It could have been a scene out of a techno-thriller: monstrous e-mail inquiry overload wreaks havoc on organization. The real-life drama unfolded earlier this year, when a mid-size insurance company developed a Web site to enable customers to shop via the Internet. Instead of acquiring and serving lower cost customers, however, the insurance company, which asked not to be identified, was bombarded with hundreds of e-mail inquiries.

Emergency response

Swamped call center personnel scrambled to print out and sort messages into color-coded file folders. Since firmwide e-mail was not yet in place, employees were taking message-filled folders home at night and responding. "It was horrific. We were drowning in printed requests, with no way of tracking what was happening," says an embarrassed director of the insurer's call center. "But that wasn't the end of it. Because we were taking days, we were over-run with phone calls from customers, who were angry and confused, asking why we had not responded. And reps taking the calls had no way of knowing what was going on."

The insurance company is now installing software to handle the deluge, which abated after it cut-off e-mail access from its Web site.

The e-mail challenges faced by this insurance company are not uncommon. Financial services institutions are scrambling to develop Web presences, hoping to realize the promise of lower cost distribution and communication. But companies are getting a rude awakening as global e-mail volumes are expected to reach three trillion annually by 2000. "E-mail is a necessary part of a call center infrastructure and it's surprising everybody," says Quintus Corp. co-founder and senior vice president Lawrence Byrd. Quintus' computer-telephony integration application helps route and track e-mail communication in call centers. "Once you build any type of e-commerce (scenario), you get a nasty response because most (companies) aren't prepared."

One pressing problem confronting call centers is the need for solutions that effectively route and track responses to e-mails, ways to script automated responses for most inquiries and a host of human resources issues centered on handling written communication in an environment built around voice communications. "If you are handling e-mail in the call center, typically the staff was hired for their ability to handle calls," says Jay Elshaug, who runs Nashville-based First American Bancorp's 165-agent call center. "You either hire (people with) a different set of skills, or train people in how to (handle) e-mail."

First American relies heavily on software with a scripted response feature from Adante, a division of San Francisco-based Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, which specializes in customer interaction solutions for the Web. If someone queries about Internet security features, for example, the response is scripted and sent back to the customer. The bank is not yet using Adante's version 2.0, which fully automates scripted responses.

Adante president and CEO Charles Knuff says that its more seasoned customers-including Dell Computers, Los Angeles Times and auto maker Saturn-are proactive in their customer responses, attaching files rather than mailing brochures and providing easy links to Web pages with more detailed information. "There is clearly an opportunity to cross-sell via e- mail," Knuff says. "Communication can be easier, and the capability of analyzing the (e-mail) content gives you the ability to do just that." First American plans to cross-sell via e-mail beginning this fall. It also intends to promote PC banking and a tailored line of credit product via e- mail.

While financial services companies lack the volume of players like Dell- which gets 40,000 e-mails monthly versus the 600 received by First American-they are held to the same standards by Web-savvy customers demanding quick turnarounds. Players that don't built flexible, scalable call center solutions risk missed opportunities and radically higher costs.

integration matters

In a recent study, Lucent Technologies found that the average cost of handling an e-mail inquiry to the call center is $17.85 with an average response time of 16 hours. Comparatively, handling faxes costs an average of $15.34 and takes 15 hours, while voice calls cost a fraction of that-as little as $3 per call. "There are clearly some economies of scale that can be achieved by pulling these parts together," says Knuff.

In a wired world, customers' expectations are likely to accelerate. At First American, the target is to dispatch a customized e-mail response within 24 hours (most sources expect that timeframe to be shortened). Others say that call centers will have to prioritize e-mail over even less urgent telephone calls. "I really see e-mail as being no different than a telephone call," says Elshaug. "Call centers are redefining what a call is."

-J. Racine

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