You Call Me

Around the late 1990's web callback systems started to pop up on the internet. You probably ran across them occasionally. The general idea was that you type your telephone number into a web page, press enter and some savvy call center then dials you, and the company to which you wish to talk to. They then put both parties into a "conference", and link you together.

The benefits of web callback systems are readily apparent. At the most basic level, they are free to the customer. They turn passive web browsing into an interactive experience. The company has the chance to talk to the customer to increase their sales chances and to provide valuable customer service.

Some companies such as eStara are still operating these services, but the interesting question is, why have these services never taken off? Why doesn't every ecommerce web site use one? The answer is in 2 drawbacks inherent in the system described above.

The first drawback is price. Imagine a call center in the US dialing back a user on a mobile phone in Australia and connecting them to a company in the United Kingdom. If you add on the callback system service charges, after only a few such calls the monthly bill is largely out of the reach of non corporate users.

The second drawback is the inflexibility of the system. If all the operators at the company are unavailable, what happens to the user waiting for their call? How can the operator know the name of the person they are calling? What about prank calls? How do you know from which page, or site, you have callback links on, the user calling is?

These limitations have meant that callback systems never really moved out of the corporate sector, and even in the corporate sector never found large scale adoption.

With the recent explosion in broadband connectivity and VOIP we have a seen a great deal of innovations. In particular the enormous popularity of Skype has created the first viable platform for PC to PC phone calls, that wasn't deeply limited by the small size of the network. Skype has pioneered, callme links. If Skype is installed on the website visitors computer, and a website has callme links, they can place a PC to PC call directly, by merely clicking the link. (ie no callback required.) In addition Skype's latest offering is "Skype Web" which can update an image on a web page to show whether an individual is online or not, and hence whether they are available to take a call.

Many of the benefits that legacy callback systems promised can be also realized using Skype technology. However some hitches remain. Skype has a very large user base, but still tiny in comparison with the total number of internet users in total. Skype is inherently one on one and corporates would find it difficult to deal with multiple incoming calls simultaneously. The facility to garner additional information about the caller at the time of the call is not readily available.

Recently a new player in the web callback arena has appeared. Bitwalker Japan, a Japanese based company, in April of this year released the Boomerang Callback System. In appearance it is a legacy callback system because it provides a similar end user experience to the web site visitor. However it manages to achieve this without incurring the high costs of traditional systems, and at the same time adds some radical new features.

The company representative / operator is required to install the Boomerang desktop client, as well as Skype. Boomerang does not dial both parties to form a conference call. Instead it acts as in relay service, receiving call requests, and passing them on to operators via the Boomerang desktop client. The actual telephone call is placed from the operator's PC over Skype's PC to Phone service, Skype Out, at extremely low rates. In simple terms, the company is only paying for one phone call not two. And the only per call cost, is from Skype, which is approximately US2c per minute to most major call destinations.

By providing a Boomerang client for the operator, a whole new range of features has become possible. The operators online status (available / unavailable) on the company's web page is updated in real time, via the desktop client. The customers name, telephone number, and country are available to the operator before they have made the call. Custom information specific to the companys operations, such as product name, can be passed on from the callback link all the way to the operator. And all of this can be achieved without requiring the customer to install any special software.

"We see a lot of uses for callback technology that have not been possible until now. For example it is now possible to include callback links in e mail signatures, and to run affiliate programs based on callback links. in the pipeline and we are positive that we can make callback technology a cost effective and flexible solution for small and medium businesses "said Justin Hunt, CEO of Bitwalker Japan.

With the penetration of broadband connectivity and a wider base of knowledgable internet users, previously unsuccessful ideas from the dot com era, are likely to be revisited. How web callback systems fare, will be interesting to see.


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