A Reality Check for the Call Center

No matter how advanced your online transaction systems may be, most customers still deal with your company through a technology that hasn't changed much in a century: the telephone. In practice, putting a customer service representative (CSR) between your company and your customer can create a barrier to the effective transfer of knowledge. Most support scenarios go something like this: Customers phone a call center, wait on hold, and when a live human finally picks up the phone, that person just looks up the requested information in a database. This process wastes everyone's time and typically leaves customers with negative feelings, even if they get the answers they seek.

Wouldn't it be better to remove the CSR from the equation and allow the customer direct access to the database? Instead of answering mundane queries such as whether a product is in stock or what colors a shirt comes in, your CSRs would be free to deal with more complex problems that truly require personal intervention. This alternative becomes real when customers can use the phones they are already holding to query the database themselves.

Another, perhaps even more annoying problem commonly occurs when the customer orders a product from your Web storefront and later calls customer service to find out why the order hasn't shipped. The relevant information isn't in the database the CSR consults, and e-commerce fails because the necessary knowledge transfer hasn't occurred.

Modern commercial enterprises must avoid the silo effect that results when information in one system is not updated in another. One way to avoid this lapse is to adopt a multichannel delivery strategy that features a portal. Portal technology can aggregate information and provide a unified view of your enterprise no matter how customers come into it. Portals accept information from sources including customer-facing Web storefronts and back-end accounting systems and categorize it according to a company's business rules. They translate the information into a common format based on standard Web markup languages. These online standards also are keys to integrating offline systems.

Once your IT systems are in sync, you'll want a friendly way for your customers to access them. Voice is still the way most people prefer to conduct business transactions, and a two-year-old technology developed by Motorola Inc. called Voice Markup Language (VoxML) is emerging now to allow telephone users to talk to Web sites. VoxML provides a common approach and platform not tied to any single technology vendor. It is based on eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and follows XML's syntactic rules, adding grammar that supports the creation of interactive speech applications. An updated version of the specification called VoiceXML has gained support from 500 technology vendors.

Say hello
When speech recognition and speech synthesis engines are embedded in your portal, customers can call your support database from a phone. On the back end, a gateway mediates between the public telephone network and the Internet. The customer literally talks to the database using a voice browser that resides on your server.

Technology vendors have striven to provide access to databases through Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) browsers, but these products have failed because they ignore the ergonomics of the telephone. Accessing textual content on a small phone display is difficult at best and intolerable at worst. Instead, VoxML is gaining acceptance in consumer voice portals using software from Tellme Networks Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., and BeVocal Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., because they use the phone's native interface to provide structured access.

The return on investment from staff reductions in call centers is tangible, and competitive advantage in the form of satisfaction and brand loyalty will follow when customers dial directly into your business.

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