Customer service managers in the US are slowly but deliberately evolving their call centres into hi-tech customer interaction centres (CICs). This is a result of a continual review of the many ways in which customers wish to interact with their organisations for such reasons as information provision, the ordering of products, the answering of questions and the resolution of problems. Peppers and Rogers have identified nine key trends in the evolution of these call centres into CICs.
Connectivity through networks
Call centres are making use of networks (such as the Internet and LANs) to enable customer service agents and their customers to share files on a computer.
An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the way in which customers of The Container Store can input preliminary design information through the web site. A Container Store agent converts this information into a design and then posts a draft on a special web page for the customer to review. The customer views the web page and then requests changes to the design via an online bulleting board system. The agent makes further changes until the customer has the right design and is ready to purchase.
Travelocity.com's "Shop With An Agent" feature allows a Travelocity agent to guide the customer through the online shopping experience. The customer calls the agent and requests that the agent sees the customer's web browser and pushes relevant web pages as she shops.
At PSE&G, New Jersey's electric and gas utility provider, computer technicians use the company's network to remotely access, maintain and repair their client's computer.
The arrival of text chat
Companies are implementing technology that enables text chat between the customers and customer service agents. This is especially evident where valuable customers and/or high margin products such as travel are involved. Some believe that text chat will be the next killer e-commerce function and that it will be widespread by the end of 2001.
American Airlines is implementing its text chat/shared browser function as an added service to top-tier members of its AAdvantage frequent flyer programme. Alaska Airlines intends to position text chat strategically - on pages where customers are abandoning their online bookings.
Lowairfare.com, Biztravel.com, Uniglobe.com and Gorp.com are already using text chat for either reservations and/or customer service. Lowairfare.com has been the most vocal about the success of its text chat system. It has been reporting an 18 per cent look-to-book ratio - more than nine times the e-commerce average. Furthermore, it claims that its live web agents are eight times more productive than typical phone agents.
Voice is still king
In many industries and companies the main interaction channel between the customer and the company is still voice over the telephone line. Why? Quite simply, talking is the most natural form of communication for most human beings. Additionally, the human agent at her best is adept in providing information, solving problems quickly, and providing reassurance that many customers seek.
Despite a comprehensive FAQ section on the web site, The Container Store takes as many as 500 general inquiries a day, concerning product make up, what colour it comes in, and how to assemble it once it has been purchased.
Biztravel has noticed that its customers prefer the phone for more complex enquiries: hence it is no surprise to learn that around 5 per cent of inbound contacts are via text chat, 15 per cent via e-mail, and 80 per cent via phone. SBC Communications (a telephony company) reports that the majority of its customers are calling in because they want the personal touch, especially when they are discussing their phone bills.
Deliver value, minimise costs
Fearful of being labelled as just a "cost centre", customer service managers are looking into positioning the multitude of interaction channels (phone, IVR, e-mail, text chat, web-site, etc) in a customer friendly and cost-efficient manner. In many cases this means that the more expensive interaction channels such as the phone, call me buttons, and text chat, are reserved for high value customers and high margin products. On the other hand, low value customers are 'encouraged' to use the lower cost interaction channels such as the IVR and the web site.
Powerful software applications
Companies are putting into place powerful software applications - both operational and analytic - to enable both better interactions with customers and to better manage the performance of the CICs.
For example, Bissel (an established home care and carpet cleaning company) implemented Onyx e-CRM in order to better interact with customers and to learn more about them.
PSE&G (the electric and gas utility) is planning to migrate to Teloquent's new Interchange product. This brings together media such as telephony, e-mail, text chat and Internet self-help - enabling the CIC manager to perform centralised administration and activity reporting.
Applications need to be integrated
In many cases call centre managers have woken up to the need for new CIC applications to integrate with a multitude of other technologies that are present in call centres. In short, this means that these applications must be open and easily integrated with customer databases, product databases, data mining tools, personalisation engines, e-mail management applications, etc.
Bissel found it quite a challenge to integrate its Onyx e-CRM application and associated customer database, with the Bissel product database in order that customers could be provided with order status and product availability in real time.
Well-trained employees are critical
The move from call centres (voice) to CICs is placing a premium on the acquisition (hiring), growth (training) and retention of the right employees. More and more managers are saying that well trained employees are the most critical factor to success. Accordingly, companies are providing their customer service agents with continual training in new hardware and software, as well as the softer customer facing skills.
The Container Store's customer service agents have an average of four years experience with the company. Fortune magazine has reported that The Container Store loses only 28 per cent of its staff compared with an industry average of 73.6 per cent. Company executives attribute the success of the company to a culture of employee satisfaction.
Between 33 and 50 per cent of clicks and mortar companies are either establishing separate CICs or outsourcing their online customer service. Companies have given a number of reasons including: online customers having distinct needs and communication preferences; too expensive to transform call centres and replace legacy systems; and bypassing unions.
E-commerce sites are experimenting with e-service
Online companies are implementing state of the art online customer service technologies. These include: live video and audio interaction; voice over Internet; virtual sales agents that guide shoppers; and animated voice navigators. Only time will tell how useful these technologies will be - both to customers and to the companies implementing these technologies.