Call centres feeling Web's impact

Customer service agents now engage in e-mail, online chat and Web collaboration - in which an agent takes control of a customer's browser to guide the person to specific Web pages - in addition to traditional phone communications.

Traditional call centres, staffed by customer service representatives taking in-bound toll-free calls, are starting to add Web-based means for interacting with the public.

However, there's the practical need to keep the number of these interactive Web sessions to a manageable level. For that reason, businesses in greater numbers also have begun using customer relationship management (CRM) software called Web FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), which let customers help themselves.

Self-service FAQ software lets a corporation post a searchable list of answers to the most commonly asked questions about products. That way, customers can read information on the Web before turning to e-mail or interactive chat for help. Web FAQ software typically tracks how many visitors use it.

Putting Web FAQs to use

Polaroid Corp, for example, is using RightNow Technologies' CRM software for Web FAQs and customer e-mail management.

Polaroid's manager of worldwide service communications, Yale Cohen, says Web FAQs are an effective way to keep e-mail volume under control even as the number of visitors to Polaroid.com rises.

If a visitor finds that the Web FAQ is inadequate for whatever reason, that person can fill out a Web form. This form is then routed to the appropriate customer service agent, who would typically e-mail a response.

"The FAQ has cut down dramatically on the number of e-mails to our customer call centres," Cohen says. Polaroid began using the RightNow software for Web FAQs on a hosted basis last year. Since then, customer contact reports show that customer e-mail volume has dropped by about one-third, while the number of visitors each month to Polaroid.com has roughly doubled to 50,000.

Research firms contend that Web FAQs are also the least-expensive means to answer questions. According to Forrester Research and Giga Information Group, Web self-service overall averages $US1 per customer contact, while a toll free telephone conversation can range from $US10 to $US33, and e-mail from $US3 to $US10.

One reason for the upward spike in Polaroid Web visits is that America Online Inc last June purchased Polaroid digital cameras to sell directly online. Polaroid's call centres handle post-sale questions for online and brick-and-mortar retailers.

"We can tell retailers 'We have a dynamic help site so you won't have to provide the call centre to answer customer questions,' "Cohen points out. "It's a valuable asset for us." So valuable that Polaroid plans to Web-enable its call centres across Europe for multilingual support.

With these kinds of changes, it's no wonder the traditional call centre is now being referred to as the "customer contact centre".

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More about America OnlineForrester ResearchGiga Information GroupPolaroidRightNow Technologies

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