March 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

The new call center agent

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Specialized Bicycles, which has been on the web since 1994, learned quickly that even though its primary relations were with its dealers, consumers would use the web to get answers directly from the company. In fact, the volume reached such a level that Specialized’s customer service operation was quickly overwhelmed and many inquiries went unanswered, McLaughlin says.

More than FAQs

As the volume of calls and e-mails from customers continued to increase, though, the company realized it needed a way to manage them so customers could get timely and accurate answers. Based on the queries it had received, Specialized seeded its web site with questions that customers posed frequently. The questions resides at more than a simple FAQ page, which would quickly have become unwieldy due to the broad range of questions that customers ask. Instead, RightNow creates and hosts a database that contains questions and answers. Customers search for their answer by inputting the question or key words.

The RightNow program asks customers who use the service to rate their satisfaction. If ratings of a particular answer fall below 50%, Specialized’s managers review the content to determine where it is falling short. Call center agents analyze the questions they receive and if they believe that a question is one that others are likely to ask, the company inputs it into the database, thus keeping content fresh. Customers who don’t find answers in the database can submit an e-mail that Specialized will answer within 48 hours.

RightNow offers its service both as an ASP, where it hosts the service, and under an in-house licensing arrangement. Typical fee for a two-year service is $35,000 to more than $100,000, but the fee can range into seven figures for large, multi-site implementations, the company says.

Retailers are also learning that web-based information can be used to increase the amount of information available to an agent’s computer. “Smart agents are very expensive,” says Anand Subramaniam, vice president of marketing for eGain Communications Corp., which operates outsourced call centers and offers a web-based knowledge management product. “An agent can only know so much and that’s where knowledge management helps.”

Greater resolution

EGain creates a database with structured and unstructured knowledge as well as a base of past questions. An agent who receives a question for which he does not know the answer can quickly search the database through a browser, using natural language queries. Agent training is simple, Subramaniam says, because the user interface looks like Windows XP and is accessible through a browser. The content can also be available for consumers to on a web site.

Using the eGain system, UK-based cell phone company Orange SA reports that the number of returns of telephones that customers thought were defective but weren’t was cut in half from 52% of all returns in 1996 to 25% last year. Similarly, the proportion of unresolved problems fell from 23% to 6% in that period.

Similarly, Bradley Direct, an outsourcer of call center and fulfillment services, has created what it calls CareNet, an intranet that contains customer-service related information that supplements its order entry system. Bradley’s clients can input product descriptions and changes directly into the Bradley order entry system, so agents refer to it for most up-to-date product information. But two years ago, in response to the more complex questions that consumers were calling with, Bradley developed CareNet. “We designed CareNet to fill in what traditional order entry systems lacked,” says Andrew Leichter, business development manager. For instance, CareNet could contain an alert that a color in a catalog doesn’t match a product’s actual color or it could present two products side-by-side so an agent can tell a customer what the differences are.

CareNet also allows agents to escalate difficult requests to expert agents who in turn have the option of sending the request to the product developer at the client. That process includes automated tracking so if a response is not delivered to the customer within a prescribed time, the agent, the expert agent and the manager get an alert that the issue is still open.

Bradley Direct has benefited from CareNet by no longer having to equip each agent with thick paper manuals. It also is able to disseminate policy, procedure or product changes to agents more quickly. When changes are made on CareNet, agents get an e-mail, alerting them to the change. It if is a complex change, Bradley can include an e-training session that agents can take from their desktops. “We don’t have to pull agents into a classroom or schedule multiple training sessions, including in the evenings,” says Kim Morgan, QA process manager in Bradley’s call center. And the changes are implemented more quickly. “We don’t have to wait for the paper manuals to filter out of the system,” Leichter says.

Early advocates of online retailing thought that consumers who bought online had little need to contact the seller. They weren’t completely wrong. But there is still a strong group of consumers who want hand-holding or affirmation of their decision. Or they need post-sale assistance on a complex product. And that’s where the additional knowledge of call center reps becomes crucial. “If you can help people with those kinds of questions, they become real customers,” says Martin of TechDepot. “They value that service.”


Click Here for the Guide to Call Center Services

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