May 1, 1998

11 Min Read
What is Web-based Customer Care?

By Khali Henderson

Posted: 05/1998

Cyber Care
Web-Enabled Call Centers Could Cut Costs, Improve Service for Telephone Companies

By Khali Henderson

Tel-Save’s high-profile 9-cents per-minute long distance offering through America
Online has been an ideal and dramatic example of the value of using the Internet to
acquire customers and bill them in a low-cost and high-tech way. Once again, it can be
used to begin the discussion of providing customer care in this new medium. This time,
however, the pioneering implementation presents only the simplest of possibilities, the
proverbial tip of the iceberg. Tel-Save enables subscribers and prospects to query its
customer service department online via e-mail. Basic questions are answered in a timely
manner–several hours–but more complex requests, such as the addition of features (e.g.,
accounting codes), requires that customers call a toll-free customer service center. When
this happens, the value of the online experience ends and, some people (like myself as a
Tel-Save/AOL customer encountering this problem) would argue, is lessened. Fortunately,
for Tel-Save and other telephone service providers, it does not have to be so. It is
technically possible to "Web-enable" the traditional phone-based call center to
extend its usefulness to all customers whether they call in on a toll-free line, send an
e-mail or serve themselves via their providers’ site on the World Wide Web.

What is Web-based Customer Care?

Customer care on the web can include any interaction that happens between your company
and your customer on your website from initial acquisition to order entry, product
management, bill presentment and payment and inquiry, according to technology developers.
The goal, they say, is to facilitate the interaction so that it is as self-directed as
possible.

Customer care software developers such as Frank Ricotta, president of DMW Worldwide,
Colorado Springs, Colo., say it is possible to cue information based on the customer’s
selections during the web session or known preferences. For example, DMW client Japanese
Communication Inc., a Tokyo-based cellular service provider, entices each customer with
new features based on the profile of their existing handsets and subscribed services.
Alternatively, help information can "pop up" to assist consumers based on
certain predetermined click-stream sequences.

In this way, service providers can help browsers find their own answers to questions,
manage their product portfolio and subscribe to new services.

Live Interaction Options

While proactive and labor-free environment described above is the nirvana of web care,
the customer’s need to contact a live person can never be completely eliminated. So,
telecom providers must be prepared to integrate this option. Most companies with a
presence on the web are beginning to offer a level of interactivity between customers and
customer service representatives (CSRs). The most basic form of interaction is e-mail, as
offered by Tel-Save. While not real-time, e-mail is an essential component of the
web-based customer care environment. Customers want the ability to send in the questions
whenever they want, knowing that the response may not be immediate.

The problem with e-mail is that most call centers are not set up to handle them in an
efficient way, explains David Cooperstein, an analyst with Forrester Research, Cambridge,
Mass., in his 1997 report, "Call Centers Meet the Web."

"As the number of e-mail users triples by 2000, the traffic coming into the call
center will follow, creating headaches for call center managers," Cooperstein states.
The avalanche, he says, will introduce new issues of how to route messages to appropriate
agents, and how to best employ the medium as a sales channel.

As noted earlier, another potential problem with e-mail is that, in some cases, it ends
the functionality of the web session for the customer, requiring the customer to come back
later to retrieve a reply or to resort to calling the traditional phone-based call center
for more immediate answers.

According to Michael Lynch, vice president of product management for Infinet Software
Inc., Boulder, Colo., real-time, synchronized interaction and communication between the
customer and the CSR while both are navigating the customer’s account in a browser is key
to successful web-based care. In this scenario, the most basic form of interaction is
hypertext markup language (HTML)–in conjunction with JavaScript and Java–via a web
browser such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. If the customer
initiates an interactive session with a CSR, their two desktop presentations are
synchronized, meaning they both see the same view as one or the other navigates through
the system.

The real-time dialogue component of this interaction can occur in the following three
ways:

  • Chat–A variation on e-mail, chat or instant messaging enables text-based interaction between customers and CSRs. This is a useful option since many Internet users are proficient with this interface. Additionally, Lynch says, support for this functionality can give companies the option to form topical "chat rooms" in which customers can find answers to questions or have discussions with other users.

  • Voice Around the Net (VAN)/Call Me Back–The VAN component, also known as "call me back" capability, allows the customer to request an immediate CSR callback. With the click of an on-screen button, the customer’s phone rings and, when answered, a CSR greets them by name. In addition, the CSR already has on-screen what the customer has on-screen. This is called "voice around the net" because the customer and CSR are interacting with HTML via the Internet (TCP/IP) while simultaneously interacting with voice via the plain old telephone service (POTS) connection. Of course, this requires that the customer’s Internet connection be a separate line from the telephone connection.

  • Voice (or Video) over IP–Because some customers will access the Internet over the same line they use for voice, it is possible for them to interact with a CSR in real-time without disconnecting from the Internet by using voice or video over Internet protocol (IP). This technology enables HTML, Java, voice, audio and video to be converted into TCP/IP packets and be sent asynchronously across the same line. The customer must have the requisite IP telephony functionality (software, microphone, speakers) available from many vendors such as VocalTec Communications Ltd., NetSpeak Corp., etc. The service provider must have Internet telephony gateway capabilities.

