Whatever happened to the universal queue?

IBM Corp. says it has successfully transformed its call centre into a contact centre, employing the Internet to augment phone-based customer service. But according to one industry observer, few firms follow in Big Blue’s footsteps.

IBM’s “Live Assistance” program gives customers multiple means to contact the company. IBM put “Call Me” buttons on certain Web pages, so if a visitor wants to talk to someone about a product or service, he need only click the button, enter his phone number and wait. An IBM rep will call within 24 hours.

The “Text Chat” option lets customers speak with IBMers in real time via Web messaging. As well, the “request-a-quote” option lets users punch in the specs of a particular product – say, a laptop computer – and have IBM respond with a price.

Alex Gogh, IBM’s New York-based director of channels marketing, said Live Assistance has done well for the company. “We found that we were able to reach more customers, not only from a retention point of view, but from an acquisition point of view.”

But according to Art Schoeller, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston, IBM is unique. Although in the late-’90’s high-tech pundits predicted that many call centres would use the Internet alongside the phone to create a “universal queue” – a multimedia platform by which customers could connect with companies – “at the end of the day, we saw very little implementation,” Schoeller said.

Why did the contact centre stumble in its maturation?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Schoeller said complexity is the culprit. Companies tend to purchase technology strategically – a new e-mail system here, a new PBX there. Lacking a holistic approach, the enterprise has a hard time making these media silos work together.

Even if firms manage to get disparate technologies speaking the same tongue, other linguistic problems emerge. For instance, whereas the call centre measures success by “length-of-call,” enterprise execs seek proof that the upgrades spell customer retention, client contentment. With two, distinct definitions of success operating under one roof, companies find it difficult to justify the expense of Internet enabling the call centre, Schoeller said.

According to John Upshall, Toronto-based account executive at CallCast Inc., a call centre operation, companies also receive a rude awakening when agents try their hands at chat and e-mail.

“One of the very big concerns in the contact centre industry was the sad state of young people’s spelling and grammar. The training time to get them up to speed…was cost prohibitive.”

Schoeller said expectations played a role in the universal queue’s demise, as if some firms aimed for the moon, but didn’t build a rocket.

“I had a conversation with a major telecommunications carrier who expected to shift 45 per cent of their traffic to their Web site. To this day, that vendor’s Web site tends to be, as opposed to user-friendly, user-hostile….I think their amount of traffic is only about 10 per cent in terms of what’s happening for self-service.”

But Samantha Kane, founding partner of telecom consultancy Kane-MacKay & Associates in Belleville Ont., said Schoeller is off the mark.

“I’m seeing more people take on multiple touch points than ever,” she said, explaining that many of her clients seek multimedia functions for their call centres.

Kane figures Canada is ripe for call centre transformation. “Our knowledge workers are more well-rounded, better educated” than they are in the U.S., she said. “We have a much better technology infrastructure.”

She suggested companies should choose call centre tools carefully to aid the process. “Total Pain of Ownership is reduced by doing an investigation of what works with your existing investment, rather than going out and cherry picking.”

Schoeller said enterprises should have a four-year plan for call centre technology. “I have seen only about five per cent of organizations out there really sit down and map out each core component of their contact centre.”

IBM’s Gogh advised keeping the lines of communication open between business and the call centre. That way lies success, he said. “We’ve seen ample business cases that look solid, until you ask a fundamental question: how does the customer want to do business?”