone was the preferred way. Now we have e-mail, chat and other ways of communicating to resolve the calls to the help desk." In addition to e-mail, the newest help desk systems are incorporating automated functions, Web chat, Voice-over Internet Protocol and other capabilities.

According to a recently completed survey by the Help Desk Institute, Colorado Springs, Colo., telephone requests to the help desk declined from 79 percent in 1997 to 70 percent in 1999, a trend that is expected to continue. While the Internet has shown a modest 1 percent increase, the survey says, e-mail has nearly doubled, growing from 8 percent of the requests in 1997 to 15 percent in 1999. According to Blue Pumpkin's own research, 70 to 80 percent of contact centers have e-mail capabilities.

E-mail is nearly ubiquitous in today's help desk systems because it gives customers a choice in the way they communicate with the company and can help companies leverage their help desk support staff, to say nothing of cost savings. Paul Leamon, manager of systems engineering for IEX, Richardson, Texas, notes that the cost of a typical phone call to the call center is $2 to $5 (including personnel, supplies and technology). The cost of a typical Web transaction is only 25 to 50 cents, according to Leamon.

The move to e-mail and other Web-based self-help options follows a trend that started about five years ago as interactive voice response systems became more readily available, says Troy Lynch, vice president and chief technical officer for eOn Communications, Memphis, Tenn. eOn provides a Web Center suite of software applications that operates with its Linux-based communications servers.

"The biggest changes are always ones that try to get the most efficiencies from agents," Lynch says. "But companies are trying to balance the reduction in that flow against building relationships with customers." For example, while the addition of e-mail capabilities might at first seem to provide better CRM opportunities, the potential advantage is lost if the e-mail sits in a mailbox for a day without being answered.

Need for Auto Response

That's what tends to happen today. The e-mail usually goes to a central mailbox if it is not addressed to a particular person. So it sits until someone gets time to answer it, often a day later, according to Lynch.

The way to provide better help is to provide an auto response, Lynch says. Depending on the complexity of the question, the auto response may be enough to answer the customer's question. Even if it isn't, the auto response still tells the customer that the e-mail message has indeed been received, and may also tell the customer when he may expect to receive a response. E-mail management systems with auto response capabilities enable a contact center to handle several hundred customers at a single time.

Auto response can enhance customer relationships much the way working with a live agent does, Lynch says. For example, McGarahan ordered a handful of CDs through CDNow, Ft. Washington, Pa., an online retailer of CDs and videos. Immediately after placing the order, McGarahan received an e-mail thanking him for his business. The next day, McGarahan received an e-mail telling him his order had been shipped. Five days later, McGarahan received an e-mail telling him that he should have received his order and a $5 electronic coupon for his next order.

Even though there wasn't a single interaction with a live customer service agent, "I feel I have a good relationship with the company and I feel strongly that I will order from them again," McGarahan says.

"At our own company, we have six or seven people dedicated to technical support. Ever since we put in an auto responder, our calls have gone down significantly," Lynch says of his own company's experience with the technology.

Some companies are taking the automation of help desk systems a step further. "Our solution is to provide automated help for customers so they don't need to use the traditional help desk," says Keri York, marketing director for e-Help, formerly Blue Sky software, La Jolla, Calif., which provides automated e-help product DynaHelp. "DynaHelp's natural language interface provides an intuitive answering service that stays updated with any information that is added to the Web site."

DynaHelp is one of a growing number of technologies that use extensible markup language technology to give users a more defined and accurate way to search data. XML-enabled documents use semantic markup that identifies data elements according to what they are, rather than how they should appear. As a result, many diverse applications can make use of the information in XML documents. This enables the customer to help himself without going to the help desk or without getting lost on the Web site, according to York. "People are finally realizing that the Web is complex, and they're losing potential sales because of it," York adds.

Web Chat

Another way to help the customer quickly on the Web is through Web chat. According to the Help Desk Institute survey, about 10 percent of call centers have that capability now, and another 10 percent plan to add it within the next 10 months.

Web chat can include stored responses to frequently asked questions that can be automatically sent as soon as the customer asks. This provides for quicker responses. It's also easier to implement than VoIP, which is another method to provide real-time response. VoIP systems, though improving, still have some quality problems to be solved before they are widely used.

