A spring '98 Delphi (www.delphigroup.com) Insight Research survey revealed customer service as the number one functional area where knowledge management is implemented. A similar answer was received when respondents were asked where knowledge management would be most useful. As evidence of that trend, the call center automation market is brimming with solutions to provide the right answer to the right caller at the right time.
Basically, there are two ways available technologies can be used to resolve problems. The first involves the use of knowledge management systems to support call center analysts as they respond to inquiries in a traditional call center environment. The second approach reduces the number of incoming calls by offering a self-service, Web-based approach to problem resolution.
Within those two approaches, a range of options are available to receive customer inquiries, analyze problems, and derive and communicate solutions to the customer-ways that will, given the best-case scenario, exceed the customer's expectations. However, from the knowledge analyst's perspective, those applications present new work priority challenges. The burden will remain with analysts until future applications deliver a single point of access to all modes of communication used for inquiry and customer response.
Call center problem resolution tools need to support the native skills, expertise and style of individual knowledge analysts. Those applications are a direct response to the inefficiencies created in organizations that lack the tools to capture and reuse problem-solving and decision-making processes. Products, such as Primus' (www.primus.com) SolutionBuilder, map the natural analytical style of call center knowledge workers and represent the path of least resistance to knowledge capture.
In that scenario, users record, in their natural language, the results of their conversations with customers. The only structure imposed on the analyst is a simple categorization of the descriptive information (e.g. symptom, cause, fix). Capturing and releasing the knowledge for future consumption is one side of the problem resolution coin.
On the other side, in the same manner that they submit knowledge, analysts should be able to recall information from the system using the same categories. In the case of SolutionBuilder, knowledge recall may encompass other registered sources or Web sites. Relevancy ranking becomes a critical filtering mechanism as the system locates information related to the stated problem. Although it is important to have tools that help train novice analysts, it is just as important to choose a tool that relieves the overburdened expert by imposing minimal structure in the knowledge capture process.
Don't overlook the fact that, although call center problem resolution software usually integrates with leading call management systems, neither reduces the volume of incoming calls; they simply provide an effective response mechanism. For call centers buckling under an increasing call volume, Web-based self-service applications are a logical solution. A Web-based solution frees analysts to spend more time handling exceptional inquiries. Many users have grown accustomed to living in a self-service culture. In fact, they prefer the self-service option, such as having the choice of ATM or teller.
Whereas applications supporting analysts still lack the level of sophistication needed to manage incoming Web, E-mail and phone inquiries through a unified interface, customer self-service sites continue to add communication options for customers.
Tom Abert, director of business development for PC Connection (www.pcconnection.com), envisioned the PC Connection site as one that would provide "an unobtrusive, end-to-end customer service experience." PC Connection uses eService, from Silknet (www.silknet.com), a provider of Web-based customer relationship management solutions.
"The most important benefit of eService is that it puts the customer in control at every point in the process," explained Abert. "It is straightforward and intuitive, and gives customers a choice-letting them interact with PC Connection in the method they want to-be it the Web, E-mail, the telephone or future interaction methods."
Although that approach relieves the call center analyst of mundane requests, it adds a new level of complexity to management of the analyst's workload. When customers are not able to resolve their issues using the Web site, E-mail is the primary mode of communication used to establish contact with an analyst. That E-mail bridge creates a new dilemma for the call center. Analysts quickly discover that they have simply traded one problem for another in the absence of a mechanism for unified load leveling of call and E-mail inquiries.
Although products are available to workflow-enable incoming phone calls or incoming E-mail, a single offering that integrates both is not yet available. Communications-centric workflow tools allow actions for incoming calls to be predefined. For example, rules can be defined to automatically trigger an action, such as automatic escalation, based on an incoming call from a predefined set of customers. Molloy Group's (www.knowledgebridge.com) Top of Mind, a problem resolution and call-tracking product, uses such technology.
Similarly, on the E-mail management front, products that automatically acknowledge inbound Web and E-mail inquiries, route messages to knowledge analysts based on subject and content matter, and monitor system activity are currently available in such offerings as Internet Message Center by Mustang (www.mustang.com).
Lastly, it should be noted that vertical applications are also beginning to populate the call center landscape. Rather than wait for a critical mass of inquiries and solutions to populate a knowledge base, some companies are purchasing libraries of stored queries specific to their industry. Call center analysts can immediately begin using those queries and can contribute other helpful queries to the library for use by others. In call center environments, that technology can be used to respond to customer inquiries or to provide a mechanism to channel breaking news or product changes to customer support analysts. Echo, a product offering from InfoMation (www.infomation.com), uses an electronic newspaper format, allowing users to browse through headlines and articles of interest.
Call buttons, customer service rep chat rooms and screen sharing are in the early stages of adoption today and are likely to become mainstream problem resolution approaches in the near future. However, the burden of the knowledge analyst will not be lifted until applications effectively capture and present streams of incoming inquiries from virtually any form of communication in a single queue. In the meantime, analysts will continue coping with the complexities of parallel work queues created by new modes of customer interaction.