Offer Support Anytime, Anywhere

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Customer interaction centers, formerly known as call centers, are perhaps the most powerful sales and marketing tools available for companies today. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, customers expect sales, service and support through either a toll-free number or the Web, or both.

In the high-speed Internet world, more than one company has found that good customer service is required for survival. A good customer interaction center need not be a necessary evil; it can be a real asset to the entire company, especially marketing and sales.

Turning an interaction center into an asset requires knowing the customer, and then designing and implementing interaction flows to support the customer while producing revenue and profit. A local cable company recently implemented new features in its systems based on this type of information. It discovered, due to marketing analysis, that pay-per-view is one of its most profitable products. However, the analysis also revealed a high rate of order failures due to customers' past-due bills. A significant percentage of a profitable revenue stream was being missed.

Imagine that you and your friends gather on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy a sporting event that has been expensively marketed for weeks. You call the toll-free number to order, but your order does not go through because your last payment has not been processed yet. "You will need to call back Monday through Friday between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.," is all that is offered as assistance. DirectTV or a competitor would look really good at that moment.

Instead, this innovative company has provided valuable options: Your order can't be processed right now? No problem. If you have a credit card, you can use it to pay for this special pay-per-view program. An e-commerce engine is invoked where you can order this event, pay this month's bill (in case you really did forget to pay it) and even set up your account for automatic bill payment. A profitable revenue stream has been preserved, the customer's needs have been serviced, and collection costs have been avoided.

First and foremost, all interactions are customer contacts, or touch points, and should be added to the customer view. Furthermore, since they are initiated by the customer, they should carry a high priority and be treated as responses to the marketing activities that guided the customer to the interaction point. Finally, a customer interaction center allows true one-to-one marketing if the materials and resources are available to take advantage of the opportunity.

Today's interaction centers take advantage of the latest technology and, therefore, are responsible for some of the latest buzzwords and acronyms. This summary will help you understand how the system works.

Interactive voice response is that oft-overused function that has caused many to become lost in limbo while pressing 1, 2, 3 or 4 when making the mistake of calling from a touch-tone phone. This function can allow customer database interaction such as for telephone banking functions. IVR also can assist customer service and sales representatives in identifying customers, but beware: Few things are more annoying than an IVR prompt that requests your customer number followed a minute later by a live representative requesting the same information.

Unified message queues are technology interfaces that allow sales and service representatives (or other members of the company) to manage all types of messages in one place. Voice mail, e-mail, fax, callers, even Web chat session requests can be combined into a single queue, categorized, prioritized and routed without regard to the method of delivery. Have you noticed that the urgency of a fax has been replaced by the urgent e-mail, or that a voice mail on your cell phone takes higher priority than the one on your office phone? The key is to know your customers and prioritize your unified queue based on their requirements, and to review the priorities and routings at least a few times a year.

Voice over network or voice over Internet protocol is an emerging technology that is supported in some of the most up-to-date interaction centers. It allows a computer connected to the Internet with a microphone and speakers to become a telephone without using long-distance carriers or an additional phone line. Although this technology is not reliable enough to be a mainstream technology at this time, quite a few techies and young people are starting to use it when it is available.

A related technology solution that can provide solid customer service benefits in an e-commerce or Web-interactive environment is "call me" technology. It works by placing a button anywhere inside a Web site that captures a consumer's phone number, places it into an outbound dialing queue, and connects a customer representative directly to the consumer in moments.

Web chat works like call me, with a button on the Web site that captures information from the consumer and then initiates a connection to a customer representative. The difference is that Web chat is text-based instead of voice-based. Many people are more comfortable with the implied anonymity of text-based messaging only. And those of you with teen-agers know that this type of communication is popular and effective with young people.

Most of these interactive technologies can be combined with "HTML push" capabilities, creating a true multimedia experience for the consumer. Catalog sales representatives are using this technology to offer cross-sell and upsell options to customers while interacting with them on the phone. Since HTML push technology allows the representative to use the consumer's Web browser to display text and graphics related to the products under consideration, the representative can, in effect, provide a "guided tour" of features and functions while answering the customer's questions. This is as close to a retail store as one can get on the Web and should be approached with the same level of customer service.

One technology does not solve all the problems, and, more often than not, reviewing the process and combining existing capabilities consistently across various communication channels can provide effective solutions. When processes and technologies are combined effectively, new ways of doing business can emerge, as the following example demonstrates:

Recently, an organization whose market is primarily between 18 and 24 years old designed a process to maximize the use of a customer interaction center. The first step in the process was to bring together all customer contacts and requests for information in one database. As a result, anyone in the organization, whether in the field or in the interaction center, can see all the information sent to the customer and any previous interactions with that customer. Using intelligent routing, sales representatives who have the most knowledge about the particular products and services offered in the customer's region would receive the call. After identifying preferences and providing additional information either on the Web or through traditional fulfillment services, the customer can be transferred directly to a field representative in the region, or added to a leads queue for follow-up by the field. The new process has significantly enhanced both sales and customer service effectiveness.

Companies are finding new and innovative ways to make every customer interaction valuable. Successful companies are providing additional value for the consumer and for themselves by delivering services and information in a 24/7 environment. The winners are those that can meet customer expectations whenever, wherever and however the customer chooses without losing sight of all the other means of interaction that will continue to be required and available.

• Dino Capone is chief technology officer at Marketing Communication Systems, Ivyland, PA. Reach him at

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