Virtual Customer Interactions

This is my next Customer Interaction Solutions High Priority column. If memory serves it will be the October, 2007 issue. As often happens this will be the unedited version. If this is of any interest be sure to subscribe digitally to the magazine so you don’t miss an issue.
On a blustery day at a Virginia Beach hotel a decade or so ago, a group of call center decision makers gathered to hear Rich Tehrani, Group Editor-in-Chief of TMC speak on the topic of evolving customer service and technology.
During the presentation I mentioned companies need to answer e-mail in real time. It was at this point a woman in the audience raised her hand and challenged this assertion. She said people should not get used to having their e-mails answered immediately by call centers. I was in direct opposition with what she thought and my presentation turned into a debate.
Moreover, the woman was obviously very emotional about this issue. In the hundred plus presentations I have given since this one I never had a similar incident take place.
Thankfully the ever-talented David Burd who was the head of marketing at the company sponsoring the conference stepped in and segued us out of confrontation and back into my presentation.
I often think back to this woman when I e-mail companies who don’t immediately respond.
I still think I am right but in the end, technology can change but the adoption of such technologies and implementation speed differs from company to company. I happen to be the sort of customer who likes a company to respond to my e-mails immediately. All things being equal, I will buy from a company who responds more quickly to my online queries.
Technology stands still for no call center as it isn’t just e-mail that has transformed the call center into the contact center. IP communications too has dramatically altered the way we communicate and serve our customers. Agents located around the world can now easily serve customers. A company’s mailing address now has less and less to do with where the majority of its workers live and work as the internet has allowed corporations to find ever-more cost-effective ways to get work done.
If you are a long term reader you remember me telling you in the mid-nineties to explore IP contact centers and numerous other technologies.
Now it is time for a new technology to be introduced into the customer interaction mix.
If you aren’t aware of virtual worlds, you should be. The most popular of these is Second Life and it is slowly becoming the 3D Internet. It has plenty of competition and this article is not meant to analyze the various competitors but instead focus on the potential for virtual worlds to change customer service and sales as we know it.
In a virtual world you choose an avatar, dress the avatar and walk or fly around from place to place. Your avatar interacts in this world and can chat and use VoIP to communicate with other avatars. There is search functionality so you could for example find a car rental agency, find a store to buy clothes, more radiant skin, tattoos or whatever you feel like buying.
Millions of people are experimenting in virtual worlds and meet in night clubs, on romantic islands, in virtual conferences and shops.
Some companies use virtual worlds for training and others use them to extend their brand with a virtual storefront the same way they may have experimented with a web page back in 1995.
Virtual worlds, like every new technology needs one or more champions. IBM has been on the forefront of speech, Linux and green technologies just to name a few. To this list you can add virtual worlds as IBM has been one of the biggest proponents of Second Life, buying virtual land and building virtual buildings.
But what brought IBM into my sights as a company worthy of my coverage is their most recent virtual world announcement where they will staff their virtual business center with workers in Asia five days a week, 24 hours per day. They join others from North America, Latin America and Europe who started working there in May.
"There has been a huge surge in the popularity of the web activities like social networking. People are very accustomed to meeting each other on-line socially. We’ve just applied that concept to the business world," said Paula Summa, General Manager,, the company’s decade-old telephone and web sales organization.
"Social networking and virtual world participation is skyrocketing in Asia. Asia is, after all, a hotbed for 3-D gaming. Why not 3-D business, too?" added Summa.

"Although this started as an experiment, it has resulted in sales leads," Summa added. "This is a new and exciting way for clients and IBM to do business."

IBM’s Virtual Business Center’s technical support library gives visitors access to technical information including Redbooks and Systems Journals. One advantage of going to a virtual world to get your information is that finding it can be faster and easier than just navigating a web site. In the virtual Business Center you can browse the 3-D book shelves, view a 3-D book or just ask the librarian, just like in the real world.

My take on virtual worlds is, it is early, very early in its adoption cycle. Do I think many companies will have a virtual storefront in the future? Yes. The potential for this technology remains tremendous in my opinion and I imagine in the future when you log onto your computer your avatar will automatically come to life and as you are searching the web you will be able click a link to place your avatar in numerous locations.
For example if you are surfing for a tie, you will be able to click a Second Life URL known as a SLURL which will immediately transport your avatar to a virtual Sachs where you can see the ties in 3D.
Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t. Whether the web evolves to become three-dimensional or a service like Second Life becomes our default conduit to 3D is unknown. What is known is the 3D world is coming and now is a great time to get accustomed to the technology. Sign onto some of these virtual world services and play around and see what the potential is. You may even spot your competition setting up a virtual storefront.
Currently there are people conducting meetings and business in these worlds but just like on the internet there are many X-Rated activities going on in Second-Life as well.
This shouldn’t dissuade you from taking Second Life and other virtual worlds very seriously. Just like the Internet, virtual worlds are open places where millions will visit and do a variety of things including buying products and services. I hope you will give these services a try and I hope to see you around the virtual world sometime in the future. If you want to meet me on Second Life, just send me an e-mail. Of course I will try to respond immediately. 🙂

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