E-commerce fuels call center growth

E-commerce fuels call center growth

Tehrani, Rich

Any psychologist will tell you that people who work with computers on a regular basis soon become accustomed to the instant gratification computers provide. I first learned of this concept when I was a student in engineering school at the University of Connecticut. Although I was in the engineering school, we were required to take nontechnical elective courses. It was during one of these courses that the professor explained the computer/instant gratification concept. He revealed that people who work with computers on a regular basis become accustomed to the immediate feedback that computers provide – something often lacking in interpersonal communications. Therefore, it becomes difficult for these people to adjust to the varying and much slower response times of human interaction.

Along with the instant gratification, computers bring increases in productivity and efficiency: people who work in an automated environment are much more productive than those who do not. As an example of efficiency increases that computers provide, I think back to how I communicated with others in my office before we implemented e-mail. In the “bad old days,” as I call them, to communicate in written form to a number of people a message had to be typed, printed and then copied on a machine that was remote from your desk. Frequently the copier jammed and you spent the next 5 minutes elbow-deep in a mesh of gears and toner residue. When you finally made your copies and scrubbed the used toner off of your arms, you then placed a copy of the message individually in each person’s inbox. Contrast that to today’s method of interoffice communication where simply addressing an e-mail to “All Team Members” accomplishes in a single step what took many annoying steps before.

As you might imagine, I am comfortable with technology and love to receive instant feedback, allowing me to work more efficiently and quickly. I was thrilled when I found out that e– commerce would allow me to purchase almost anything faster online than with a call center agent. I am experimenting with e-commerce as often as possible. I have purchased books on Amazon.com and done research on various products I wanted to purchase, as my past columns have discussed.

One of my more recent e-commerce purchases was of airline tickets for a holiday-time vacation. Using Microsoft Expedia (www.expedia.com) I was able to quickly find the cheapest fares to Florida, where I could escape the frigid December weather of Connecticut.

I was happy with my airline ticket e-commerce experience and arrived safely in Florida. As I sat in my airconditioned hotel room in toasty Miami, I gloated a bit as I viewed TV news weather maps of the U.S. showing record low temperatures all around the country. Meanwhile, Miami was exceeding 80 degrees on a daily basis, so I decided to extend my holiday.

But how would I change my airline tickets when they were purchased through e-commerce? What I am about to say is embarrassing to disclose, but what is a story without the juicy details? Although college was supposed to make me well rounded, perhaps a few more electives were needed to keep me from bringing my laptop and working on my sunny Florida vacation. I figured while I had the laptop, a visit to Expedia’s Web site would aid in rebooking my tickets. No such luck – if changing your tickets is on Expedia’s site, it’s buried behind the scenes, and who has time to navigate menus? I’m on vacation.

So, of course, I dialed Expedia’s call center. How else was I supposed to figure out what to do? My experience with e-mailing companies is that the average return response time is around three days. I would be shoveling snow in three days – I needed instant gratification as always. Guess what? My call to Expedia was answered in a matter of minutes – boy was I a happy camper. I rebooked my flight and chuckled – e-commerce seems to be the best thing to happen to the call center industry in years. Microsoft sets up a Web site to sell tickets and vacation packages and has to build and staff a call center to answer questions the e-commerce site produces.

The formula of e-commerce and a responsive call center works for Expedia – they are experiencing rapid growth. Expedia’s recent sales for 1998 were $250 million including a record $8.5 million worth of business during the week after Thanksgiving. Expedia recently disclosed that 1998’s sales were 150 percent above 1997. A recent CBS.MarketWatch.com interview with Expedia’s product manager, Suzi LeVine, revealed that the company’s customer service representatives were busy during the holiday season and beyond, helping customers whose travel plans had been disrupted by bad weather. I found it interesting that the manager of an ecommerce site put such emphasis on the importance of its customer service reps when talking with the media.

It seems very clear that the variety of new e-commerce sites that are being established are going to need customer service representatives as well. Are consumers really going to tolerate getting books and other products that have been damaged en-route with no easy return mechanism? How do customers send defective products back to e-commerce vendors? E-mail response in its current state is a mockery compared to the relatively instantaneous response a call center gives customers.

A few important lessons from Expedia. First, if you want to start an e-commerce site, please don’t forsake the human aspect of customer service – this will likely be a key differentiator between successful e– commerce implementations and failures. Second, if you are already working in a call center environment selling products and you haven’t explored e-commerce, you are perhaps a year behind. If you think the call center market moves quickly, Internet time, as it is called, will blow you away. To keep up with vital industry information, you should read every issue of C@LL CENTER Solution(TM) (www.ccsmag.com) and CTI(R) (www.climag.com). These publications are written to help you absorb only the important details in this new world of unlimited e-commerce and call center automation opportunities. If you study the latest publications and trade show information sources like a diligent college student, your call center and company will not be left behind by technology. Just as in college, it is important to be well rounded – well rounded in your call center knowledge and business acumen. I wish you all the best of luck in harnessing the wonderful wealth of opportunities available to all of us, and look forward to seeing you at CTI(TM) EXPO in Washington, D.C. May 24-26. Sincerely,

Rich Tehrani

Group Publisher

rtehrani@tmcnet.com For information and subscriptions:

call TMC(TM) at 203-852-6800; or fax to 203-853-2845 or 203-838-4070.

Copyright Technology Marketing Corporation Feb 1999

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