VOIP's a Breath of Fresh Air for Service Calls

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ProFresh Intl., a seller of breath-freshener products known for unique strategies, has joined the early group of companies experimenting with Web site customer service that uses voice and video over Internet protocol.


While usage of VOIP customer service, which allows customers to speak to agents directly through their computers, is still very low, the company decided to offer it to help put forth an image that is both customer-service oriented and cutting edge.


ProFresh.com is a direct channel through which Philadelphia dentist Jon L. Richter, D.M.D., Ph.D., sells a patented chlorine dioxide rinse regime. It has drawn media spotlight both for Richter's prominence as the first dentist in the country to create a center dedicated exclusively to treating bad breath, a subject many keep under wraps, and for its help-a-friend service through which customers anonymously submit names of friends or relatives who suffer from halitosis.


"We have a unique product, and we think it's something people will want to talk about. We also have a service where you can call or e-mail us to tell us about a friend or family member who has bad breath and we will contact that person, anonymously. That is also something we expect people must have questions about," said Ted Tannenbaum, operations manager for ProFresh.com. "This is new and different, and we like to keep trying new things."


The company has had a Web site for a year and a half and has experimented with voice and video over IP for about six weeks. While there are impediments to its usage, one of the primary ones being that customers must have speakers and receivers on their computers to use the voice component or cameras for the video component, the concept is one that will eventually appeal to customers, Tannenbaum said.


"It doesn't break the flow of interest," he said. "To successfully use it though you can't go through AOL."


For those who don't have speakers, receivers, or cameras, the company offers live one-to-one chat with representatives.


To offer the service, the company has outsourced to Target Teleservices, Salt Lake City, which created a multimedia call center using carefully recruited and trained agents and the PNX ACD multimedia routing tool from PakNetX.


Target Teleservices' multimedia group is staffed by dedicated Internet agents who also handle overflow calls from the company's telephone call center when Web volume is low. The PNX ACD and the traditional ACD run in parallel so that when agents are working on Web interactions they are out of the phone ACD rotation, and vice versa.


"We are recruiting high-end people in the upper echelons of specialization," said Roger LeFevre, CEO of Target Teleservices. "They have to have certain computer competencies, and we pay them a few dollars an hour more than phone agents."


The PakNetX PNX ACD used in the center is able to route all forms of contact available through Microsoft Instruments, including text chat and video and audio conferencing, like a traditional ACD would route phone calls.


It also allows agents to place sessions on hold, transfer to another agent, consult with a supervisor, conference in a third party, or reroute to another group. Agents also have push/pull capabilities, allowing them to push a Web page to a customer's desktop so the customer and agent can navigate a site simultaneously.


The company also has in-queue messaging, so that when a customer is waiting for an agent to pick up, they will see a message on their screen, and, if they have speakers, hear an audio message.


The service starts out with VOIP, and if there is no response, a text message comes on the screen asking "Can you hear us?" For those who don't have speakers or receivers the service then goes into text chat, said LeFevre, who predicted that the amount of customers whose computers have VOIP capabilities will rise sharply in coming years.


"As more and more PCs are coming with capabilities for the voice and video over IP bundled in, and the price of speakers receivers and cameras continue to drop it, will become more common," he said. "You can find speakers and receivers for around $25 to $30 now and cameras have come down to about $150."


For now, ProFresh.com offers the chat, voice and video over IP only on its order page.


"We wanted people to be pretty committed to the product before calling," said Tannenbaum. In addition, he noted that because of the relatively low volume of interactions through the service currently, the Web agents serving the site are not dedicated to the ProFresh account.


"They are taking calls on other accounts as well," he said. "There are a lot of informational pages on the site. We thought we'd rather have customers read materials on the site for information and then have reps answer questions about orders."
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