Interactive Answering Service

By Tony Murray

Two years ago while speaking at a convention, I said that I didn’t think the Internet was going to have much effect on our industry. Well, every now and then we have to eat crow, and do I have a big plate of crow right now. The Internet could be one of the greatest things to happen to the TAS industry since the demise of cord boards. Why have I changed my views? The first reason is that the changes in telephony and communications software in the last twelve months have been dramatic.

I attended the ICCM trade show in Chicago in September and saw some very exciting products. The emphasis was, of course, on the Internet. Amtelco was the only recognized TAS supplier present and they were showing some advanced Internet products, and were attracting a lot of interest. I think that TAS manufacturers have some available competing products. It is my opinion that to remain in business, manufacturers are going to need to sell their products to corporate America, as well as to the TAS industry. There are other software companies, not directed to the TAS industry, coming out with some very interesting products.

The Internet is spawning the growth of many and varied providers. The initial Internet Service Provider or ISP was of course the original Internet service company, providing connection to the Internet network. Daily we read that the major telephone companies are buying out ISP’s. Why? These major telephone companies want to continue to control the Telco industry; controlling access to the Internet is very important to them. A number of new service providers are appearing who are specializing in automated Internet products. One example is the companies who turn email and faxes into voice for the traveler. These companies are direct competitors for the TAS industry.

Internet telephony operational costs are dropping dramatically. Bandwidth is also getting less expensive. This is giving smaller companies the opportunity of setting up their own telephony and fax networks. However in my contact with these companies, it is apparent that they are looking for ways to out source these areas.

This is where The Call Center and TAS industry can, if they move fast, become an Interactive Call Center and grab a very important fast growing and profitable part of the Internet cake.

The incredible growth in e-business on the retail side will make increasing demands on the participating companies creating a great need for Interactive Call Centers: a call center which can handle the existing business and add to it Internet originated phone calls; the ability to be on-line, while simultaneously speaking with the caller, and in some cases even being seen by the caller.

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 27, 1999, stated, “of the 125 top-commerce sites, 42% refused to accept an email message, never responded to one, or took more than five days to respond.” This quality of service is obviously not acceptable. The interactive communication center could be used to filter the emails, sending standard responses where applicable and passing only the complex ones to their client. Companies selling products or services on-line are only now realizing that their Web pages need much stronger customer service support. It has been reported that two thirds of people who start to shop on the net give up before completing their purchase. This needed support could be given by the Interactive Call Center.

Unfortunately from the retailer’s point of view, they are not capable of handling 24 by 7 customer service support at present. This is good news for the quality aware answering/call center service providers. With the most up-to-date order entry software and excellent scripting, well-trained call center/customer service/sales assistants can handle these calls with ease.

The Internet is opening up a myriad of different ways to present and sell products. The growth of the home computer owners has increased the number of sales being made over the net, but it has created a totally new set of problems for the Net-retailers and catalog houses.

For example, today’s technology has enabled the retailer to truly replace a visit to the store with a visit to the Web store, still maintaining the ability to serve the customer on a one-on-one basis at the buyer’s choice, discussing (selling) and showing the merits of one product against another. The only difference between the Web and a visit to the store is that you cannot actually touch the product. Everything else can be done over the net with today’s software.

If the buyer has two phone lines (this is changing as we speak and can be done with one line in certain cases) they can contact a salesperson at the touch of a button on their screen. The sales person can speak to the buyer, control the buyer’s screen, guiding them through the catalog or website, selling, up-selling, and advising as they go, all of this supported by pictures and diagrams as seen in the latest TV commercial. This is bound to increase the call-to-sale ratio and the average revenue per call.

As I see it, there are two clear steps that the modern call center can take. Firstly, the inbound order center must become interactive capable. This is not difficult but I would advise you to look further than the recognized industry suppliers before making your decision to buy new software or equipment. I would also look closely at the future plans of any supplier. They need to have the ability to continue development of new software and be there for you in the future.

Secondly, the TAS center must become a true communications center: permanently on-line, collecting email and faxes, and translating them to voice; supplying messages to clients by email; collecting management data and feeding it daily to the client via the net, fulfilling a true management support function to clients; and generally fulfilling all the client’s communications and Internet needs.

In my travels, owners often ask me: “How can I make money on the net? How can I benefit from the net? I want to get involved, how do I do it?” The first thing is to find people who know what’s going on and discuss/decide where you want to go. Then study that area in detail. I would recommend the magazine, Internet Telephony as a very good starting source. In fact, the October 1999 article “Keeping An Eye On The Internet Telephony Crystal Ball” is excellent. Another necessary step is to employ an Internet network technician. This is new technology with so many different options. It is not, in my opinion, a do-it-yourself proposition. The communications center owners will need to decide on the products that they want to handle and concentrate on the marketing and sales of these products leaving the technology to the specialists.

Look at the Internet as an exploding ball. You can’t catch all the pieces. You need to concentrate and specialize on just a few.

Let me make a final plea. There is a great deal of money to be made for those owners who dedicate themselves to pricing quality services correctly. There is no place for shoddy services offering cheap prices. Nothing is more guaranteed to force the potential clients to do it all in house.

[From Connection Magazine – November 1999]