March 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

The new call center agent

The web is making consumers smarter. And so call centers need smarter agents if they are to answer customer questions intelligently.

For 11 years, Vance Brown ran high-tech call centers, first for Xerox Corp., then for Eastman Kodak Co. so he knows something about the kinds of questions that customers ask. Now he’s the chief customer officer for Ritz Interactive Inc., which operates RitzCamera.com and other sites. To him, all the surveys that show consumers using the web for product research are not just abstract reports about trends-his customer service agents have to deal with consumers who have conducted that research.

And they’re a lot different from even the business-oriented, well-informed customers that his agents dealt with at Xerox or the customers they dealt with at Kodak. “Customers have become much more knowledgeable,” he says. “They go to manufacturers’ sites, camera review sites and a plethora of other sites to do their research. By the time they get to us they’re pretty informed consumers.”

RitzCamera.com as well as other retailers that sell tech-related products are finding that the role of their call center agents is changing as a result of the information that’s available on the web. On the one hand, agents are answering more complex questions than they might have answered before. “It does require our agents to have more specific knowledge and be more educated about our products,” says Sean McLaughlin, marketing manager for Specialized Bicycles, based in Morgan Hill, Calif.

But on the other hand, they’re often dealing with customers who have made up their minds and simply need affirmation. “By the time they get to us, many have made their decisions,” Brown says. “They say, ‘This is the camera I want. This is what I want to use it for. What do you think?’”

Nearly all online consumers use the web for product research, says research/consulting firm Valentine Radford Inc., which conducts the quarterly iCustomer Observer survey of 5,000 consumers. Valentine Radford reports that 85% of online consumers use the web for product research and 73% use the web often or very often to research products they buy offline. Only 6% said they never use the web for product research. “Call center agents’ work is becoming more challenging because callers are more sophisticated and they have more complex issues,” says Anne Nickerson, president of consultants Call Center Coach.

College education

That new reality is changing the way retailers staff their call centers. For starters, agents at tech-related sites are better educated than they would have been a few years ago. “We very specifically look for college-educated agents,” says Beth Krier, director of training for Finali Corp., which provides outsourced call center services for eBags Inc. and Buy.com Inc. “As we get new clients, that’s one of the things they ask about. They tell us they have really basic reps who can’t answer basic questions.”

Tech Depot recruits at colleges for call center agents, says Bruce Martin, president of Tech Depot, , a unit of Office Depot Inc. “We don’t require a college education, but we feel these are people who have made a four-year investment in trying to make something of themselves and so they’ll do well,” he says.

But even when the reps possess a high level of general education, they still need training. And that’s another area where call centers have changed. At !nPulse Response Group Inc., the length of training that call-center agents go through has doubled since the company started eight years ago, says John Stones, founder and executive vice president of the call center outsource company based in Phoenix, Ariz. “Our buyers are becoming more informed and as a result, we have continued to improve our sales training program,” he says. !nPulse Response, formerly The Aftermarket Co., handles call center operations for web, direct-response TV marketing and other direct marketing for Bose Corp.’s direct marketing group, Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s Sears Direct division, Philips Electronics and others. “It takes 14 days now just to get them to a base level to start handling phone calls,” he says.

Tech Depot puts agents through a 16-week training program that includes such basics as how to deal with customers on the phone, product information, vendor specifications as well as advanced training such as how to write account plans for customers and how to manage an account. “It’s much different from what it was four or five years ago,” Martin says. “Then, an agent might have gotten a week’s training on how to use the system and it was off to the phones. But that’s not good enough any more.”

Even after basic training, continuing education is important, call center operators says. “Ongoing training is key,” Stones says. “We have seen that continue to develop over eight years.” !nPulse Response hosts developers of products its agents sell for frequent training and updates. “They provide the motivation and desire; they’re excited about the product and that’s something the agents can key off of,” he says.

Continuing education is particularly crucial when selling technology products, retailers say. “The training never stops because with technology, there are always new products, techniques and integration issues,” says Monica Luechtefeld, executive vice president of e-commerce for Office Depot. “Our call center reps meet multiple times a week with manufacturers.”

The black hole

But if consumers are using the amount of information to become better educated before they call, retailers can also use it to educate consumers even further and deflect calls. That’s the approach that Specialized Bicycles is taking, using a knowledge management system from RightNow Technologies Inc. Specialized Bicycles hosts several hundred thousand unique visitors a month-McLaughlin wouldn’t be more specific-at Specialized.com. Most who are looking for product information or help never call the call center. “Far better than 90% of the time, customers help themselves,” McLaughlin says. As a result, Specialized Bicycle handles calls from 4,000 dealers around the world as well as from consumers with a call center staff of 10.

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