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Article : Does The Growth Of The Internet Really Mean The Demise Of The Call Centre?

Today, the call centre is a widely used mechanism for communicating with customers and prospects. The number of call centres, or what are now becoming know as contact centres, have risen dramatically over recent years which has meant consumers purchasing a vast range of items over the telephone, from their car insurance through to garden equipment. In the eyes of many commentators, however, the rise and rise of the contact centre is set to come to a rapid halt with the advent of the internet.

For an industry that has brought welcome employment to many of the UK's former industrial heartlands this could well be bad news. But is this really the case? Or could it be that that the number of contact centres will grow and change their role with the advent of the internet and not be replaced by it?

Today, around 17 per cent of UK homes have access to the internet. This figure is likely to rise to 55 per cent by the year 2005. In business to consumer terms, the internet is essentially only another communication mechanism through which companies can trade with individuals. Its great selling point is that interaction is at the choice of the consumer and the PC is a one-stop shop to view many different vendors' products.

As many commentators state, the real growth in the internet will be heralded when bandwidth becomes sufficient to facilitate two way communications. This is when the contact centre will play a key role. Today, many people still go to traditional stores to view products before buying them off the internet. Even great internet success stories such as see customers going to the bookstore first to look at the book before making the purchase at a cheaper price over the internet.

With the advent of sufficient bandwidth, the internet consumer will be presented with a product on screen that is likely to be accompanied with a variety of options: 'purchase', 'view product', 'ask question'. At this point the contact centre plays a key role. Today, just as many businesses use the contact centre to answer their sales enquiries; in the new world of the internet, the contact centre and contact centre operators will become a shop window for many organisations. Using the 'view product' and 'ask question' buttons, consumers will be put through to the contact centre operator. The operator will then be represented visually on the consumer's screen. At this point the contact centre operator becomes the shop assistant. They will be able to demonstrate the product and answer questions on the product in a face-to-face environment and in real-time. Quite literally, the consumer will be able to have the same level of interaction with the vendor from their armchair that is only possible today by visiting the high street store.

You may ask yourself the question why do I want to speak to anyone, I'm quite happy to order products without having to speak to other people. In answer to this question, it should be remembered that the potential to visually represent products will greatly enhance the type of products that can be sold over the internet. Would you buy a watch or a piece of jewellery without having a good look at it first? Also, it should be remembered that not everyone is comfortable with technology. Would everyone you know or all your family happily complete an electronic transaction without having the reassurance of having spoken to someone first? It is in many people's nature to want to talk to someone first before purchasing, and it should be remembered that shopping is still a social activity for many people.

The contact centre will also continue to grow as it becomes a proactive marketing arm for companies. At present, transactions over the internet are often done with individuals using unverifiable e-mail addresses. As contact centres begin to collect more and more e-mail addresses from 'callers' they will be able to check these addresses using what are now starting to be termed infomediaries, such as Experian. With this information, the contact centre operator will then know the 'caller' at their point of entry. As soon as the caller presses the button to go through to the operator, the operator's screen will 'pop-up' with a profile of the customer. This could include purchasing history and propensity to buy certain products. This will allow the operator to make relevant offers to the customer on screen, knowing their purchasing history and propensity to buy.

One more reason why the health of contact centre will remain buoyant is customer complaints. Just as people like to interact with each other when making a purchasing decision, this is even more the case when they want to complain. Everyone who operates a contact centre knows that customer complaints take-up a significant proportion of operator time and will continue to do so. The day when customers will only want to voice a complaint using e-mail seems a long way off yet!

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Published: Thursday, August 8, 2002

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