Integration: Uncarted Territory

FRAMINGHAM (07/06/2000) - In the best retail stores, service is always available but never intrusive. The signage is clear, the store layout inviting, the Muzak pleasant. And the customer browses uninterrupted--until he has a question. Then--whoosh--the salesclerk appears immediately. May I help you?

Will customers accept anything less from online shopping? More and more businesses suffering from the abandoned-shopping-cart problem think not. Many companies--not just retailers--are attempting to replicate online the benefits of live customer support. When customers have questions--click--they connect to live support, using their preferred medium--e-mail, chat session or even a phone conversation with a representative who can push webpages to them.

Providing that level of support is no trivial task. The natural place to route incoming customer contact, regardless of the medium by which that contact arrives, is the call center--in fact, on the conference circuit the term "customer interaction center" has become more fashionable. After all, most companies have support representatives standing by; why not leverage that human infrastructure and expertise to handle all kinds of contact? However, connecting those centers with the Internet poses thorny technical and personnel issues. The technologies and products are fairly new, and the skill sets are not entirely the same for phone and Web support agents. But the potential benefits are compelling. Bringing all customer interactions through one center ultimately can help companies develop a single view of the customer, do more targeted marketing and lower manpower costs. Here, three veterans share the tips and tactics they have gleaned in their early Web/call center integration efforts.

BANKING THROUGH MANY CHANNELS bank united ( Bank United, the self-described "largest depository institution headquartered in Texas," runs two networked call centers in Houston with about 325 total seats. These centers support the regional banking business (roughly 150 branches) as well as nationally offered mortgage and lending businesses. Wayne Sadin, executive vice president and CIO, was brought in two years ago to address the chairman's desire to move BU from laggard to leader in e-commerce.

Sadin describes Bank United as "a technology turnaround."

"We call our strategy 'channel congruence,'" Sadin says. "Customers should get the same data in the same format, no matter what channel they come in through.

We don't view online banking as a different bank." However, call center personnel skills and training issues rise to the forefront in such a move. The issue of "blending" has been around call centers for a long time--can a single representative handle both inbound and outbound calls? It's important because having an ambidextrous staff allows the call center to use its manpower more productively. If incoming calls for support hit a lull, the agents can start making outbound sales calls. Integrating multiple contact modes into the call center raises blending questions of another sort: The verbal skills that make for great phone support don't necessarily help an agent handle written e-mail or Web chat in a professional manner.

Bank United's call center pay scale now reflects agents' ability to handle multiple media; employees move to higher grades as they become more versatile.

And the bank uses a "media blending portal" from Aspect Communications to perform skills-based routing, sending both calls and e-mails--and eventually Web chat--to representatives with the appropriate skills.

Not that there weren't some purely technical issues for Bank United to address.

"Before we could do this [integration], we had to do forklift infrastructure upgrades. We spent a couple million dollars and had over a year of work making upgrades every weekend," Sadin says.

Bank United didn't want to tackle every piece of the Web/call center connection simultaneously. It picked e-mail support as the first priority, with Web chat to be added later. However, Sadin says prioritization of one channel over another is not as simple as saying "phone is more important than e-mail." True, telephone callers expect a more-or-less instant response; typically e-mailers can wait a few hours. That means an agent handling an e-mail might be instructed to set aside that task midmessage in order to take an urgent call.

"But e-mail is a primary communication medium for many business-to-business customers," Sadin notes. "In some cases they may need an immediate response--say the stock market is going to close in 10 minutes," he says. So now Bank United is mulling over the possibility of classifying incoming e-mail as "preemptable or nonpreemptable."

It's the kind of unresolved issue that exemplifies the challenges of bringing multiple channels of communication into one place. "As you expand into each new channel, new issues come up," Sadin says.

AN INTEGRATED APPROACH stream international ( Stream International's call centers are its business. The company began life as Corporate Software, providing telephone technical support for major software vendors. It became Stream upon merging with Global Software Service, a business unit of R.R. Donnelley and Sons; now Stream has diversified its customer base, handling technical support for financial institutions, for example. Growing about 50 percent per year, Stream operates six U.S. and four European call centers, with more on the way.