Many applications will see a move from e-mail to live chat, predicts Cary stoler, president and chief operating officer for WebTelecom, San Ramon, Calif. "Why send an e-mail if you can have someone respond instantly?"

Web chat enables a contact center agent to handle several different real-time "conversations" simultaneously, Leamon says. While the customer is typing a response to an agent question, the agent can be typing a response to someone else's question. However, Leamon admits, not all contact center agents are capable of this type of multi-tasking. Agents with excellent voice skills may have limited written communication skills and vice versa. It is important to hire agents who are equally adept at both.

E-mail itself often leads to e-mail tag that can take three to six messages, and as much as a week or more before the help desk answers the customer's question, stoler said. With text chat, it can still take three to six exchanges between the help desk and the caller to discover the true nature of the question and the proper solution, but this is all done in one session, rather than over several calls.

WebTelecom's technology supports Web chat, co-browsing and other capabilities. Co-browsing enables either the visitor or the company representative to control Web site navigation. The representative and the visitor simultaneously view the same Web page. Either party can enter a new Web address to bring both the visitor and the company representative to a new Web page. The company representative can also navigate by clicking on the links within the Web page displayed in the browser frame.

WebTelecom's technology enables a call center agent to push pages to the user, including links to software to be downloaded from third parties (like Microsoft). This means the agent can walk the customer through the site, seeing the same screen as the customer throughout the process. The agent can easily answer questions about what is on the screen.

Advanced Voice Applications

Companies are starting to use help desk systems with enhanced automated functionality to handle voice calls, as well. Several companies have on-hold messages that indicate how long a caller will wait before speaking to a live agent. Some of these firms, like Earthlink, the nation's second-largest ISP behind AOL, also report the average wait time on their Web sites.

Customers don't want to spend too long on hold, but they also don't want to hang up and call back later because they could still have to wait, perhaps for a longer time. So a help desk system that's quickly coming into vogue is one that enables the customer to send an e-mail requesting a return phone call, which puts the customer's request into the work queue without anchoring him to a telephone or a computer screen waiting for a response.

However, though systems are becoming more integrated, customers may receive different levels of support depending on the type of communications channel they use--telephone, fax or Internet. Part of the problem is the underlying differences in the technologies, according to Robert Thronson, vice president of marketing and business development for Telera, Campbell, Calif. The public switched telephone network doesn't support as many different capabilities as the Internet. So Telera provides an Internet central office that uses HTML and XML technologies designed to provide customers with the same level of support, regardless of how they communicate with the help desk.

Speech Recognition

Another advanced voice application that is part of many new help desk systems is speech recognition, which sharply reduces the need for the user to go through a complex, multi-layered phone menu to connect with the proper person or to access information. Less than 10 percent of call centers have this capability now, but nearly 20 percent plan to add it within the next year. The technology is convenient for customers while giving companies a way to add fee-generating services, according to Kevin Dunne, speech technology specialist for Nortel Networks, Toronto, Canada.

Financial institutions, for example, can use advanced speech recognition to enable customers to receive stock quotes, trading information, account information and insurance policy inquiries automatically in addition to paying bills and making insurance claims, Dunne says. The Schwab brokerage firm, for example, provides more than 15,000 items via advanced voice recognition. The company said it cut calls to its agents by 50 percent, and the system paid for itself in 10 months. A speech recognition system for package tracking helped UPS cut costs per call by $2, with the system paying for itself in four months, Dunne adds.

Difficult Balance

Providing customer service is becoming increasingly complicated as the technology becomes more complex. "The optimal enterprise resource for the customer must be applied in every interaction. Let the users choose the channel with no barriers in between," says Murray Bookman, manager of engagement services for Cisco System's Internet communications software group, San Jose, Calif.

The problem with some of the new technologies is that they are incompatible with other technology platforms, so there is limited operability between business functions, leading to inefficient business processes, Bookman adds. The help desk system of the future needs to blend technology and people, Bookman says.

"Adding the Web makes voice-based interactions more efficient and effective. Adding people makes e-commerce and e-service more effective and distinctive," Bookman says.

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