High-tech Customer Service
Technological advancements within contact centers are revolutionizing the way catalogers answer and manage inbound calls.
And if implemented properly, automated, inbound call programs can streamline caller-cataloger interactions and improve overall customer relations.
Added bonus: By using these technologies, catalogers are saving time and money—good news in these economically challenging times.
The Virtual CSR
Imagine a virtual customer service representative (CSR) through which callers can place, change or check their order status.
For example, officials at NetByTel (www.netbytel.com) say their NetByTel Connected system’s virtual agents recognize human colloquialisms, ask callers to repeat information the technology couldn’t initially register, and it even hums patiently while waiting for a caller’s input. In fact, the computerized agent sounds so human that some of its users forget they’re talking to a computer.
“One of our major clients, Office Depot, actually has had customers talk to the virtual agent as if it’s a human being,” says Steve Avalone, vice president of marketing at NetByTel, Boca Raton, FL. “They’ve even asked agents about the weather.”
In addition, Avalone says, if the automated agent still cannot understand callers after a few attempts, it switches customers to the top of the call center queue and states: “I’m sorry. I’m having a bad day and will get you to a live person right away.”
NetByTel officials say a benefit to “going virtual” is that customers who interact with a virtual agent sometimes can get a more pleasant, upbeat experience than if they dealt with a live agent. Why? Customers won’t hear sighs of frustration or negative intonations, which they sometimes get from live agents.
It’s this kind of customer service that can make NetByTel Connected a successful customer service tool for catalogers. And the fact that catalog companies can save up to 80 percent of the cost of a typical inbound call potentially makes this an economically viable option.
In terms of time savings and productivity improvements, Avalone reports that Office Depot’s items-per-order rate has surpassed that of Web-based orders. Additionally, the number of calls in the live queue is reduced, and so customer service is improved. And the virtual agent provides real-time responses to orders, which can be witnessed via the Web instantaneously.
Interactive voice recognition (IVR) technology is rapidly gaining steam, especially in the area of inbound call management.
But implementing IVR while maintaining a high level of customer service—and doing it in a time- and cost-effective manner—can be difficult. A Web-hosted IVR system can streamline the process. NetXentry’s WebForPhone (www.netxentry.com) platform can help catalogers create their own professional, voice-activated interface without investing in the hardware and software required to set up a system in-house. Its inbound applications include account inquiry, shipping status, dealer locator, inventory confirmation and catalog request/literature fulfillment options, which are available 24 hours a day.
Automated speech-recognition technology, such as IVR, is proven to have higher customer usage than touch-tone applications, according to Peter Senescu, vice president of sales, WebForPhone, Philadelphia. “The interface offers a certain level of personalization that’s perfect for catalogers and Internet retailers who manage multiple sites,” he says.
Senescu cites Global Sports, a company that manages sporting goods retail Web sites such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, as an example. When Dick’s sales circulars (printed with Global Sports’ 800 number) are distributed, consumers call looking for the nearest store location. With the WebForPhone application, callers say their ZIP code and listen for the nearest Dick’s Sporting Goods store location. In addition, the application can transfer callers who want to place an order.
It used to cost Global Sports $3 to handle each of these non-revenue generating calls, says Senescu. “We took the calls and slashed Global’s costs by about 80 percent.”
The Franklin Mint, Philadelphia, is another retailer for which NetXentry has created a WebForPhone application. The system accepts inbound calls from customers requesting their account balances and order and shipping status. “The calls typically cost $4 to $5 each,” says Senescu. “We’ve reduced that to 40 to 60 cents per call.”
The technology platform also can improve customer service by enabling live reps to concentrate on high-value calls. Specifically, it reduces queue times and frees agents to spend more time with callers who need special services. This has been helpful for The Franklin Mint, which receives upwards of 1,500 calls a day—even more during peak holiday seasons.
“We always get a surge of activity around the holidays and many customers just want to check the status of a shipment,” says Mike Figliuolo, director of customer service operations at The Franklin Mint. “With WebForPhone, those customers get their answers immediately, while others who are waiting for a live CSR are moved through the queue more quickly.”
According to Figliuolo, WebForPhone’s functions were seamlessly integrated into The Franklin Mint’s inbound menus, providing fewer options with multiple pieces of information. “Having too many different menus and levels tends to confuse and frustrate callers, so we decided to keep the system simple,” he says.
Share the Web
Another form of technology that catalogers might find useful is a real-time, Web-based, communications solution that complements a call center’s existing live telephone-based support and Web site knowledge bases. While the most common form of real-time communication is live chat, newer technologies that offer expanded capabilities are emerging.
One vendor offering this technology is WebEx, San Jose, CA (www.webex.com). Its Web-conferencing service enables customer support or help-desk agents to immediately connect to calling customers through their Web browsers to view any application running on customers’ systems.
“For catalogers this means their CSRs literally can walk customers through the pages of a catalog while pointing out different pieces of merchandise with an annotation tool,” says Colin Smith, spokesperson for WebEx. “Customers actually can watch the agent circle a pair of slacks or input an order.”
In addition, the system allows CSRs to navigate customers through the cataloger’s Web site to show the different resources it offers. “In a sense, the application serves as a tool that teaches customers how to use the site,” says Smith. “They can learn while they watch, which ultimately will bring customers online more often.”
What makes this so beneficial, adds WebEx spokesperson Alexis Curreri, is that customers will gain the confidence to use a cataloger’s Web site for future orders, thus reducing the number of calls coming into the call center. “One of the greatest aspects of this service is that customers feel as if the CSRs are right there with them every step of the way,” says Curreri. “This is the type of customer service that keeps consumers coming back for more.”
The technology also enhances the communication between the cataloger and its call center/outsource company. With the ability to view spreadsheets, call-volume reports and other data from remote locations simultaneously, the cataloger doesn’t have to wait for faxes or phone calls. Instead, both parties can share the desktop to communicate information instantly. Adding to this high level of interaction is video-conferencing technology that allows parties to see and communicate with one another as if in the same room.
Indeed, it’s a brave new world in call center technologies.
Sharon R. Cole is the senior editor of Promotional Marketing and Business Forms, Labels & Systems magazines.