Call centers see Web as tool of the trade
In today's Web-centric world, the phone is not always the preferred choice
for citizens seeking answers from agencies, a fact that has certainly caught
the attention of the Small Business Administration.
Today's consumers want online options, and last December the agency
took the first tentative step toward integrating its Answer Desk system
with World Wide Web capabilities, adding a stand-alone e-mail system. "Our
ultimate goal is to give the community options to choose how they want to
contact us," said Cassandra Smith, Answer Desk supervisor. "That's the wave
of the future."
Still, SBA's initial effort, which involved simply adding a hot button
to its Web site and setting up an e-mail account at its Answer Desk operation
in North Carolina, doesn't begin to take advantage of what a truly Web-enabled
contact center can do for an agency, such as cut costs and streamline reporting
requirements. To do so will take a much more concerted effort.
Luckily, integrating a traditional brick-and-mortar call center with
the virtual world can be accomplished in a couple of different ways, each
of which has its owns pros and cons, offering options to agencies that might
be concerned with resources, time or the cultural impact that such a major
change might have on their existing call center staff.
A Step-by-Step Approach
The easiest way to add Web-based capabilities such as e-mail, text chat
and instant messaging to a call center is to follow SBA's lead and implement
a simple stand-alone system. The benefits, of course, are that it's light
on resources and simple and quick to implement and begin using. But long-term,
this type of system will not meet the growing needs of a true e-business-minded
"Suddenly, you have all these islands of point solutions, which while
they may be great at what they do, you can't bring them back into the call
center and do any integrated reporting," said Ann McCuaig, Internet Solutions
Offer Manager at Lucent Technologies. "You can't, for example, integrate
your e-mail back into your overall business plan, and that's a very frustrating
factor that a lot of customers run into quickly."
What's more, because the system isn't tied into the call center, organizations
can't prioritize incoming questions and thus do not make efficient use of
a center's human resources. Agents assigned to a stand-alone system are
often idle, waiting for the next e-mail or text chat to come through even
while phone customers might be waiting in queue.
Such obvious disadvantages generally lead organizations to take the
next step: integration, which can be done on a piecemeal basis or in a full-blown
With a piecemeal or blended approach, organizations can simply add in
an e-mail system, for example, and integrate it with their existing call
center components to help improve workload balancing and help prioritize
inquiries. Taking this path allows organizations to add Web capabilities
as their customers demand it, to gently introduce these new technologies
to their traditional phone staff without overwhelming them and to do it
in a relatively quick manner.
Unfortunately, the biggest disadvantage to trying to simply add another
component is that "it's not a solid foundation that you can expand, grow
or modify very easily," according to Larry Fromm, vice president of business
development for Cellit Inc.
As a general rule, call centers involve a complex and fragile infrastructure
and are often made up of as many as eight different components. With a piecemeal
approach, "you're simply adding more complexity and fragility into it, and
that can cause some serious headaches when it comes to operations," Fromm
said. "And it gets exponentially more complex as you add more components
because you have to integrate each one with everything that was already
In addition, Fromm said, "You can't really have blended routing. So
at best, what the different systems are doing is trying to coordinate and
hand off between one another."
The Whole Nine Yards
The final option that agencies have is to buy a single comprehensive
system, which is offered as a packaged solution by a growing number of companies.
In an ideal world, all agencies would take this approach because these
solutions are fully integrated with a single routing system, as well as
the Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) system and other management software,
in the most efficient manner possible.
Such a system enables agents to handle any manner of inquiry and have
a view of all previous customer interactions on their screens, no matter
what the medium. An integrated system also enables organizations to quickly
and easily prioritize calls and produce integrated reports at the end of
"These types of solutions can provide a consistent customer experience
regardless of how the customer chooses to interact with the agency," said
John Mahan, general manager of ECI Government Systems, an Arlington, Va.-based
provider of integrated contact center solutions.
However, a comprehensive package may not be right for all agencies.
Such solutions require a sizable upfront investment, though agencies can
save some money by integrating the new package with their existing ACD
What's more, certain agencies may have to perform upfront infrastructure
mod-ifications or business process re- engineering, depending on their setup.
Agencies will also have to refine their Web sites to work with the new contact
center, adding, for example, buttons that instruct agents to call customers.
"Determining how to go about this requires the same steps as any other
IT investment," said Mahan. "You need to determine what your needs are,
what your resources are, and then decide the best approach."
For its part, SBA is still in the process of determining how to proceed,
but with the Answer Desk already accepting thousands of e-mail messages
each month, there's little doubt that it will soon begin the process of
integrating its traditional call center with the virtual world.
"This is where the world is going," Smith said. "The interest is already
there from our customers, but we want to make sure that no matter what we
do, we always provide quality customer service. That's our bottom line."
—Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.