By Donna West, Jennifer E. Brunner, Theresa Walker, and Allan Fromm
You have a great answering service; your call center is giving excellent service; it’s time for the next step – the Web! But, how do you get there from here? Begin with the logical place, the Web itself. Where do people look for help when they want to do business on the Internet? They search by typing “call center” or “order taking” or “help desk” or even “answering service”, and they browse through the offerings they find. If you want them to find you, you need to do your homework and put some effort into the project. You can position your business high in the standings; and if you are there where potential customers can find you, you will draw business.
Step 1: Develop your image. If you have a strong image, colors, a logo or even a font style you always use, carry it over to your website. If it is time to develop a new look, do it now. Find an image that you are comfortable with and stick with it in every form of advertising you do. A recognizable identity is important.
Step 2: Determine the type of business you want to attract and design advertising that will push their hot buttons. If you want to attract order-taking accounts, for instance, you may want to show a typical order screen, use testimonials, talk about your operators and your ability to cross-sell or up-sell. Use the right language and speak with authority. Don’t know the language? Learn it before you go any further. Your credibility is important; and if you try to fake it, potential customers will know in a heartbeat.
Step 3: Get a few good books on Web design and spend the summer learning how to do it yourself or take some classes (or both). Hire a Web design firm with a good reputation or contact your local college and see if a student wants to turn you into their class project. Even if you find someone to design your site, we still recommend doing plenty of reading on your own (or take that class) because you need to be able to follow the process and understand what is transpiring.
Step 4: Once you have your site up and running, don’t think you’re finished; you’ve only just begun. A static site will quickly hit bottom and stay there. There are things you need to do to keep active, to attract people to your page. You will need to register with search engines, meet their criteria, repeat key words and change your site regularly to stay in the running. This does take effort.
Step 5: Research the ways in which businesses will want to use your services. Understand how to help them evaluate your services and others they will find on the net. Help them compare apples to apples. In other words, shop your competition.
Make sure you put your Web address everywhere; on all of your other advertising, your business cards, your fax sheets, your invoices and your letterhead. Put it in your help wanted ads, your “on-hold” announcements, your press releases and anything you put in print anywhere. Offer to link with your customers and your vendors. Links bring increased traffic and place you higher in the search engine “ratings”.
Finally, have friendly, well-informed people answering your phones and provide potential customers with immediate access to someone who will recognize their needs and offer solutions. Don’t pour all your efforts into attracting those Internet surfers and then leave them cold after their initial contact with your service. This is a new and exciting opportunity for growth. Inform your staff, teach your staff, involve your staff and be sure they are all “Web-enabled”. Then watch your dot-com take off!
– Donna West, Focus Communications; www.focustele.com.
Congratulations! You have just made the first step in entering the exciting dot-com world. Getting on the Web was an expensive undertaking, but you’re not out of the woods yet. You still need to make the technology work for you. The next steps are to identify and market practical applications for your new found Web access, train customer service representatives, develop new personnel policies and manage customer expectations in the lightening pace of the wired world. If all goes well, you may even be able to make this a profitable business.
There are many ways you can take advantage of the Internet to better serve your customers. Your customer service representatives can access the clients’ public websites to take orders and answer product questions. A Web savvy client can also provide your reps with tools to access customer order status and other information, allowing you to offer the real-time responses expected by Web consumers. There are also many interesting and previously unavailable applications like software key generation or real-time customer database maintenance. Some clients will know these services are available and ask if you can provide them, but many will not. It is best to present a well-defined list of offerings and approach clients who may benefit from services they had not previously considered.
Possibly the most frustrating aspect of providing Internet based services is the unstructured nature of the information. There are no scripts per se, nor are there built-in controls on the information that can be accessed. A different type of customer service representative may be more suitable for a Web-enabled service provider. Customer service representatives need to be very strong in Web browsing and searching. They must be able to quickly sift through large amounts of data to determine the relevant information. They must be able to stay focused on assisting the customer. There is a lot of exciting and interesting stuff on the Net. Keeping customer service representatives (CSR) focused on the clients’ goals and productivity is important. There are a number of software packages available that can go a long way to keeping this focus. Some telephone answering service (TAS) systems link in with the Web, but we were unable to find a system that was entirely Web-based. At Customer Direct, we felt we had to develop our own system to structure, script, bill, and report on our Internet client base.
A whole new crop of personnel issues come up when the Internet comes into a call center. No sooner had we opened up the Internet than we found our highly professional and pristine CSR viewing inappropriate websites, downloading unauthorized files, listening to Internet radio feeds, checking personal email, and using Internet software to ‘chat’ with their friends. Firewalls with blacklists or content advisors can help a great deal in curbing Internet abuse, but they can also interfere with viewing legitimate sites. We found it was easiest to set a clear policy and spot monitor which sites were visited.
When you use the Internet, clients expect magic. Because your CSR have a wealth of information at their fingertips, customers expect you to use it. The problem appears when they get their first bill. Working magic takes time! Many customers will ask you to limit your time with customers. Having different policies or services levels for each client is difficult to balance. We found setting up three predefine pricing and service levels helped set customer expectations and raised satisfaction.
Customer Direct has been 100% focused on the Internet market and has profitably grown a minimum of 10% per month. Since we rely on search engines and word-of-mouth advertising, our marketing budget is a whopping $100 per month! The Internet is an exciting tool and an entirely new way of doing business. By setting up the right systems and procedures, it can be a rewarding new venture that allows you to expand your offerings and your clients to reap the benefits of technology at a competitive price.
