Call centers still handle ringing phones but have added real-time Internet chats and e-mail response to their service arsenal. They have been renamed and are now called contact or customer care centers.
"The customer is much more demanding now, and the expectations of the average consumer are higher than they were two years ago," says Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association.
"Customer care centers have taken on a bigger piece of the service pie; at the same time, requirements of customers are getting larger."
The arrival of e-commerce has actually boosted telemarketing phone calls, but consumers are increasingly turning to the Web for customer service as well as information.
Though it has required substantial training, the $73.2 billion telephone marketing industry has quickly found ways to help customers using new channels.
The telemarketing industry, which DMA says will account for more than $611 billion in direct marketing sales this year, has witnessed numerous technological changes over the last two decades. But the arrival of the Internet has actually changed the call center itself, according to Mitch Lieber, owner of Lieber & Associates, a call center consulting group whose clients include CBS Sportsline.com and FTD/Florists' Transworld Delivery.
"Call center is becoming archaic as a term," Mr. Lieber says. "Today, there are call centers that are saying we have to take this place and transform it to an entirely e-commerce-enabled center."
Wedding List, an online and retail wedding registry business that partners with Nordstrom, turned to LivePerson when it wanted to add online customer service to its Web site, theweddinglist.com.
LivePerson, which recently introduced an e-mail service program, is an application service provider that allows companies to handle real-time sales chats online. Contact center operators can handle at least four chats simultaneously allowing for a higher volume of customer contact than phone calls.
Wedding List added online chats to its phone, catalog and retail services in January. For those first eight months of 2000, online sales for the registry site jumped more than 100% and the percentage of sales completed online jumped from 27% to 41%. Phone transactions accounted for just 22% of sales during the same period compared with 35% prior to the introduction of LivePerson.
At catalog retailer Lands' End, contact center employees in Wisconsin can handle Internet chats from visitors to Lands' End Live as well as man incoming phone calls when things aren't busy online.
"There was a tendency when e-business started to think business would shift [away from call centers], but people are now saying customers will contact us however they want to," says Vicky Heinz, business leader for customer relationship management at Lands' End.
In addition to providing customers with a variety of service channels, Ms. Heinz is working to overhaul Lands' End's database and computer system so contact center employees can track an individual's purchases throughout the company's different divisions.
When the new system debuts next year, a Lands' End representative will know that a person ordering a child's sweater from the latest catalog is the same person who ordered 200 baseball hats through the business-to-business division earlier in the day.
Lands' End's endeavor is an example of the way companies are using contact center encounters to solidify customer relationships.
"What has exploded for the contact center is we try to get more done during the point of contact," says Tim Searcy, president of Optima Direct, the teleservices arm of Rapp Collins Worldwide, New York. "It's enhancing the database, selling something else or researching about satisfaction. We are lengthening, and in a sense broadening, what the charter of a contact center is."
Mr. Wientzen predicts future technological changes at contact centers will make customer relationships even more personal.
"I think you'll see technology moving in the direction of enhancing the customer contact environment to make it more human," he says. "You'll see enhanced chat and eventually will see one-to-one video conferencing and the integration of the customer and operator screens and more sophisticated e-mail."