Elusive customer service
ALTHOUGH ONLINE retailers focused on back-end fulfillment processes and snappy Web design this holiday season, customer service remains a blind spot for many businesses.
But those retailers leading the pack this year have shored up customer service with CRM (customer relationship management) technologies such as chat and collaboration, as well as with VOIP (voice over IP), all of which analysts expect to be more commonly used next year.
-- Brian Fonseca
Handing over the keys to your Web site CRM (customer relationship management) operation is a risky proposition, but some companies are finding out that turning to outsourcing can offer online interactive features this holiday season.
Cornerhardware.com, an e-tailer based in San Francisco, relies on Esupportnow to offer its customers live chat, e-mail, and telephone customer service, co-founder and president Peter Hunt said. The cost advantages of outsourcing CRM outweigh the downside of handing over customer service control, he added.
"If we had to go out and build our own call center, it would've taken six to nine months to build it from scratch," Hunt said.
According to Hunt, an internal employee at Cornerhardware.com handles difficult customer service issues. At the Charlestown, Mass.-based Esupportnow, representatives are fully trained to be familiar with the hardware company's products and services.
Esupportnow customer Kabloom Limited, a flower store chain with an online presence in Woburn, Mass., raved about outsourcing but because of security questions was hesitant to incorporate "page pushing" or guiding customers through Web pages.
"It's something we have looked at, but one of the issues that comes up is going in between secure [Web] pages and nonsecure pages. And I don't know what the resolution to that has been," said Todd Thomma, marketing manager at Kabloom.
Esupportnow operates as Kabloom's call center, offers live chat, and processes Web orders for the company. Thomma said that using live human interaction in an online purchase to offer suggestions helps new customers feel more at ease.
Vendors who outsource Web CRM must be wary of giving up too much customer service control, said Geri Spieler, research director at Gartner, in San Jose, Calif.
"Outsourcing is dangerous because you may be outsourcing your relationship with a customer," Spieler said. "That being said, if I can't provide the service, then I need to provide the service the best way I can, or I'm out business." Spieler said that e-tailers should outsource fulfillment before customer service, and they must ensure that an internal company representative be assigned full-time to the outsourced relationship to monitor progress and to see that SLAs (service-level agreements) are being met.
"More than 50 percent of Web sites don't have anything on their main page that tells customers where to go for service. That's abysmal," said Erin Kinkin, an analyst at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Giga Information Group. "That's like walking into a brick-and-mortar store and not seeing any salespeople on the floor."
Widely known for its customer service in the brick-and-mortar environment, Seattle-based Nordstrom's online arm launched a live chat feature earlier this year -- a piece of Quintus' CRM package -- that links customers to service representatives who can push pages to users who cannot find a particular product on the site.
"We wanted something very interactive for our customers," said Paul Onnen, CTO of Nordstrom.com. "A lot of people have one phone line and they can't be on the Internet and call the customer service center at the same time. They don't want to wait for the turnaround of an e-mail; they want something simultaneous."
So far that approach has proven successful. Onnen said the Web site's business is up roughly 400 percent from last year's holiday period.
"We will never replace the person-to-person interaction we can get with the shopper" at a Nordstrom's department store, Onnen said. "But we're trying as hard as we can in the nonperson-to-person environment of the Web to provide a level of service that customers expect from us."
Multiple levels of interaction on an e-tailing site are crucial, said Scott Kolman, director of industry marketing for the e-business solutions group at Brampton, Ontario-based Nortel. E-tailers need to learn to manage their customer relationships, not just their transactions, he said.
J.Crew added VOIP capabilities to its site for this holiday season, going live right after Thanksgiving with OneClick Contact provided by Reston, Va.-based eStara.
1. Requiring a password to access customer service 2. Lack of a customer service tab 3. Lack of search engines for general customer queries 4. Lack of a site map 5. Lack of internationalization 6. Lack of agent support for new channels (for example, no customer support agents for online activities and slow e-mail response times) 7. Lack of working channels (for example, inability to enter the chat area) 8. Lack of good customer service on the phone 9. Lack of coordination between "click and brick" 10. Requiring software download to access customer service Source: Gartner
Top 10 customer service mistakes e-tailers make
1. Requiring a password to access customer service
2. Lack of a customer service tab
3. Lack of search engines for general customer queries
4. Lack of a site map
5. Lack of internationalization
6. Lack of agent support for new channels (for example, no customer support agents for online activities and slow e-mail response times)
7. Lack of working channels (for example, inability to enter the chat area)
8. Lack of good customer service on the phone
9. Lack of coordination between "click and brick"
10. Requiring software download to access customer service
"The best way to close a sale is to be able to talk directly to customers at the point of sale, when they are trying to get the information they need," said Tom Natelli, CEO of eStara. This gives e-tailers the ability to cross-sell, up-sell, answer questions -- all those things."
Borders.com uses E.piphany's EpiCenter to manage customer purchase history and will extend the application to integrate its call center with Web capabilities next year, according to Charlie Moore, the La Vergne, Tenn.-based director of customer service at Borders Group.
"Those services will include chat, collaboration, co-browsing -- all those things that facilitate interaction," Moore said. "Chat can turn customer assistance into more of a real-time event. It's an investment, but the long-term cost is cheaper than phone."
For this year's holiday shopping, Borders has improved its e-mail management process, installing Brightware to sort and queue e-mail messages by subject matter.
Kmart's BlueLight.com is also using E.piphany's CRM products, providing customer service representatives with relevant information about the site's customers who interact with the company via the phone and e-mail. "We want to make sure people always find a human behind the Web page," said Dave Chambers, San Francisco-based director of customer relationship management at BlueLight.com.
The next level of customer service technology on the Web will link all channels for customer interaction. For example, customer service representatives will be able to forward Web interactions with customers in the same way they forward phone calls today, said Giga's Kinkin. The main task for e-tailers during the next few years is implementing CRM technologies, he said.