Stream started building its electronic support capabilities about four years ago--since it had a call center full of highly technical employees who liked to tinker in their downtime. Lloyd Linnell, chief technical officer at the Canton, Mass.-based company, says that even two years ago, Stream had to cobble together its own integrated approach to electronic support and often worked with small vendors--such as chat vendor NetEffects--to help them build up more robust call center offerings. Now, he says, vendors are starting to consolidate, and Stream is taking a different tack. "We're looking at bigger vendors because you need that engineering muscle," he explains. "I think the market will wind up with half a dozen titans--for example, Lucent, Nortel, Cisco, Genesys."

This activity in the vendor space should be music to the ears of any CIO who has spent time patching together the customary mlange of call center applications. The disadvantage is that it will be harder to swap out individual pieces, but for information executives who have grappled with integrating dozens of vendors in the call center, that's a small price to pay. "You want common interfaces and also a single set of business rules for parsing, categorizing and routing" incoming contacts, whether via voice or Internet, Linnell says. "Plus you want a link to the customer relationship management piece. Nobody is quite there yet today, but all the big vendors have road maps, and in 12 months you'll be able to buy that [integrated suite]."

Meanwhile, Stream has discovered a number of useful methods for handling e-mail support. "Whenever possible, don't give people the opportunity to type," Linnell says. Stream helps its clients format incoming e-mail as much as possible. Customers sending e-mail from a Stream client's website, for example, might be presented with a series of radio buttons to check rather than simply a blank page and a blinking cursor. That formatting allows Stream's Microsoft Exchange servers to parse e-mail into queues based on content.

Agents in the call center are certified to handle queues appropriate for their product knowledge. When an agent sits down to answer a technical question about network interface cards, up pops a set of macro buttons that link to related FAQ documents and knowledge bases. Linnell says that in this way, agents are able to handle 90 percent of all e-mail in point-and-click fashion, using the macro buttons to drop appropriate text into the e-mail response. This approach saves time and also helps assure technical and grammatical accuracy. When agents start at Stream, all of their written communications pass through quality control before going out to the customer; as agents build and demonstrate expertise they eventually get "certified" so that quality control checks are done only on a spot basis.

These e-mails are integrated with customer records from support phone calls.

That means when a Stream agent picks up a call, the customer information that pops up onscreen includes the information that has already been sent to that customer by e-mail, if any. In fact, Linnell says the benefits of integration are so strong that his company won't handle e-mail support for a client unless the client also sources its phone support with Stream.

REAL-TIME ONLINE SERVICE lands' end ( Lands' End Inc., a clothing-and-gift direct merchant, supports its catalog and online retail business from its Dodgeville, Wisconsin, headquarters. On an average day, Lands' End handles 40,000 to 50,000 calls. Leading up to the holiday season, call volume spikes up to 100,000 daily. Competition in Lands' End's core market is fierce and fought on the basis of customer service as much as anything else. Lands' End's latest volley in that battle is Lands' End Live (LEL), which debuted on the Web in October 1999. LEL is an attempt to more closely mirror the live shopping experience by connecting the customer to a service rep ("personal shopper" in Lands' End parlance) in real-time. Customers interact with CSRs through text chat boxes, and agents can push webpages to customers' browsers to help them navigate through the site or find products.

Customers with a second phone line can opt for a phone conversation instead of online chat.

Jeremy Hauser, a Lands' End research and analysis specialist, says his company felt that live, online support was "an imperative" in order to stay at the forefront of customer service. How to do it, though, was less clear. The retailer examined a half-dozen approaches, including outsourcing to third parties who would either simply host the applications for remote access by Lands' End personnel or provide the support entirely. Ultimately, the company chose a turnkey Cisco hardware and software solution. The LEL application runs on its own server.

Three key factors played into this decision, according to Hauser. One, Lands' End didn't want to outsource the personnel handling the calls. For a company that attempts to differentiate itself on customer service, Hauser said that option was uncomfortable. Two, the company wanted a vendor with experience handling call center integration, which Cisco had. Three, the system fit in with Lands' End's existing IT infrastructure. Hauser says the Cisco box runs on Solaris, and Lands' End already had Unix expertise on staff. The LEL application is entirely browser-based, which simplified training. New agents receive more than 70 hours of training on Lands' End products and services; using the LEL application itself requires only an extra half-day of training.

LEL has been running since October 1999. Hauser says the company has done no formal cost justification, but that "thousands" of customers use the LEL system every day. "We're trying to track their satisfaction by looking at transcripts and polling our CSRs," he says.

Got any smart tricks for managing customer touchpoints? Reach Executive Editor Derek Slater's contact center at

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