Rethinking customer service

Voice calls must be able to recruit data channels, and vice versa. That way, an agent could attach an IM session to your voice call and push you the URL in real-time chat. It might even be appropriate to extend the data session with screen sharing, so the agent can watch and assist. If things still don't work out and the whole matter must be referred to someone else, you'd like to be able to initiate voice or data communication -- or both -- in a context-preserving way. [Full story at]

This week's column about the backlash against user-hostile IVR ends with an appeal for unification of voice and data channels. Another example comes from my report on the O'Reilly Peer-to-Peer and Web Services Conference in 2001:

In one of the most compelling software demonstrations I saw at the show, Internet Access Methods' Gerry Seidman inverted the help desk scenario. In a JXTA-enabled financial application, he clicked a Help button. "Now," says Seidman, "I wait for my phone to ring." Because the help request bundles application and user context, the screen of the service agent who would make that call can display the relevant pieces of application GUI and backoffice information. [Peer and Web Services are Technologies of Connection and Coordination]
Along with voice/data integration, that demo highlighted the notion of composable and remixable user interfaces. Instead of sharing your whole desktop, or a complete application window, you could share something as specific as an account-editing form. Why? More privacy for you, less clutter for the agent trying to help you.

That sounds improbable when you survey the fragmented GUI landscape: AJAX, Flash, .NET, Java. But common patterns do exist, and in each of these niches you can find one or more XML vocabularies to describe them: XUL, MXML, XAML, and others. Maybe it's a pipe dream to imagine a unifying standard in this space, but it's one that I can't ignore. So it was heartening to see that the W3C has taken up the cause.

It would be fitting if customer service turned out to be the driver for voice/data integration and composable user interfaces. In a world of near-optimal information flow, human exception handlers -- the resource we invented IVR to conserve -- will be one of the few remaining ways to differentiate and add value.

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