What About Internet Telephony?

While it is true that live audio/video Internet products are out there, in the customer service environment (that is, in call centers), these products are almost never implemented. At the present time, Internet telephony is not a factor in this arena, and quality of service is just one of the many good reasons.

Web/call center combinations are being used in pilot applications, and often they incorporate a “call me” button on the Web page that brings the customer into the call center for a telephony interaction in parallel with what’s going on over the Web. More often than not, these things initiate an outbound call to a customer-entered telephone number.

The problem implementing IP-telephony based service has less to do with the network’s quality of service issues than it does with the way calls are routed into the center (the ACD has to be able to send it to the right agent, and queue it, and report on it) and with the human issues of how customers wish to get their service. In nearly all cases, the telephone is the instrument of choice for service delivery, despite the availability of a Web alternative.

One vendor, CosmoCom, is making a go of an IP-based virtual call center system that blends traditional voice telephone calls with live Internet sessions. It manages and distributes both live calls and messages, including voice, fax, and email.

CosmoCall supports fully distributed operation with remote agents and multiple site operation transparently through its IP backbone that transports voice and data. It includes a multiple chat capability that lets CSRs conduct several concurrent text-based chats, while simultaneously speaking with their customers over the telephone or the Internet.

With CosmoCall, visitors to an ecommerce website can click a link to establish a live multimedia connection to a customer service representative. CosmoCall queues the calls, selects the right kind of representative for each caller, and informs each representative about the nature and context of the call.

And on another front, Dialogic recently demonstrated an interface between Internet telephony and CTI applications. This gatekeeper-based technology will extend the capabilities of Dialogic’s CT Connect call control software. According to theory, applications will be able to monitor and control IP telephony calls in the same way they currently do in traditional telephone environments.

This new technology will allow CTI applications to operate within IP telephony environments as easily as a traditional PBX. This transparency between IP telephony and traditional PBXs means that CTI developers will be able to market their applications for use in IP telephony environments with little or no change.

Customers will then be able to use IP telephony in conjunction with contact management, customer service, and support applications: in other words, in call centers.

In a standards-based IP telephony environment, the gatekeeper is the focal point of enhanced call processing because endpoints within its domain consult it whenever a connection is set up, torn down, or changed. During call setup, for example, a gatekeeper handles functions such as bandwidth allocation, address translation, access permission, and call routing.

The Web & Call Centers

When the first edition of this book was published, not that many years ago, the idea of a connection between the Internet and call centers was theoretical, and not very well thought out. The most common way of thinking about the issue was to imagine self-support applications: literally, email-based posting of customer support cases, and the ability of a customer to search a database of problems and solutions by themselves.

Just a few years ago, it was possible to talk about the different ways of delivering customer service without mentioning online support at all. When you did mention it, it was in the context of CompuServe forums or company-sponsored bulletin board systems. The Internet explosion that’s brought us webpages was still a year or so in the future. That’s how fast things have changed.

A call center is not a place. It is a set of functions. It is the process of selling to people who are not in the room with you. And of serving their many varied needs. A call center’s primary function is to create and keep customers.

Right now, that function requires a physical presence, a location — an actual set of seats filled with people to help customers. Agents that have access to stores of data about the customers and the company, and the points of intersection. These people act as gatekeepers for the two-directional flow of information — as intermediaries and interpreters.

What if those functions could be accomplished without people? Or with a vastly fewer number of people, so that those who are left are true experts who add value to the transaction, and who don’t merely funnel that transaction along.

This is the goal experts are reaching toward when they tout the Web as a useful adjunct to the call center — the promise of a workforce deployed in exactly the way that is most useful and efficient. Customers who solve their own problems, who in essence sell themselves, and a specially trained cadre of agents dedicated to doing what only humans can do.

To some extent, the call center industry has been flirting with this notion for years, with varying degrees of success. First there was fax, then fax-on-demand. Want information about our company at 2 am? Rather than pay to staff off-hours, make information available for retrieval by the customer himself. It’s fast, cheap and gets generally high satisfaction marks from the customers.

On the other hand, some of the lessons learned by newer ecommerce and etailing (hate those words) companies haven’t yet been taken to heart. As a benchmarking survey commissioned by Swallow Information Systems has revealed, organizations are turning a blind eye to customer complaints and not treating inquiries seriously.

The survey found that 93% of companies in the business-to-consumer marketplace gather customer data, but only a third convert opinions into improved customer-led policies. 89% use the Internet as their prime way of contacting customers, but most have no procedure for resolving online complaints and inquiries, and over 25% have no dedicated customer service policy at all.

The survey was conducted across 28 companies, including SOCAP (The Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals) members, blue chips and market leaders, including retail, telecom, travel & leisure, financial services, FMCG and manufacturing industries.

