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Bye-bye call center?

Not by a long shot. E-commerce's arrival signals changes for, but not the demise of, big "800" number customer service operations.

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Although it's true that calls to 1-800-GO-FEDEX have decreased (by how much the package delivery giant won't say), Federal Express still has operators standing by. Why? Because most people just don't include the World Wide Web as part of their daily routines. The inclination is to reach for the phone, not fire up the browser.

But what happens to the call center when everybody is on the Web - all the time?

Even if everyone is on the Web all the time, a call center is still a must. Just ask Cisco. All Cisco customers are online by definition. They click to configure, click to order and click to troubleshoot. So why on earth would Cisco need a call center?

Despite the online conveniences, Cisco customers sometimes pick up their phones. For example, they call when their needs are so urgent or the problems so severe that they have to get an answer almost immediately.

Callers also may be looking for answers to unusual questions: "I spilled coffee into an unplugged router, so I soaked the router in distilled water and dried it in the oven overnight. When I turned it on, there was a little smoke, and I can't seem to update the routing table. Will the repair be covered under my warranty?"

Or, customers call because they're looking for information that's beyond the scope of the Web site. "Our customers are better informed and are asking a higher tier of question when they call in," says Peter Corless, a content manager at Cisco in San Jose.

That translates into change for call center operators. "The Cisco channel and support representatives have to step back from controlling - or bottlenecking - customer transactions. They must become facilitators," Corless says.

What's more, the call center staff has to provide emergency backup. "Hundreds of thousands of users per month have come to rely on the online help service. If service is interrupted, support personnel need to be able to step in and assist the customers using traditional methods and traditional media," Corless explains.

Granted, the ability to automate customer service and support from a Web site is improving daily - frequently asked questions, knowledge bases, configuration agents - you name it. The amount of technology you can throw at a problem knows no bounds and, in many cases, can significantly diminish the time it takes to help a customer. You've got a choice of e-mail tools, such as Mustang Software's Internet Message Center and Aptex Software's Select Response; Web site visitor tracking tools, such as BroadVision's One-To-One and Inference Corp.'s CBR Content Navigator; call center tools, such as Siebel Systems' SupportTeam; and enterprise marketing automation tools, such as Rubric's EMA2.

The trick is providing the right combination of technology and human contact. People have a limited amount of patience when dealing with technology. You need to offer a connection for those who hit their frustration thresholds.

Give visitors an e-mail address to which they can send questions. Give them a phone number they can call when the issue is more urgent. And make certain that somebody who knows the content on that particular page answers the phone.

Providing different numbers for different topics on a Web site is not difficult - it's just not common. Geico Direct Insurance is a good example of a company that has figured out the numbers game. It sports a long list of subjects and associated phone numbers at Auto policy holders call one number and homeowners a second, for example.

Some people prefer communicating through the keyboard, especially if they can get a written record of the conversation. For such customers, Live Response offers chat software and a live chat service. At the end of an exchange, it displays a transcript page for safekeeping.

One Live Response customer is Advantage Merchant Services. At, it displays the message "Chat Live NOW with one of our Online Representatives 24 hours a day!" The company deals with Webmasters who want to accept credit card payments and need to learn more about the process.

In the "cool" category, AT&T and Sprint offer Call-Me buttons. A customer enters a phone number, clicks and his phone rings. When the customer answers, a service representative is on the line. In the future, the Call-Me feature will be a courtesy.

Answering the phone with a pleasant, "How can I help you at our Web site?" is a nice feature. It gives a representative the chance to walk the customers through the site and show them where answers can be found.

HipBONE Software offers interactive Web communication software, called Co-navigator, that lets two or more people share the cursor. To become co-navigators, partners take a quick trip over to to become Siamese twins. They then can move the cursor, click or fill out forms. In doing so, the process becomes, "Here, let me show you" or "Here, let me fill that out for you. Did I spell your name correctly?"

In the long run, a reassuring voice on the other end of the phone is the only thing that can truly soothe frayed nerves and knit up the unraveling sleeve of a customer relationship. Nobody finds solace in a Web page that says, "Gosh, we're sorry."


Sterne is principal of Target Marketing, an Internet marketing and customer service consulting firm in Santa Barbara, Calif. He can be reached at jsterne@

E-commerce Net Resources
Primers, case studies, tools and reviews.

MCI service ties Web users to call center agents
Network World, 2/9/98.

Lucent's CentreVu call center technology

Call center resources
From The Brady Group consultancy.

Online tutorials for call center management
From ACD.

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