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E-service, e-commerce create call center challenges

Online service means customer contacts are now more sophisticated and e-commerce advances mean customers expect to be recognized through all channels.

The popularity of e-commerce and online self-service continues to grow, and perhaps surprisingly, so does the commitment of some customers to address their purchase and service issues through the contact center. But with that evolution come several challenges that managers must address, because despite these online advancements, the calls keep coming.

Although e-commerce and self-service allow many Level 1 questions to be answered automatically, the result is a greater proportion of sticky situations in the call queue.

"Those things that do reach the agent are more complex than ever," said Brad Cleveland, president of the International Customer Management Institute. As a result, agents must be broadly trained to handle a full spectrum of customer issues. "Customers want -- they demand -- a universal view of the services the organization offers. So the agent role is becoming more generalized all the time."

Additionally, as e-commerce channels expand, agents must be able to relate to customers as though all touch points are equal.

"Agents have to understand all of the channels that customers are using," Cleveland said. "They are often reached by callers looking for help with the Web site, the IVR, a kiosk, and expect to explain what happened and have the agent help with that. There has to be general training -- every agent has to be a help desk agent along with the more traditional content knowledge they've got to have."

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Financial services firms such as Fidelity and Vanguard, and airlines such as Continental and Southwest, have been recognized for this type of integration.

Even when customers are largely sophisticated about the e-commerce offerings, online activity still leads to offline calls.

"We have found that call times have dropped considerably because people are going online and doing a lot of research and pre-qualifying themselves," said Barry Hughes, vice president of marketing and distribution for Red Lion Hotels. Its e-commerce site went live one year ago, but the increased exposure has boosted call volumes. "Net calls actually increased, because the Web site allowed more people to find our brand," Hughes added. "Out of that is a subset of people who won't book online. They want to talk to a person."

To help manage the overflow, Red Lion added Voxify, a virtual agent solution, to its contact center to help intercept low-value inquiries not accounted for online. Such automated front ends have become common in the hospitality and travel industry for status inquiries and reconfirmations.

One result of these changes is the need to reexamine contact center metrics. Complex issues simply take more time. In opening up the Internet's unprecedented power to initiate transactions and customize products, for example, companies often expose more functionality than some of their customers are comfortable using.

Configurators for new computers or multi-leg travel must be user-friendly and offer ways to transfer work in progress to a phone agent if the complexity of the problem gets out of hand.

"It makes a mess of tidy ideas about call handling times and things like that, but the time you spend on the phone with the customer [should not be] regarded as a bad thing," said Denis Pombriant, managing principal of Beagle Research Group. "E-commerce has merged the idea of commerce, service, and support, and that's largely a good thing."

On top of it all, individual agents and the group as a whole are in some cases expected to help their company improve everything from the e-commerce presentation to the product mix by providing feedback after each call, according to Cleveland. "The definition of quality used to be whether we handled a contact correctly and accurately, but now it's not a quality call if we didn't learn something that can help the other areas of our organization," Cleveland said. "Everything in front of the agent has evolved along those lines, with more complex tools and quality monitoring."

The key to managing this change while still preserving the customer experience is to embrace what Pombriant calls "the gradual professionalization of the call center agent." By equipping call center agents with the right tools and training to both observe and influence a wide variety of company activities, agents become empowered to promptly and accurately assist customers as they reach the contact center with ever more complex problems. In so doing, they position themselves as the executives of tomorrow, just as mail room employees rose to the corner office in previous decades.

Reprinted with permission from

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