The research suggests that the problem is caused by a ‘quick-fix’ approach to complaint resolution, where staff members find a solution then move on to another task, rather than upgrading the service for every customer. Another key cause cited was a lack of awareness of the technologies available to receive and respond to customer contacts, and how customer information can be shared between departments.

“It’s alarming that companies are underestimating the value of their customers to such a degree,” said Ros Gardner, vice president at SOCAP UK. “The customer is an organization’s most important resource, and they should be aware that listening to their opinions is one of the best indicators of success or failure, and where improvements should be made.”

“Companies are projecting an image of good service, but too often customers are being ignored,” said Bill Bostridge, VP of sales at Swallow Information Systems. “Providing a channel for customers to contact you is the first step to good service, but collecting data without listening to their opinions is a pointless exercise. Managing customer contacts is the key to turning around services that customers actually want and need.”

Then there’s IVR. It’s great for routing calls to agents, shortening call times, getting people into the right queue, etc. But it also allows people to self-serve for simple database lookups like an account balance, an order confirmation or shipping status. Or to diagnose a technical problem.

But still, there is an unstoppable trend toward providing an automated response to customer interactions. The reasons are clear:

Automated responses are cheaper than agent-provided ones.

They are always the same for all callers. Two people who call for directions from the airport to your office won’t get different routes from different reps.

Automation is always available, even when you’re closed.

Of course, there is a downside. Some people miss the personal touch. And any problem or question not planned for in the rules-based structures of your system requires human intervention anyway.

The Web is the third advance in self-serve automation. It has many of the advantages of fax — it’s a dynamic, easy-to-maintain format. It is available to huge numbers of potential customers. And it surpasses fax or IVR in one critical area: it has enormous multimedia capabilities (sound, graphics, video, and more). It is rich in the one quality IVR lacks — the ability to control applications that require visual presentation or extensive keyboard output, or both.

Customers can order products. They can download software. They can read catalogs.

Clearly there is a need for alternate points of entry into the call center. You can think of the call center as the focal point of a “customer contact zone” where a lot of

interactions take place. Ultimately, as more kinds of call center applications are developed that bypass the agent, a given customer will have more choices for entering the zone and concluding the interaction. Some points of entry may be better for making a sale — document retrieval by fax-back, for example. Others are better for customer support, like IVR.

The Web offers an amalgamation of these techniques. Where the Web first began to take hold was with help desks. These smaller centers, already strained by escalating call volumes, were in the vanguard of agent-enhancement technology. Problem resolution software frees technical experts from the drudgery of answering repetitive questions, letting them get to the business of solving more complex problems. It puts them in a position to add value to the customer transaction, rather than merely pipeline a piece of existing information to the customer.

But what about other call center systems like ACDs? If a caller has a choice of how to get into that customer contact zone, where will the switch fit in?

The answer has turned out to be twofold.

First, there is the omnipresent email. (Itself a revolution in communications technology; if it weren’t for the fact that the Web has pictures and sounds, we would be marveling at the amazing transformation email has wrought in our society.) In call centers just the last two years has brought something that’s sometimes called the “Internet ACD” or “Email ACD.” Bad terms, but they do describe fairly well what’s going on.

What they do is perform the same types of targeted routing that the telephony switch does for calls. They take large volumes of email as it comes in, parses out some form of meaning (who is the sender, what is the subject, etc.), determines whether it can be answered with an automated response, and if not, sends it along to someone who can handle it in an effective way. Routing tables show whom can handle what, and how often.

These systems also track and audit the response to those emails. So you can set an organizational parameter, for example, that all emails have to be “handled” within a certain timeframe.

The other major thrust has been a tentative exploration of one of the Web’s major attractions, which is live chat. The idea being that a customer visiting your webpage would click on a button to initiate a text chat window, having a semi-real-time conversation with a rep back at the call center through a text typing session.

There are several advantages to this. One is that a single rep can handle multiple chat sessions at once, because many of the responses can be automated. (One vendor showed me a system where a rep could handle six at once — a recipe for burnout and turnover if ever there was one.) The other advantage is that it is relatively simple technology, that connects it to a rep’s desk, in contrast to the much more complicated Web callback systems that attempt to connect a Web surfer to a call center through an actual telephony connection.

As you would expect, vendors are closely watching Internet technologies, looking for ways to integrate their switches with Web-enabled applications. As one manufacturer suggested, it is when the consumer can (and does) cherrypick from a combination of entry points — fax, email, Web or voice call — and expects to switch from one mode to another during a single “interaction” that advanced ACDs will need to be tightly integrated with the Internet.

What will happen is that human interaction will be reserved for where the agents can add the most value.