March 5, 2004, 12:00 AM

Metamorphosis

Call centers go modern with the web enabling everything from remotely located agents to product information at reps’ fingertips.

Most people’s view of a call center is a big room with dozens or hundreds of cubicles, motivational signs and pictures-and the occasional Whoopee! as someone scores a tough sale or breaks through a barrier. But the call center that siphons off the load for Plow & Hearth, a home furnishings division of 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., isn’t like that at all. In fact, it’s probably not even accurate to call it a call center. “It’s the call center without the bricks and mortar,” says Reg Foster, president and chairman of Alpine Access Inc., which operates Plow & Hearth’s overflow call center.

Golden, Colo.-based Alpine Access uses web technology to allow 3,000 agents to work out of their homes, yet provide the same level of service—Plow & Hearth says even better service—as traditional call centers that aggregate agents in one location. “Our company would not exist if it weren’t for the Internet,” Foster says.

Pervasive changes

Routing calls to decentralized agents domestically, as Alpine Access and others are doing, or even overseas, is only one example of the way in which the web is changing how call centers that serve retailers operate. Other web-initiated changes include making all of a retailer’s product information available on the Internet or through an intranet so call center reps can answer questions faster; automating responses to customers’ e-mail queries; offering live chat support; inputting order and customer data directly into retailers’ order-entry systems so the call center and retailer don’t have to operate separate databases that later need to be rationalized with each other; and making a shoppers’ web session available to agents to help solve problems. “Our overall strategy is full integration with a retailer’s operation. The Internet is very important to achieving that,” says John McGovern, president of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Progressive Distribution Services Inc., which provides the gamut of services to web retailers, including a call center.

In fact, the Internet was so important, McGovern says, that when he started developing the company five years ago, he wanted the web as part of the call center right from the start. The technology for such integration wasn’t available then, so the company developed it itself and now has invested 40,000 staff hours into tying its call center into the web.

Web-enablement is much easier to find now. “I don’t know a call center today that’s not using the web in some format,” says Anne G. Nickerson, president of consultants Call Center Coach.

Foster attributes the success of Alpine Access to the Internet. The flexibility that web distribution of data makes possible allows Alpine Access to hire a higher quality agent who is attracted by the flexible work hours and ability to work out of the home, he says. Two-thirds of Alpine Access  agents have a college education and are over age 34. The typical call center rep has a high school diploma and is between 25 and 35, according to BenchmarkPortal Inc., a contact center consulting and research company.

No geographic bounds

Furthermore, using the web allows Alpine Access to match agents more closely with the products they are repping. “We can match the background of the agent with the nature of the call coming in because we don’t have a geographic boundary,” Foster says.

Alpine’s agents need only a PC equipped with a browser and a second telephone line with Internet access. Everything moves over standard telephone lines. Agents log onto a web site that divides their screen into three parts: one section to manage the call, another to view web pages that a customer may be viewing and the third as an interface with the order entry system.

One thing that motivates many call center agents is the camaraderie and excitement that contests in call centers create. JP Simons, director of training and service quality at Madison, Va.-based Plow & Hearth, says the distributed nature of Alpine Access has not diminished call center reps’ enthusiasm or ability to sell. “When I listen in on the calls, the agents are very upbeat, pitching the right thing,” she says. “They also have a skill in integrating the pitches into the conversation with the customer.” Foster says Alpine Access creates virtual motivational programs and hosts a company picnic every year so agents can meet one another.

Thanks to the web, monitoring Alpine Access’s agents is as easy as monitoring  agents at Plow & Hearth’s own 150-seat call center, Simons says. She logs on to the Alpine Access web site, clicks on the Monitor button, selects an agent to listen to, then monitors the call. “It’s really slick,” Simons says. “With some of the others that we looked at it was really difficult to listen in.”

But just as web technology is allowing companies to operate with dispersed reps in the U.S., it also facilitates the movement of call center jobs overseas. “The web plays a big part in it,” says Nickerson, who has consulted on training call center reps in India. “The web breaks down a lot of barriers.”

Interpreting the experience

Having a web-enabled contact center is particularly useful when reps are helping web customers, as is becoming more common. For instance, Tower Records’ contact center uses TeaLeaf Technologies Inc. products to capture and analyze customers’ web site sessions. Tower Records reps can view a particular session click by click and page by page. “It’s extremely helpful to see what the customer sees,” says Gail Henderson, director of customer care for TowerRecords.com. “We can see how the customer interprets something and make changes if necessary. This is a tool to improve what we’re doing.”

When Tower Records began getting calls from customers unable to complete the checkout process, for instance, it began reviewing those customers’ attempts to purchase. It noticed a pattern of transactions failing when a Verified by Visa pop-up window asked customers for their Visa passwords. Tower Records concluded that the problem was with customers whose banks had automatically enrolled them in the Verified by Visa program. Those customers didn’t know they needed a password to check out, so they either abandoned the order or closed the window and attempted to check out anyway. Without a way to analyze patterns from a multitude of shopping sessions, Tower might not have been able to isolate the problem, she says.

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