March 5, 2004, 12:00 AM

Metamorphosis

(Page 2 of 2)

TowerRecords.com has found TeaLeaf’s technology useful in identifying other patterns. For instance, the company contracts with BizRate.com Inc. and ForeSee Results Inc. to gather customer feedback on the web site experiences. It reviews that information as well as customer calls and e-mails daily to identify potential problem areas. It can re-create problem sessions to identify areas for improvement, matching customer i.d.s to the sessions.

TowerRecords.com has had to exercise caution in a couple of areas related to its use of session analysis. One is the issuance of customer identifiers related to  particular sessions and the privacy issues that raises. Apart from the purchase information, Tower Records uses the i.d.s only for trouble-shooting, Henderson says. In addition, TowerRecords.com’s privacy policy gives customers the chance to opt out of being assigned an i.d. number. The second problem is related to the fact that TowerRecords.com used to contract for the hosting of its web site. The hosting company would not allow TeaLeaf’s technology to access customer sessions. “We’d see the log in and the checkout and nothing in between,” Henderson says. That problem ended when Tower brought the hosting inside.

Apart from troubleshooting, TowerRecords finds the TeaLeaf technology useful in other ways, Henderson says. For instance, it can review sessions in which a new rep helped a customer as a way to improve the rep’s performance. It also can take loss-prevention steps by reviewing all actions a rep takes and determining if, for instance, a particular rep is placing too many free orders, indicating that the rep is obtaining CDs for himself or his friends.

Contact

The web also has changed how customers get in touch with retailers, which has changed how retailers respond. Many inquiries today come in via e-mail or live chat, a phenomenon which has prompted many to change the “call center” designation to “contact center.” Writing responses, rather than speaking them, takes more time, so some technology vendors have developed systems that automate e-mail responses.

Unlike earlier automated e-mail response systems that tried to make the entire process untouched  by human hands, today’s systems operate with a series of suggested answers and drop-in phrasing. The answers are reviewed by a rep before they go out. A system from eGain Technologies Inc., for instance, intelligently routes the e-mails to reps, based on words in the subject line or the body. Once the rep has opened the e-mail, the system then suggests answers.

Bookspan.com, the web site of the Book-of-the-Month Club, is using the eGain system in its contact center. EGain reports that within six weeks of when it swapped out a prior system that had been allowing customer service reps to answer 30 e-mails an hour, Bookspan reps were answering more than 39 an hour.

Analysts caution that even with automated prompts, skills in responding to written communications are different from those needed for spoken communications. Because people put more faith in written word than spoken, especially in communications with companies, “Errors in written communications are magnified exponentially,” says Nickerson of Call Center Coach. Further, unless a rep engages in web-based support on a regular basis, the rep may not be as productive responding via chat or e-mail as on the phone. As a result, many contact centers assign reps to one area or the other. “These are specialized skills,” says Jon Anton, director of research and founder of BenchmarkPortal and director of benchmark research at Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality.

The web changes how a call center operates in other ways, Nickerson cautions. For one thing, most call centers do not have enough experience in e-mail or live chat workload to know how to schedule staff properly. They know the ebb and flow of phone calls but not of web-based communication. “Many experience huge volume in the evening and even late in the evening after people get home from work or after the kids are in bed,” Nickerson says. “It’s a different volume from calls.”

New set of skills

The web also changes how customer service contact centers operate in other ways. For instance, OKS-Ameridial Inc. has developed a system whereby agents can input orders over the web directly into clients’ order entry systems, so the call center doesn’t have to maintain a separate order system that needs to be reconciled later with the retailers’.

In addition, many call centers provide agents with browser-equipped PCs so the agent can use the retailer’s web site as a source of information for answering customers’ questions. “Think of an agent as basically a knowledge worker who needs quick access to lots of information before, during and after a sale,” Anton says. “A robust web site with a natural language search engine helps both the customer and the agent.”

Whatever approach a center takes in implementing the web, it’s clear the web has changed call centers dramatically—and that, in turn, has changed the management of call centers, Nickerson notes. “Management has a whole different set of responsibilities now,” she says. “There’s a whole group of jobs that didn’t exist before the Internet.”

kurt@verticalwebmedia.com

To view the Guide to Web-Enabled Contact Center Solutions click here.

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