The traditional 800-number call center, a bustling place where customer service representatives handle inquiries as fast as possible over the phone, is adapting to the demands of doing business on the Web.
The CSRs, as the service agents are called, are no longer asked to only take customer phone calls. Now, they may also conduct Web-based chat sessions with customers, browse with them on the Web, or prepare responses to incoming e-mail about the products or services their corporation markets.
In many cases, it's leading to a radical reassessment of the call center's role, which the corporate bean counter has long viewed as a cost burden. For a decade, the goal was to get the CSR off the phone with the customer as quickly as possible. Now, there's the growing notion that these transformed call centers, often referred to as customer contact centers, can boost sales and cement customer loyalty through more personalized service.
"It's a great opportunity for companies," said Don Van Doren, president of Vanguard Communications, a consultancy in Morris Plains, N.J., that advises call-center operations.
Van Doren, who made his remarks at the Web-enabled Customer Contact Centers conference in Chicago last week, said this online interaction is particularly important with the "high-value" big spender every business wants to keep.
At Merrill Lynch, phone/Web customer-contact centers are critical to its online trading and financial services businesses. "Our call center has been transformed from a cost center to a profit center, an information vehicle to a customer-relationship channel," says Michael Adornetto, director of the financial firm's client contact technology services.
Merrill Lynch has three contact centers based on Genesys software around the U.S. where 600 CSRs can access an immediate view of the customer record at their computers after the customer has entered a secret code into an interactive voice-response system when placing a call to Merrill Lynch.
The CSRs at these contact centers do more than talk. They also have access to the Web to point customers toward information and they respond to e-mail - though some automated e-mail response is also used.
Judy Nelson, Merrill Lynch's director of direct and interactive financial services, notes that the changes have meant more challenges in finding and training the right kind of CSR.
"It's expensive to bring [CSRs] on board and train them," says Nelson, who said Merrill Lynch has punched up its effort to recognize and reward CSR talent.
For CSRs, the Web does seem to be boosting their image inside corporations.
Frequently viewed as faceless robots urged to keep contact with customers short, the Web-savvy CSR is now being viewed more as a sales agent deserving commissions.
At 1-800-Flowers, which has expanded beyond flowers into other gifts, CSRs have to handle four interactive chat sessions at the same time, says Connie Adcock, vice president of customer services responsible for the firm's six centers, which house a total of 1,000 customer agents.
These agents also take calls and answer e-mail. 1-800-Flowers uses Kana Communications software to manage e-mail and eShare Technologies software for interactive chat.
"Customers want human assistance on the Web, but our customers' expectations have changed - they want everything in dot-com time," Adcock says.