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Enabling your call center for the Internet age

WASHINGTON -- As more customers move onto the Internet to resolve support and service issues, companies find themselves needing to upgrade their existing call centers into multimedia contact centers that encompass e-mail, Web chat and other new technologies. Here at the Customer 360 Conference and Expo, panelists discussed ways to achieve this goal, including a key element: contact center personnel.

"The agent has to be able to read and write," said Oscar Alban, product consultant for Witness. E-mail support is different from phone support, and companies need to hire different skill sets, he said.

"Training is key," said Lawrence Byrd, CRM evangelist at Avaya in Basking Ridge, N.J. Automation is also important, in the form of e-mail templates, so that agents have to type less, and so that information can be dragged into the chat window, he said.

When the economy slows, one of the first things to go is training, Alban said. But with CRM, now is the time to increase training to allow existing call center staff to learn contact center skills, he added.

Hiring all-new staff for e-mail and Web support just creates morale issues with the existing staff, Alban said. Another mistake that many companies make is assuming a good telephone agent will be a good e-mail agent, when there is a difference in these types of support.

Different individuals and contact points have different training requirements, according to David Fuller, director of marketing, call center applications, at Interactive Intelligence. And when it comes to routing calls or e-mails to an agent, "the skill requirements depend on the channel," he said.

Agents enjoy a mix of calls and Web support, but not on every call, according to Byrd. For example, an agent might spend half the day answering telephone queries, while the second half of the day is spent answering e-mails, as opposed to alternating e-mail and phone queries throughout the day, he said.

The same standards that go into ensuring customer satisfaction by phone should be applied to e-mail, said Kristen Wagmann, director of corporate development at Vertical Solutions. Satisfaction needs to be analyzed by the customer, as opposed to the channel, she said.

Companies also need to ensure that the channels are integrated, according to Byrd. Customers expect multiple communication channels to work together, yet most companies with a toll-free number and e-mail contacts haven't figured out how to provide their agents with customer e-mails while on a phone call, he said.

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