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Is the 'Killer App' Killing You? Part 2

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Posted October 13, 2003 By Bruce McCracken     Feedback

For many companies, not responding to customers' e-mail inquiries can be deadly. In part two of our two-part series, we explore ways to narrow the gap between business response and customer expectations as well strategic considerations in reversing the dangerous trend.

Perhaps as a result of the dot-com bust of 2000-2001 businesses have underestimated the impact of the online channels -- both Web sites and e-mail -- as conduits of customer interaction. By ignoring these channels in areas of inbound customer communications, a weak link in customer service threatens the image and branding of the enterprise.

Increasing consumer expectations and reduced patience require a proactive approach in the online channels to further a positive customer relationship managment (CRM) image in the mind of the consumer. While many aspects of the overhaul are tough and costly nuts to crack, others are relatively inexpensive and simple implementations. Much of the strategy in handling customer service in the online channels is radically different for many enterprises as common sense is required.

The Fall From Grace
The advent of the customer-driven business has dictated a new way of doing business. The course of "business as usual" could well be the road to oblivion. While the notion of the customer being the driver may be new, the declining esteem of how business is conducted is any thing but new.

Harris Interactive is a global market research and consulting firm, best known for The Harris Poll. A survey of 1,010 adults surveyed by telephone by Harris Interactive between April 10 and April 15, 2003 revealed that public opinion of business continues to decline. The table below dramatically shows erosion, as all categories are lower than those measured in 1997. The average between 1997 and 2002 is a drop of 12.5 percentage points.

Far From a Flash in the Pan
According to the January 2003 research, the third such annual report, The UCLA Internet Report, Surveying the Digital Future, 71.1% of Americans in 2002 went online. The average number of hours on line per week increased from 9.8 hours in 2001 to 11.1 hours in 2002 with 59.4 percent having Internet access at home, up from 46.9 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, 44.5 percent report shopping and buying online.

Internet use as a shopping and buying channel will increase according to The UCLA Internet Report -- Year Three. As demonstrated in the figure below, 71.2 percent of the respondents are likely to increase online purchasing.

Thorsten Ganz vice president research for The Customer Respect Group of Bellevue, Washington submits, "Companies view their Web site as something they need to have, not as a key part of their business that many customers will use. Companies may not sell online, but they are totally missing the boat. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with e-commerce."

Indeed, as detailed in the figure below from The UCLA Internet Report -- Year Three, 70.9 percent of Internet buyers shop online and later buy in stores.

Where Do We Go From Here
Consumer expectations and demands are far from being met according to the March 2003 report from Jupiter Research, Jupiter Consumer Survey Report -- The State of Customer Service, 2003. Only a small fraction of respondents did not see a need for improvement of service. With the exception of logging in, the respondents spending more online saw a greater need for improvement in all categories. As illustrated in the figure below, the second biggest category cited involved e-mail response time.

Jupiter Research reported in June 2003 report E-mail Automation -- Making the Internet's Killer Application Pay off that 88 percent of consumers sent a customer service e-mail in the past six months. Sadly, despite the red flags and volume, the report concludes, "E-mail response times won't improve dramatically over the nest 24 to 48 months."

Conversely, the report states, "With dedicated resources and appropriate technology, companies can improve response effectiveness and efficiency and lower the cost per contact by 40 percent to 50 percent."

One relatively inexpensive and quickly implemented solution to improving customer response is utilizing auto-responder technology. Essentially, as soon an e-mail arrives, a reply is generated acknowledging receipt. In this way the customer is not ignored. The responses can often simply just include an estimated time for the full reply to allow for fluctuations in the workload.

David Daniels, senior analyst for Jupiter Research, is perplexed by how few organizations use the technology. "It is amazing that only 39 percent acknowledged a customer's inquiry with an automated response," Daniels said.

Citing June 2003 results (see figure below) from The Customer Respect Group report 2003 Online Customer Respect Study for the 100 largest US Companies, Ganz is also befuddled. "One thing that continues to surprise us is that companies spend a lot of money on very expensive systems but only 25 percent use auto responder technologies, a very simple inexpensive technology," said Ganz. "Having the courtesy to tell the customer that they did receive the inquiry is a very easy thing to do."

Another mistake made by some companies involves over complicating the process of making the contact. Some firms use forms preemptively to attempt to resolve the issue with a FAQ. The consumer gets the FAQ but mistakenly thinks that an e-mail inquiry has also been sent. The company had better hope that the FAQ resolved the problem.

Ganz explains how companies can outsmart themselves. "Using the latest technology can backfire by using sophisticated contact forms to avoid the user sending inquiry. Don't use technology for technology's sake. Work with customers to make sure that the technology is easy to use."

Another problem with e-mail inquiries involves the way the queries are handled. Jupiter Research reports that 81 percent of firms surveyed have a system set up where the reps pull the messages from individual or a common inbox. Reps may choose what queries they wish to address resulting in more complex urgent requests being avoided. This process fails to exploit the natural workflow of the contact center.

A far more efficient system involves pushing the queries through to agents as they become available. Applications to accomplish this are also relatively inexpensive and proven. An exhaustive list of CRM and call center applications can be found at ECommerce-Guide.com's Product Finder. Additionally, more advanced queuing and routing systems are available, often on a subscription basis, to more intelligently relay the inquiry to the person best able to resolve the issue.

Another mistake that is often made is forcing the rep to be a switch hitter as explained by Daniels. "Many companies believe that the answer is to synchronize inbound e-mail routing with inbound phone routing with one super agent that can handle both simultaneously. You have reps that are better with the written word, some with the phone. We don't think that it is the solution to put all of your customer contacts into one basket to have one agent service that pool."

One page of double spaced 12-point type is equivalent to 90 seconds of speech. Bear in mind that the phone rep often has highly polished live interpersonal skill for high touch/high tech resolution of consumer concerns. To expect this person to additionally be able to blaze through a reply at the speed of a paralegal is not only unreasonable, it can lead to employee dissatisfaction.

Yet another worthy consideration for an enterprise with a high volume of e-mail inquiries and/or needing a rapid turnaround, particularly those that are less complicated, is to outsource offshore. Jupiter Research submits that, "outsourcing e-mail handling to a provider based in India will cut e-mail costs by 30 percent to 40 percent, and is recommended for companies seeking a response time of under six hours."

Just establishing some best practices can do wonders for an enterprise in enhancing customer satisfaction. When taken in the grand scheme of things, what business can afford to not reassess, realign, and reinvent their online efforts?

As summed up by Ganz, "A lot of money is being spent on CRM systems but it seems to fall apart when it comes to the day-to-day operation of the systems and the correct implementation of processes to ensure that every inquiry gets a response. The people going up to the Internet are younger and younger everyday. Those are the buyers of tomorrow and pushing them away today can lose them for a lifetime."

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