– Jennifer E. Brunner, Customer Direct, Inc.
Our concept was simple. When potential customers started asking “What do you mean I have to pay you to set up an entirely new database at your place? Why can’t you just access my website when a call comes in and place an order? After all, I already spent billions on it’s design.” So we found an ISP that we were comfortable with, installed T-1s for high speed access, paid through the nose for bandwidth, locked down our entire network with firewall technology, added net and email servers and devices to scan for unsafe email and reporting packages to be able to tell the customer what our agents were doing on their site. The cost was tremendous. The initial roll-out was slow to start and there were many issues to address from the customer’s standpoint. But after all was said and done, we realized that we had paid for all the “must-have” technology and actually going to profit on the Internet enabled accounts.
Now that you have spent a fortune on Web-enabling your call center, I suppose you are wondering how to get customers to use it. Our initial target was any company who has a website and was selling products. After all that’s what we knew best. Two of the biggest hurdles were getting our sales people familiar with what we could do and agent training. We started by training our sales staff to ask the number one question. “Do you have a website?” If the answer was no, we sold them our in-house order processing package. If yes, then we explained the benefits of URL-Pop and how your call center, fulfillment center and their company could work off the same “hub of the wheel”. We turned our yellow page inquiries about order processing into Web customers. We contacted potential Web customers through email, fax, and cold calling and it worked. We also found that if you could get the word out to Web design companies, they were willing to refer clients your way for a nominal charge.
Agent training was in depth and a major entire focus. What is great technology with untrained agents? Lost customers. We set aside special machines with specific links to teaching sites so that our operators could access the Web and learn about it. We also gave them free reign to the Web on breaks, lunches and for school purposes. We taught them about email and Web etiquette. How to maneuver around the Web, hyperlinks, hotmail and the works. We gave them tests, let them utilize search engines for company research and even got them involved in our marketing efforts. It definitely paid off.
What started as order processing via the Web, has much evolved into something entirely different today. Clients were willing to suggest and even provide us with our own sets of “special, private pages”. They were also happy to allow us access to areas where the agent could check the status of their order, handle customer service issues and in some cases give credits to unhappy consumers. We came to the conclusion that with Web-chat, page push, email and Web-callback along with in-depth agent training, we could function as a integral part of the customers company. Today any company that has a website is your potential customer. Knowledge bases and real time live customer service/support are becoming mission critical to a site’s content and as call centers, we are already positioned to offer the live coverage clients are demanding.
After being around for 25 years, we have witnessed many changes in the communications industry. None have had as large of an impact as the World Wide Web. As a call center, you can take advantage of your existing infrastructure and offer your services to customers based on what their marketing efforts, site content or services are. Place orders, check the status of their order, complete surveys, process customer care issues, register users, utilize locator services, access knowledge bases or anything the customer or yourself can imagine. The possibilities are endless.
– Theresa Walker
As you might guess, all the same principals apply to marketing now as in the past. You have to advertise effectively, have skilled sales personnel and have a quality product that meets the prospect’s needs. We have not had a surge of new business due to on our Internet capabilities–it has been a gradual thing. About 5% of our customers now have us email messages. One-percent or so of our customers make use of our ability to access their websites to take orders, locate nearest dealer or access phone directories for callers and about 10% of our sales volume is from customers that have found us on the Internet. We pop simple Web pages for another 5% of our customers to give the operators special instructions as they answer each call.
So in just a few years we already use Internet technology to serve over 10% of our customers that generate about 15% percent of our sales volume. My guess is that in another few years over 50% of our customers will utilize the Internet in connection with our service. The boundaries will rather rapidly blur between telephone and Internet communications. I do not think that will spell the end of telephone answering service unless you are not willing to get ready to do business on the Internet. For those who are willing to invest in equipment or software to offer Web-enabled services, you will find many ways to use the Internet to serve your present customers, but if you want to grow you have to actively market your services. In the early days of the Internet (three or four years ago), there were not many answering services with websites and we got some good customers simply by having a website. Anyone doing a search on AltaVista, etc. would find us near the top of the search results, since the list was very short. Today my Web browser bookmarks include over 300 telephone answering services and a few hundred telemarketing firms with Web pages and the chances of being on the first page of search results are pretty slim. There are probably a lot of equally effective ways to attract the attention of companies looking for “Web-enabled” services, but I will list for you the things we have tried so far.
- We have a Web page. We spent over $15,000 on our Web page and are getting ready to spend a fair amount more to upgrade our website.
- We have our website address on our business cards, stationary, yellow page ads, etc.
- We have written our customers to let them know of the new services we can offer.
- We have hired a skilled and knowledgeable individual to be our Director of Marketing, On-Line Services and Business Development. This is a well paid job and you need this kind of person to take advantage of the opportunities the Internet is bringing to us.
- All our operator stations have Internet access. Having said that, we have invested in a firewall to restrict operator Internet access to customer websites needed for business purposes.
- There are great opportunities for advertising on the Internet, using it as a world wide yellow pages. But there are many other ways in which we could effectively advertise our Web capabilities such as exhibiting in trade shows, magazine ads, participation in email lists, etc.
The Internet is a profound development that has come upon us with blinding speed. That makes it really hard to get perspective and “see the forest for the trees.” Yet it’s clear that communications and commerce have been changed forever, and some of the more profound changes are yet to come as wireless technology is wed to Internet technology. For those willing to embrace the Internet on faith as a source of new services and new business, the future has never looked brighter, in my opinion.
– Allan Fromm, An-ser Services; www.anser.com.
[From Connection Magazine – July 2000]