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Many Call Centers Play Waiting Games With the Web

The trade magazines publish article after article on the benefits of Web-enabled call centers: They allow a faster response to customers…they let customers and customer service representatives interact on Web sites…they provide customers with more options for contacting a company…they allow representatives to push Web pages to customers. Reality, however, at least as we have experienced it, is that there is more talk about Web-enabled call centers than there is actual implementation. Why? For a number of reasons.

Companies move slowly. While most companies would like to be perceived as forward-thinking, the fear that a new technology won’t live up to its potential causes many to proceed cautiously when integrating a new approach into the marketing and customer support mix. The result is many companies move far more slowly than expected by the pundits.

Customers are slow to adopt new technology. The integration of the Web and call centers requires customers to 1) have access to a computer, 2) be able to get on the Internet and 3) learn and use a new way of communicating. If purchases are made, the customer must also overcome security concerns about online transactions. Clearly, customers are growing more comfortable with doing business over the Internet – Internet purchases in 1998 were three times higher than in 1997 – but it is still a slow process.

Call centers don’t like to invest in ‘buggy’ technology. Many of the technology pieces required for easy use of Web-enabled call centers exist, but some work more smoothly than others. Whenever possible, call centers prefer to purchase technology that is easily implemented and maintained. Much of the technology that connects call centers to the Web hasn’t yet reached that stage of development.

If many call centers aren’t yet integrating the Web’s full capabilities into their daily activities, when is that likely to occur? Probably when the following conditions are met:

Technology stabilizes. The technology that supports Web-enabled call centers will be more readily adopted when it becomes simpler to implement, more reliable, easier to use and less expensive.

Bandwidth increases. Many customers still lack access to enough bandwidth to take advantage of ‘cool’ Web applications. Having to wait minutes for graphics, video or sound files to download is irritating for the average customer. Once faster access and greater bandwidth become more universally available, this problem should be minimized.

Customer service improves. Customers are looking for shorter wait times, more accurate information and faster solutions to problems. Web-enabled call centers can potentially meet that challenge by allowing customers to start with an information-rich Web site then click a button to connect to a call center representative only if answers aren’t found on the site. Should a customer start with a phone call, Web-enabled call centers allow representatives to push Web pages to customers. And giving customers the option of entering their own data on a Web site could increase accuracy by eliminating many errors made by call center representatives.

Costs are reduced. Ultimately, Web-enabled call center services should improve customer service in a way that reduces both the number of calls coming in to a call center and call length, therefore reducing call center costs. For example, a Northeast utility set up a Web site that allows natural gas customers to review their bills online 24 hours each day. If just 3 percent of callers use the Web site instead of calling the call center, the Web site will pay for itself. Any additional reduction in call center volume becomes profit for the utility.

Internet applications will likely eventually be integrated into virtually every area call centers have traditionally supported, from sales and lead generation to customer service and technical support. How quickly that happens will depend on how much companies, their call centers and their customers benefit from such change.

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