Moving Call Centers to the Internet

By Barbara Fox

In the parade of e-commerce companies popping up all over the U.S., Answer Net, a call center and answering service, upgraded to the Web and it is ready to capitalize on the new popularity of on-line purchasing, which unexpectedly ballooned during last year’s holiday season. Internet sales exceeded $300 billion in 1999 and could easily top $1 trillion by the end of 2001.

Gary A. Pudles and his partner have been building AnswerNet Inc. in Princeton, NJ. Pudles, the president and CEO, aims to make buying on the Internet less like eating at the Automat, where you never see the face of the person who takes your money. He quotes surveys showing that half of on-line buyers would buy more if a “live person” were at the cash register. “Even buying on-line, people want to feel good about the purchase,” says Pudles. “Part of your K-Mart experience is paying a live person.”

By equipping customer service representatives (CSRs) with Internet technology AnswerNet fills that gap. Instead of just answering phones and retrieving faxes, answering services and order entry companies can now respond to customers with real-time email and live text based chat. “We have taken the order entry companies and moved them into the Web business,” says Pudles. After eight months the partnership owns seven call centers, each with from 8 to 100 seats, and has a total of more than 5,000 clients.

“The Internet has created a new paradigm in the way merchants distribute goods and services, and we are going to be an early entrant,” says Pudles, who launched Live Chat Internet CSR/Operator Service in October, 1999.

“We have nice companies doing nice traditional answering service business and are moving them into new niches,” says Pudles. “We are buying the technologies that small and medium-sized companies can’t afford.” He points to three Internet products:

  • Email message delivery. Instead of having to call in to get your messages or responding to a page or a fax, the message from your answering service can be delivered by email.
  • E-vox voice mail system converts voice mail into an audio file, to be attached to an email. While you read your email, you can use the email system to hear voice mail messages that were forwarded by the answering service.
  • Live chat operator service. If you have a question about your purchase or want to order from a live person instead of from the automated form, an AnswerNet customer service representative (CSR) can respond utilizing Answer Net’s live, secure two-way text dialogue-based system.

Your company can get a dedicated customer service representative for $25 to $35 an hour, for however many hours you choose. Or you can share time with other companies and pay about 85 cents per minute of actual usage or about $50 an hour. Extras come with this. For instance, you can monitor the live chat transmissions to be sure you like what your rep is saying, and you can archive the conversations for later study.

“It is a very friendly way and a quick way to get a response from a catalog,” says one industry expert, Joan Sitarz of Market Entry Inc., based in Princeton, NJ. Her firm does strategic marketing and represents products in catalogs and on the Web. “A lot of mail order houses are doing that. You can chat with other customers about a product or ask a specific question.” She reports that conscientious call center personnel, seeking to get customer questions answered, are contacting her by email and phone. She forwards those questions to the manufacturer.

Matthew Powell, a Princeton-based retailing consultant with Renaissance Partners LC, points out that most companies respond with automatic answers controlled by software that searches for keywords to provide standard answers. “If the response can be more immediate it can be a plus. People on the Internet expect everything at lightning speed. If they are ordering anything they want it tomorrow,” says Powell.

AnswerNet also pitches services to companies that don’t sell through catalogs. For instance, if a pharmaceutical firm wants to centralize its sales communications, it advertises just one number and the answering service patches the calls (by phone or email) to the various sales representatives. For dentists in the Aetna US Health care network, AnswerNet offers a wireless paging and messaging service.

Even technical questions can be answered with the live chat system. “We are about to launch with a national PC rental company to handle help desk calls,” says Pudles. “We ask a series of gating questions and patch the caller to the right engineer in the right part of the company.”

The big players in the order entry field include Matrix Marketing, which has the Pottery Barn account, and APAC Teleservices, which has UPS as its customer. Also, some mega catalog firms, such as Hanover and Lands End, provide out sourcing for other catalogs, with a complete fulfillment service, order taking (including the email techniques described above), warehousing, “pick and pack,” and shipping. In contrast, AnswerNet does not touch the merchandise; it limits itself to the message taking and order taking. “Almost nobody is doing what we are doing on an out source basis, particularly for the small to medium companies,” says Pudles.

AnswerNet now has call centers in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington, Maryland, Illinois, and Canada with revenues up to about $5 million.

What might stymie AnswerNet’s growth goal is the paradigm shift from voice to text. It is a drastic change, and an expensive one, because the people behind the computer terminals need to be sufficiently educated so they can write and spell well. The written communications go out without editing and are therefore vulnerable. In effect, these people have to be very proficient at the new art of participating in the commercial equivalent of an Internet “chat room.”

“We have geared up with this new technology,” states Pudles, and are hopeful to be the leader going into the new millennium.

Gary A. Pudles is President and CEO of AnswerNet, Inc. based in Princeton, NJ. He can be reached via email at Gary@AnswerNetNetwork.com or 609-921-7450; the website is www.answernet.com.

[From Connection Magazine – January 2000]

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