Incorporating either of the latter two options, or "voice-enabling" a
website, is the ultimate goal for web-based customer care. "By clicking on a ‘talk to
a live agent’ button, users will be able to ask a warm body about delivery times, product
specs and other details not on the website. Add in browser-sharing sessions and web forms
and you’ve got the makings of a high-powered online retail shop or robust technical
support center," says Forrester’s Cooperstein. "This person-to-person
interaction will turbocharge web commerce over the next five years."

Ironically, telecom service providers are among the early developers of voice-enabled
website products, although as an industry, very few are using it themselves. AT&T
Corp.’s Project iA and Sprint Communications Co.’s Give Me a Call program are two
high-profile examples of call-me-back applications. In January, MCI Telecommunications
Corp. announced the availability of Click’nConnect, its own brand of this high-tech
customer service solution with NetSpeak, providing the Internet telephony gateway
capabilities.

The Value in Cyber Care

As it concerns their own customer care organizations, telecom service providers may
have a particular onus to speed adoption of web-enabled call center, if only to protect
their profile as leading-edge technology firms.

"Telephone companies want to be on the forefront of technology," says Hugh
Goldstein, assistance marketing manager for VocalTec, developers of an Internet telephony
gateway and the Surf & Call web browser plug in. "Web-enabled call centers are
the rage. Carriers want to be a part of that."

Most, however, are being beat to the punch by retailers, financial firms and even a
pharmaceutical company. Service providers aren’t too late, but product lifecycles
shortened by fast-paced technological development are putting on the pressure. "It’s
not really forward-looking companies that are looking at it. For mainstream companies,
it’s becoming a common question. We’re not where we were six months ago with the early
adopters," says industry analyst Ken Landoline, director for Giga Information Group,
Cambridge, Mass.

Perhaps part of the reason for its accelerated adoption lies in the technology’s
inherent benefits: improved customer service and dramatic cost savings, two holy grails in
the quest to be the best provider in the highly competitive communications market.
Advocates say that customer satisfaction and loyalty can be impacted through a web-based
care program. Customers get what they want–primarily control and convenience. They now
have control and access to their account information and the ability to add and subtract
services. They also can have immediate access to information without long waits in an
automatic call distribution (ACD) queue and at any time day or night. In addition, says
Infinet Software’s Lynch, they get a consistent experience each time. "There’s no
need to hang up the phone and call back to get a CSR who’s in a better mood," he
says.

Furthermore, off-loading routine inquiries constituting 80 percent of all customer
service calls has the potential to reduce call loads and staffing requirements as well as
alleviate boredom for the remaining CSRs, improving job satisfaction and reducing burnout.
The resulting fewer CSRs and lessened call center churn also translate to cost savings–a
primary reason carriers are looking at web care.

"In the communications space, any way you can eke out a little more margin is
important to carriers," says Lynch. The engineers at his company hail from the
telecom industry’s heavy hitters such as MCI and Bell Atlantic Corp. As such, the company
is targeting communications firms for its web-based billing and care package, Infinet’s
Customer Interaction Suite (ICIS). "At costs ranging from $1 to $4 per minute,
reducing the average call time can save a carrier a lot of money," Lynch says.
"Imagine eliminating the cost altogether."

Other savings can come from using ubiquitous browser technology, which can be loaded
into a web server once and accessed by all agent terminals. Furthermore, many of the
software-based solutions by Infinet, DMW and WhiteCap Development Corp., Wakefield, Mass.,
to name a few, do not require $5,000 workstations for each CSR, but can utilize low-cost
PCs. WhiteCap, for example, sells its NT-based application for less than $5,000 per server
and around $200 per agent.

Software developers are quick to note that even though the expense is nominal compared
to what carriers have invested before in their call centers, web care is not meant to
replace traditional call centers but to extend them. Says WhiteCap of its eponymous
product: "WhiteCap expands the definition of a call by providing call-flow control
for any kind of connection, either traditional telephone, Internet, e-mail or other
messaging forms. One customer may call in and respond to an automated attendant while
another may visit the website. Yet both may be queued to whichever person is best
qualified to handle that particular problem or question."

Implications

Where venturing into cyber care becomes tricky is determining how best to implement it;
not only what interface to use, but also what degree of control to give to the customer.
Additionally, the benefits of seamless integration on the front-end of the customer care
equation bring up the larger issue of integrating the call center with the back-end
functions of rating, billing and network management.

In most carrier organizations, there remains a physical separation between the two
functions–the reason why CSRs at large companies only have customer account data from
weeks past. Making such data available real-time can be a costly undertaking. Similarly,
provisioning can be managed seamlessly and automatically by customers over the web if
there exists an open interface into the network management center. If not, proprietary
legacy systems may need to be replaced or daily batch order entry must serve as a
second-class substitute in the near-term. Long-term customer demand will force carriers to
address these long-avoided changes.

A frequent contributor to PHONE+, Khali Henderson is a principal with Marcom
Support Services, a Phoenix-based firm providing marketing communications services to
telecommunications companies. She can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s Note: This is the last of three articles looking at ways
telephone companies are using the power of the Internet to acquire and serve their
customers. In March, Part One covered online sign-ups. Last month, Part Two examined
online billing options. And in this issue, Part Three will delve into online customer
service.

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