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

comprehensive effort.

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

the day.

"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.


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