A discussion of networks in the call center would not be complete without mentioning the significance and dramatic growth of the largest and most extensive network in the world—the Internet—which is available to the public and becoming increasingly important to the business community. It is hard to grasp how the Internet became so important to business in such a short time, and how dramatically it has changed many of the rules of conducting business. It has provided alternatives for how to work, where to work, how to communicate, how to keep informed, and how to communicate with customers. All of these aspects of the Internet have an impact on call center operations.
Customers have choices for how they communicate, and there are a number of them—some would say too many! There will always be some companies that want to stick to the older business models, but they will gradually be replaced because they will no longer be competitive. (see Figure 2.9)
Figure 2.9: Multidimensional customer contact.
In the context of the Internet, the call center is revolutionary. Call centers are automated service delivery points, full of customer data and products, dedicated to one major objective: providing customers with whatever services or products they require. How does the Internet fit into the call center model? It is just one more communication channel for the customer, a channel that call centers need to manage at least as well as traditional communication channels.
The Internet is a relatively low-cost communication channel, easy to establish and manage and using many of the same network and communication infrastructures as the traditional communication channels. It provides a range of opportunities to CSRs operating from sites remote from the "home" call center and to customers with Internet connections on their home and office desktops. In this "cyberworld," each customer has the equivalent of the CSR terminal and can be provided with the same information as the CSR. However, CSRs must be in place to assist and guide customers who want to talk to a real person. The CSR represents the company's interests in a sales transaction and may pull or push the customer toward a product and (possibly) away from a problem. Customers usually need guidance at some point in a transaction, no matter how much information they have obtained from a Website. There may be confusing options or other procedures to be followed that need explaining, and the CSR can assure customers that their needs will be looked after.
What is the best method for integrating the Internet into a call center that was designed as a telephony contact center? There are several options. The help desk was the first stage in the process in some companies. E-mail was a natural way to provide technical support to customers, enabling them to register their problems and track them as they were resolved. A second stage of integration occurred when the Internet became a tool for distributing technical documents to a wide community of problem solvers, sometimes including customers. This stage occurred in the late 1990s, when the Web had not yet reached predominance and was still not being considered in the planning for a call center. The e-mail model remains the basis for most real-life combinations of call centers and the Internet. It is the primary form of communication used by the Internet customer and the major form of non-telephony interactions in the center.
One of the problems in integrating the Internet and the call center is coordinating the multiple streams of input that are now available to callers. If an unhappy customer sends an e-mail describing a problem and, after an hour or so without a response, then calls a CSR and begins all over, what happens to service statistics? Current generations of customer information systems can handle this situation, but in the early days of the Internet in the call center, it upset service statistics and caused problems for the help desk manager. One model of interaction based on the Internet gets around the problem of coordination. It involves customers who click on Websites to request either a call back or to initiate an Internet-based phone call with a CSR. The logic in this process is sound—the customer is already armed with information about the transaction, the reason the information is placed on a Website in the first place. This model can result in good customer interaction if the CSR is in the right place with customer information, if the telephony part of the transaction works perfectly, and if the call is placed within a reasonable time frame.
The products that make interaction over the Internet possible are examples of leading-edge technology that push the boundaries. Unfortunately, the vendor community is still in the process of integrating them into systems that work in the daily life of a call center. As time goes on, these applications will sort out into those that work and those that don't, and eventually some of them will find a place in call center operations.
Real-time, text-based interaction also demonstrates the power and capability of the Internet in the call center. In this scenario, a caller connects to a Website and asks for a CSR's assistance using a chat window. Removing the hardware and bandwidth necessary for voice communication permits live interaction, or what at least appears live to the caller. One benefit is that the CSR in the center can handle multiple callers at once because of the delay inherent in chat mode and can use scripts to speed up responses. The CSR is also able to guide the caller to a particular Web screen, share information, and participate fully in bringing a transaction to a successful close. Another, major benefit of this model is that the Internet/call center connection is moved from the service side to the sales side, and at a level of technology that is available to smaller companies. CSRs can guide a Web surfer to a sale or the next level of the sales process at the same cost savings as the more complex "call-me button" model of Web interaction. This is also one of the features available in call center/Internet integration but one yet to be accepted by call center managers, for reasons noted earlier.
The choice of which of the several methods of integrating the Internet into the call center for each organization will depend on several factors: the resources available, the comfort level with transitional technology, and, most importantly, the relationship between a company and its customers. (see Figure 2.10)
Figure 2.10: Data sources and customer interactions.