Internet Convergence Changing Japanese Call Centers

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NEW YORK -- The Internet has had a profound impact on the Japanese call center industry, boosting call volume and introducing a host of new services, according to Sharon Barnett, who represents Prestige International here.

Prestige is a leading Japanese call center with an international presence in Europe and the US and a roster of high-carat US and European clients, including Victoria's Secret and Bertelsmann On Line.

Increasingly Japanese call centers are providing an integrated telephony and Web center solution, including Web callback, popular in Japan since most Japanese households have only one phone line and cannot call in questions while they are online.

"With Web callback, the customer simply types in his name and number, the nature of his inquiry and the time he would like to receive a call from a customer service rep," Barnett explained.

"This information is then automatically presented to a skilled operator who initiates the call in the appropriate time window. When a Japanese consumer is going to spend money on the Web, nothing replaces the effectiveness of a live human voice to help close the sale."

Japanese consumers, Barnett added, are still hesitant about putting credit card information in online order blanks, so the sales rep is charged with collecting payment information on the phone as well.

Prestige, and probably other call centers, have used Internet convergence to upsell clients into using e-mail and callback rather than just the phone, thus boosting overall sales volume for client and call center.

Call centers have boomed in Japan in recent years, and in general have bucked the weak economy. However, some of the larger public call center companies have seen their stocks battered. Moshi Moshi and Bell System 24 are the two most prominent victims.

The drain of foreign catalogers from the Japanese market also seems to have stopped, Barnett said. Companies such as Saks pulled out "because they could not continue to sell top-brand merchandise in their catalog, their primary source of profits.

"The fluctuation in the yen a couple of years ago also put an end to the gold rush for US catalogers in Japan. But most of the key players have ridden the tide -- let's face it, all businesses go through cycles -- and are now enjoying a period of growth."

She cited clients such as Neiman Marcus Direct, Hanna Andersson, Bass Pro Shops, Coach and Myron Manufacturing as examples for the trend to stay put. L.L. Bean, REI and Lands' End also have maintained their Japanese business.

To some extent dot-coms have taken up the slack, but for most call centers the trick is lining up with those "who are going to stick around." In Japan, as elsewhere, most of them are now beginning to fail.

"We have taken a risk with a couple of small US dot-coms entering the Japanese market, and have had a mixed experience so far."

The wireless revolution does not seem to have affected the call center business much in Japan. Most people who contact Prestige on the Web do it from a desktop rather than from a hand-held device.

Most people still use portables to send e-mails or play games and other entertainment that DoCoMo offers, but Barnett noted that handsets account for "25 percent of all online retail securities transactions at DLJDirect."

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