Three years ago, LucasArts Entertainment was on its way to becoming a victim of its own success. As a leading purveyor of high-level, multiplayer computer games, the Lucasfilm Ltd. spinoff found itself constantly inundated with questions from gaming enthusiasts on the finer points of its various electronic entertainment.
In response, the company hired ever-greater numbers of technical support personnel in order to interact with its inquisitive customers one on one. "We didn't know any other way to respond to our customers' demands back then," admits Brian Carlson, knowledge base administrator for the San Rafael, Calif.-based company. "It may sound strange because we're a technology company, but we didn't even have a Web site then," he says.
Not that one hadn't been in the works. As a leader in the effort to create the company's Web site, Carlson saw an opportunity to solve the company's customer service dilemma. He had heard of software from a San Francisco company named Inference that enabled call centers to use their company Web sites to assume many of the routine responses handled by overworked call center agents.
"Today," he reports, "we are able to answer 80 per cent of our customers' questions at the Web site, although a caller can access the call center directly through the Web site if there's still a problem. We have between 500 and 1,000 successful searches per day." Mark Tonnesen, IT senior director of customer advocacy for Cisco Systems, had a different problem a year ago when he also made the decision to integrate the company's Web site with a call center. Predictably, Cisco already had a highly elaborate, informative site, but Tonnesen questioned whether it was all the sales tool it could have been. "We didn't think it was answering customers' presales questions adequately. People couldn't decide what product to buy, and they often just gave up," he says.
Cisco found the answer in Burlington, Mass.-based WebLine Communications 's software solution suite, products that, while akin to the Inference software, emphasized facilitating communications across the Web site from the call center rather than enhancing inherent Web site functionality. Through WebLine solution software, customers can participate in chat or telephone exchanges with a sales agent while online, and sales agents can use a supervised browsing function that enables them to push selective Web pages or even large files to the customer. The agent can also use collaborative "whiteboarding" sessions, where documents are shared and software is demonstrated for the customer while continuing to interact with customers.
Initially at Cisco, the software placed heavy demands on agents as they struggled to learn the necessary skills, but ultimately, Tonnesen says, the payoff justified the transitional discomfort. "It's too soon to quantify the results from the changes," he says, "but I have no doubt that customer satisfaction has increased." All Together Now LucasArts and Cisco are using a new kind of customer support software that promises to revolutionise electronic commerce. Known as Web site/call center integration, integrated contact center or teleweb software, this business tool aims to provide unified administration of all contact points while simultaneously and transparently routing callers to appropriate information resources. "Companies are finding that Web sites and call centers need to be integrated seamlessly," explains Geoffrey Bock, senior analyst with the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston. "We expect a lot of growth in that area." Two key concepts figure into this new model for remote business transactions: endowing the Web site with the intelligence to serve the customer better-in essence, to support customer interactions with software agents; and providing for customer/sales-force interactions within the Web site as well as via a telephone connection.
One product differs considerably from another in its ability to profile the customer or process customer requests. It also differs in the scope of the interactions between customer and sales agent permitted at the Web site.
Nevertheless, most of these packages address common concerns of the sales department; namely, how to use sales-force automation and human resources synergistically.
Web site/call center integration products are a subcategory of computer-telephone integration (CTI), but they differ radically from earlier approaches, which were really about automating the phone system or providing more narrowly defined software support to sales agents. In the past, CTI in the sales/support context was generally used to enhance the effectiveness of an existing operation-the call center-through such applications as predictive dialing (automated dialing from a list of preselected numbers), automatic call distribution (ACD) for assigning callers to agent queues and automatic "screen pops," whereby customer information is displayed to the agent at the same time telephone contact is made.
A parallel but functionally distinct development was interactive voice response (IVR), where a program performs the function-often ineffectively-of a switchboard operator. Frequently, those same functions are incorporated into Web site/call center integration software, but the difference between the new products and the CTI solutions is that the Web site has now entered into the equation as a likely first point of customer contact. Thus the Web site has become an extension of the call center and vice versa. What is being created is a unified presence meant to change the nature of the online buying experience for the customer.
