Integrating the call center with the Web gives rise to exciting possibilities for customer interaction but also presents several challenges.

Among the possibilities are on-line chats, collaborative browsing, in which the Internet browsers of both the agent and the customer become linked and can be controlled by either party, and voice-over Internet protocol, in which voices are transmitted over a data network.

Software technologies for Web-enabling call centers are becoming readily available, but call center managers and agents may not initially be able to harness the new functionality. In addition, customers may be reluctant to try Web interaction, especially if they have had difficulty using the Internet.

Several key technologies and techniques, including queue management and work blending, reinforced by the collection of real-time statistics and business intelligence, can pave the way toward faster technology adoption and accelerate an organization's efforts to successfully leverage both call center and Internet technologies.

Call centers have been gradually evolving over the past few years from the simplest switch-only solutions to those incorporating detailed computer-telephony functionality. According to Datamonitor, a market research and consulting firm based in New York and London, "For companies wishing to combine the customer focus of a call center with the business potential of the Web, a Web-integrated call center or multimedia contact center is the next logical step of development." Datamonitor predicts that in the United States 32% of call centers will be Web-enabled by 2002.

Today's implementations of Web-integrated call centers might result in the center's using the same queuing and routing system to handle all customer contacts. In other words, e-mails are handled and distributed to agents in the same way as voice calls. Web-integrated call centers are also likely to include a Web call-me facility that lets customers contact an agent within the company directly. However, this approach may not be adaptable to bigger companies or meet the unique requirements of each delivery channel. A modern, more scalable approach should consider technology that coordinates various media systems in which e-mails or other contacts are handled and distributed to agents in a way similar to voice calls.

A Web-enabled call center lets a business distinguish itself from competitors by providing new and useful services. In addition, efficiency improvements can help boost company performance through reduced costs or higher revenues for equivalent expenditures. For example, transferring expensive, repetitive, telephone-based operations to the Web site can clearly reduce call center operating costs. Using a new distribution or service channel can provide new marketing opportunities and capture new market sectors. The combination of Internet and telephone technologies can also provide around-the-clock customer sales and service, which improves customer loyalty and satisfaction, leading to an increase in repeat business and customer retention.

Call-center-enabling the Web site also offers significant benefits. According to Datamonitor, "Many e-commerce functions report that around 70% of customers who enter a site and fill an electronic shopping basket abandon the contact before any transaction has taken place, for one reason or another." Adding Web call-me and other human interaction can help close these sales. Agents can reassure customers about security issues and cross-sell and up-sell. Capturing some of these deflected customers would greatly improve on-line revenues and help improve call center efficiency.

In spite of these benefits, call centers have been slow to integrate Web functionality. One reason is the significant lag that can occur between adopting the technology and an increase in call center managers' and agents' ability to use the increased functionality. For instance, agents who may be highly adept at selling on the telephone may not be able to rapidly and accurately type, a skill that is needed for sending e-mails and conducting on-line chats.

It is imperative to hire the right agents and train them appropriately to ensure that whatever technology is chosen is exceedingly easy to use.

Another challenge is the difficulty consumers have in using the Internet. For many people, simply connecting to the Web presents a dizzying array of challenges, including selecting an Internet service provider, installing software, and configuring technical parameters. Moreover, the technology cannot be used unless a user has separate Internet and telephone connections. Users cannot be online and talk at the same time, unless they are using the Voice over Internet protocol, which currently requires well-engineered endpoints to provide adequate functionality. Then, once they are on the Internet, many people find on-line shopping confusing. Unreliable connections and browser software crashes may further frustrate customers. Rescuing agitated on-line shoppers will be crucial to retaining customers.

Through a combination of available and emerging technologies and techniques such as universal work queues and work blending, companies can reduce the time it takes to train agents and introduce channels of customer interaction seamlessly into the work flow. By taking advantage of these technologies, businesses can more quickly and effectively harness the full power of the convergence of call center and Internet technologies. Mr. Perkins is senior vice president and general manager of financial services at Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif.

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