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(Working Draft 8/10/96)

Web Marketers:
Call-back to the Future with POTS!

To jump into the future of interactive electronic marketing and customer service now, look backward to Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS, in the trade). A revolutionary coupling of the Web with the telephone is coming, but its is not coming from the place most people are looking.

Telephony over the Web is not the answer for business, at least not yet, because for most people it just is not here yet (outside of the early adopter market). But who really needs it? We can bring deeply integrated, hybrid Web+telephone commerce to the largest segment of Web-capable customers now-- with no need for any equipment or software beyond what they already have. What we get is a medium that combines the best features of both 800 numbers and the Web, integrated in a way that is far more powerful than either alone.

The red herring

Once again the media hype is shining the spotlight in the wrong place. Nearly all the press on "Internet phone" is about Voice on the Net (VON)--making phone calls over the Internet, by using the Internet as a free long distance carrier. That can save money, but does little that is new from a business perspective except to make people happy about sticking it to the phone companies.

It is well known that there are a lot of problems with phone-over-Internet service that will be solved only over time. Users need sound cards and microphones and special software. Quality and usability (placing and receiving calls, directories) are poor. The underlying cost model is complex and traffic burdens are high, especially if high quality is demanded, so scalability in the real world is problematic. All of this will be resolved, but it will take time.*

Doing business with HyperPOTS…now

A totally different model of Web+telephone integration is of major importance to business Web sites now. This is emerging from the people who build call centers (the operational heart of the 800 number and telemarketing/teleservice business). These companies are delivering software now that works with current call center and Web server facilities to lash them together in a way that provides new capabilities to ordinary Web surfers using ordinary phones. But call centers are not very sexy (even though over $600 billion of goods and services were sold through call centers in 1995**), and hardly anyone seems to be noticing…yet.

A customer service example: Someone with a problem can call for an onsite visit, try to get help resolving it over the phone, try to get the answer on a Web site, or some might even look in the manual. All these options are generally poor in cost and effectiveness. Take an office manager with a failing Acme photocopier. On-site repairs are common but expensive and slow. Few attempt repairs by phone, because it is too difficult with no vision or pictures. It is also very frustrating to deal with "audiotext hell"--annoying multi-level menus, and long time on hold--if you need a live person. Getting help from a Web site requires a degree of skill, and has significant risk of failure. No one reads the manual.

Now picture this customer visiting the Web site, quickly finding the specific copier model (with pictures to aid in identification), and clicking on a "call me now" button. The response screen informs the customer that they will be called in 30 seconds and then phone rings, with a specialist who knows what kind of machine is down, and is ready to deal with it. The specialist has a mirror view of the caller's Web screen, and can walk the caller through screens with pictures that confirm the nature of the problem and show how to fix it, as they speak. Much faster and surer (and thus cheaper) for both the customer and the service provider.

Let's slow down--how did that work? The "call me now" button triggers a program on the Web server to send a message to the call center's call management system. But first, we need a phone number to call back to (and possibly a customer ID so we can pull up account records if the phone number is not databased for that account). The user can be prompted for this by the Web server. On repeat calls, this may be retrieved automatically from a "cookie" (a special memory area in the Web browser). The call-me message triggers the scheduling of a call on the call-center's outbound queue, and specifies what class of agent should be put on the call (based on the copier model, customer category, etc.). It then responds back to the Web server with an estimated time until it can place the call with an available agent, and the Web server relays that back to the user. The call is then placed, and when the customer answers the agent gets a "screen pop" on their call control workstation showing the information about the customer. In addition, the agent has a computer set up to mirror the Web page that the user is viewing. (If the user moves to other Web pages, the agent sees it too.)

True, there is the small matter of an available phone line to call back to. For a home or small-office user that might be a problem which would necessitate disconnecting from the Web, and that would reduce the value significantly (but not completely). For business to business applications (or consumers calling from their office) that is generally not an issue. Certainly the best initial market for this will be to customers in medium to large companies, where Web surfing is independent of the phone line. That is hardly a small niche market (75% of Fortune 1000 desktops have PC's***). And as customers begin to experience the power of this combined solution, the case for home and small-office users to obtain more capable connections will sell itself.

Our example was just one scenario of many. If the service center is busy, the message to the caller could say the call back will be in 10 minutes, and show as the clock ticks down (based on actual queue status), and can give the caller the option to schedule the call-back for a specific, more convenient time. While the caller waits, they can browse the Web to look up the symptoms of their problem, and possibly figure out how to fix it before the call-back even occurs (and cancel the call-back). Once callers get familiar with such systems, they will be more inclined to try to solve the problem online. The user can decide for themself when to ask for the call, and can keep on serving themself as they await the call back. Even if they don't solve the problem, they can find the screen that describes the symptoms, so the agent knows immediately what it is going on and can speed the conversation along.