The simplest manifestation of the new phenomenon are the Call Me icons featured in nearly all of these software offerings. A click on this icon and the entry of a phone number immediately summons a sales agent. Many systems also feature a chat function where the customer can communicate with an agent via text in real-time as well as in e-mail. An emerging capability is IP voice, which is ultimately the goal, where conversation is seamlessly integrated with a multimedia presentation over visual Web content.
"Companies are scrambling to support all modes of communication," notes Patrick Fetterman, senior product marketing manager for eGain Communications in New York City. "That's led to a lot of partnering because few companies do everything well." Once agent contact is initiated from the Web site, the capabilities of the various systems tend to diverge. Most allow sales agents to employ supervise browsing, that is, to escort the customer to various areas of the Web site.
Some products, such as those from WebLine, eGain in Sunnyvale, Calif., and ActiveTouch , also in Sunnyvale, go even further. They permit the transmission of whole files and applications across the Web and, in some cases, the temporary configuration of the customer's terminal as a thin client for conducting, say, a sales demonstration or a technical troubleshooting session.
All three of these products enable PowerPoint demonstrations, complete with pointers.
While most contenders in this marketplace now support multiple means of communication, they were initially designed for a single channel. For instance, Kana Communications in Palo Alto, Calif., originally emphasized e-mail, while eShare Technologies in Commack, N.Y., and WebLine stressed chat and voice. "You get companies coming into this business from a number of different angles," observes Robert Weinberger, vice president of marketing for WebLine. "You've got the dot-com companies coming out of the Web and into the call center, and you've got companies with backgrounds in telemarketing going in the opposite direction." Some products place equal emphasis on customer relationship management (CRM) functionality, especially those from Clarify in San Jose, and The Vantive in Santa Clara, Calif.-established companies that initially marketed products for call centers only. In these products, customer profiles are established by the software based on current and past transactions and interactions, and the customer is then directed to an agent with the appropriate skills and knowledge. In some systems, the customer's needs and status may be prioritised according to the urgency of the problem, the size of the order or the customer's past history with the company.
The majority of the companies playing in this new space of Web site/call center integration are trying to speed sales reps into the online sales process on the theory that a human presence can dramatically increase the closing rate.
"There's still such a thing as selling," observes Chris Martins, a senior analyst with Aberdeen Group in Boston.
But other developers see a fundamentally different objective for integration software: the reduction of sales agent intervention. "The dollar savings are simply staggering," claims Skip Walter, vice president of product development and technology for Primus Knowledge Solutions in Seattle. "Every customer contact with a sales agent will cost a company an average of $20," he says. "A Web site hit runs about a nickel. You shouldn't try to eliminate the sales force entirely, but you should try to handle as much of the customer's needs as possible at the Web site." Primus and its main competitor, Inference, attempt to do just that by using knowledge-base software, actually a species of search engine for individual Web sites that answer customer queries based on key words and analysis of patterns of paths taken by the customer through the Web site. Primus uses case-based reasoning, which is known for its high accuracy in answering customer queries posed in natural language (see "Say What,").
Not There Yet
Despite the apparent potential for teleweb products, most companies in the industry admit that developing effective products is a challenge. "You're trying to integrate telephone systems, which traditionally use closed architectures and proprietary protocols, with the Web, which is open," explains Bock of the Patricia Seybold Group. "That's difficult." Adds eGain's Fetterman, "You have to somehow try to make every application work over the Web with every browser. Exclude a browser and you exclude a potential customer. But how do you maintain full functionality with all browsers?" Because of such challenges, most software companies admit their products are works in progress, but all are confident that they're poised to play a pivotal role in e-commerce. "Companies doing business on the Web have to start offering more in the way of service," insists Steven Gal, vice president of marketing for Inference. "Right now a lot of companies are still trying to compete on the basis of price, but price itself is becoming a commodity. You have to do more," he says, "because you're competition is only a click away."