How is that for speed, convenience, and economy? Would you like tangible cost savings as well? Think about the economics: No 800 number charges while the customer wanders the audiotext maze. No 800 number charges while the customer waits for an agent to become available. No 800 number charges while the customer starts from zero to explain the problem (and often gets passed from one agent to another because the audiotext routing failed). And of course no 800 number charges at all if the problem is fixed by the customer prior to any call-back. With 800 number revenues totaling about $15 billion for 1995**, some companies might find some savings here to be interesting.

"May I help you select one of those fax machines Mr. Jones?"

The scenarios for selling with Web+telephone integration are at least as compelling. Interactive catalog selling has strong attractions, but has been slow to catch on. Most customers prefer paper catalog books, combined with 800 numbers. At the same time, both catalog books and Web sites miss one of the key virtues of in-store shopping: the customer's ability to browse at their own speed, with the option to flag a salesperson when desired--one who is familiar with the product category that department sells, and who can see what they are looking at.

Catalog book+800 number fails in that the sales agent cannot specialize in a product category (without forcing the caller through audiotext hell) and cannot see where the customer is in the virtual (paper) store. Using the Web alone has the same problem. Web+telephone fixes that lack of flexibility and richness, just as it does in the customer service scenario above. (It also solves the Web credit card security problem, if anyone still cares.)

For example, an office manager wants to buy a new fax machine, and searches for "fax." The result is a Web page (or pages) listing the various choices, with whatever level of detail and illustration the site offers. The customer could surf through all that, but being busy and uncertain of how to decide, elects to click the "call me now" button. Thirty seconds later the phone rings with a fax sales specialist ready to consult on the sale--looking at the customer's profile and current position on the Web site (including a view of their virtual "shopping basket")--and able to guide the customer through all the specifications and pictures and options, using the Web pages as a shared visual aid.

In most respects this is far quicker and more powerful than the current catalog book+800 number practice--not to mention far cheaper. The remaining advantages of the book are direct distribution to the customer, plus quick access to the quality graphics that may be problematic on the Web for some time yet. Reflecting that, consider the catalog book+Web+telephone scenario, to get the best of all three. The book and Web pages can be cross referenced, so the customer can use them in tandem, to have all the advantages of the book, but still get the smart access to a salesperson with specialized knowledge and customer information that only Web+telephone can effectively deliver.

We want the world and we want it now

This combination of widely used tools offers maximum power and flexibility to both the vendor and the customer. Judicious placement of "call me now" buttons throughout a Web site gives the user control, able to surf as they choose, with telephone support just a click away. Used properly, it encourages the customer to go as far as they can on the Web, knowing they are more likely to get an appropriate specialist after they navigate to the right area, and that any details they key in will appear on the specialist's screen. The customer and the vendor both share the benefits of efficient use of the system.

The products that Web sites need to offer Web+POTS are available now. A listing of some providers is given in the sidebar. Many of these vendors are well-established in the call center market, and the tools for linking from Web servers are packaged in flexible, easy to apply object form. Many adhere to emerging standards for computer-telephony integration (CTI). Some offer service bureau options for businesses that want to start out without any new equipment investment.

Over time, this same approach to Web+telephone combination sites will inter-work with the telephone-over-the-Internet transport technologies that are now getting so much press. From a Web site designer's perspective it really does not matter whether the call-back is via POTS or via the Internet. The Web site just gets the phone number and any related information, and passes it to the call center system. The same call center systems will be able to place calls over the Internet just as they do over POTS. Doing that is straightforward, and call center system vendors are working on that right now.

For any business that already relies on call centers, this is an opportunity too good to wait. For any business looking to the Web but lacking call center services, maybe you better move on Web+telephone before your competition does.

Either way, don't you think your Web site should be able to call me now?

[Yes, have a vendor call me now]

[No, and I'll tell you why not, if you call me now]

A sampling of Web+POTS solution providers

[listings to be added, with notes. likely inclusions to include: ]

*Some other forms of Internet telephony have also gotten some press, but their immediate impact on business is limited. One is Internet-enabled IVR--the use of Web content for interactive voice response. This is a convenient way for a business to create and manage IVR content, but offers no usage advantage over conventional IVR--user are still stuck in "audiotext hell". Another is teleconferencing--either pure audio, or audio plus video, either of which may be in combination with Web pages that offer "shared whiteboard" document conferencing, or a virtual reality space. This will grow in significance, but lacks the immediate power and simplicity of use of the call-back application described here.

**Figures from Technology Marketing Corporation, Norwalk, CT.

***Link Resources.

Contact Information

Richard R. Reisman, President, Teleshuttle Corporation
799 Broadway, New York, NY 10003
(212)-673-0225 fax: (212)-673-0226

1996, Teleshuttle Corp. All rights reserved

Teleshuttle home    FairPay    FairPayZone Blog    UserCenteredMedia Blog   CoTV    Reisman Patents    Reisman Bio    About Teleshuttle

Past Resources    Past Writings     Teleshuttle Past

The ghost of Teleshuttle past:  Pages retained for historical interest -- Not current, may have broken links

Copyright 2003 (or prior), Teleshuttle Corp. All rights reserved.


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The technology is here, but it ain't free.

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