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Customer Service Roundup

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Posted July 6, 2001 By Alexis Gutzman     Feedback

It's not sexy, it doesn't have a prestigious three-letter acronym, and it's not the latest dot-com buzzword. Yet without it, your e-commerce site is doomed to fail.

Contrary to popular belief, customer relationship management (CRM) has not replaced the need for customer service. CRM is sexy; customer service is not. CRM conjures up images of posh office space. Customer service staffs frequently labor in vast open floors with exposed cables hanging from the paneled ceilings. CRM is not just marketing; it is a three-legged table, of which service is one supporting leg.

Without customer service, there are no customers with whom to form relationships. In December of 1999, Bizrate reported that 22 percent of customers contacted customer service for any given purchase. Yet business plans for new ventures typically assume that only a small fraction of online transactions will result in customer service contacts - and most of those will be handled by self-service facilities online.

What About Self-Service?
Self-service should be a big part of customer service, but it simply cannot replace human contact for many types of requests. Many sites still think that an 800 number, with a "reasonable" hold time constitutes customer service. Phone calls are expensive. The most recent number I've seen for the cost of a service call is around $3.00. One phone rep should be able to handle between seven and eight calls per hour, with an hour of service costing approximately $25, all-inclusive from a service. The other problem with 800 numbers is the international issue, as 800 numbers don't always work outside the United States and Canada. Also, any phone system that requires customers to "press 1" to accomplish anything will fail to meet the needs of international customers whose phone tones are not compatible with U.S. phone systems.

Instant vs. Delayed Service
Customer service systems fall into two categories: instant and delayed. Instant is better, but there are circumstances where delayed service is acceptable (not great, but acceptable).

There are many types of instant service. I recommend you implement more than one. From the two types of instant service, be sure to select at least one from each type: self-service and assisted.

Instant Service Options
Self-serviceAssisted
FAQPhone
KnowledgebaseReal-time chat
Online forumOnline forum
(with reps posting responses)
Natural-language search 

Unless your services are free, you probably need some kind of assisted service. E-mail is not acceptable as a stand-alone solution unless you can guarantee instant or near-instant responses. Even then, you risk losing customers who need an answer at that moment, either regarding a purchase they are about to make or about a purchase they've already made.

The Problem with E-mail
Aside from the fact that e-mail isn't instantaneous, the problem with e-mail is that customers don't know that you're really there - at the other end of the line - working on solving their problems. They don't know whether their messages have gone to the end of a long queue or a short one. An autoresponder-generated message assuring them that they'll hear from you within a certain window is no substitute for real-time communication. They've also received e-mail guaranteeing them that they'll make $1400 per week working from home. You'll forgive their skepticism.

The advantage of e-mail is that it's silent. For people shopping from work (on their lunch hours, of course), phone support isn't a good option. They don't want their co-workers to know they're ordering their children's birthday presents.

E-mail is also nice in that it permits the customer to include all the relevant information in one place, so that the service rep can address the problem. Unfortunately, the reality is that customers usually leave something out, so the service rep has to ask the customer for additional information, leading to more correspondence, not an answer.

The inadequate-information problem that presents itself with e-mail support can be largely remedied by using Web-based forms to collect information about problems. However, forms can appear impersonal if they don't allow enough flexibility for customers to describe their problems. If you do use forms, make sure the choices you give customers represent real customer scenarios. The form shouldn't ask the customer to indicate which department should address the problem; it should ask about the type of problem, not the type of solution.

Phone Support
Phone support has its own problems. Most customer service centers aim to have a "reasonable" hold time for customers. The problem for many customers - particularly those coming to your site on a dial-up line - is that they have to disconnect their computers from the Web before they can call you. It's even worse for America Online (AOL) customers, who will lose their place on your site, since AOL closes all the browser windows when customers disconnect.

After you've decided what kinds of service to provide, you need to decide how to provide them. On the two far ends of the spectrum, you can build your own solution or hire a company to provide multi-channel customer service using their own reps. Most companies do something in between the two: either license a software application and install it in-house, or enlist the assistance of an ASP to deliver service applications to in-house service reps.

Customer Service RoundUp

In general, you'll get the fastest implementation time if you contract with an ASP to host the applications (real-time chat, e-mail processing, knowledgebase, etc.) and use your own knowledgeable reps to actually provide the support. Outsourced solutions may appear to be faster, but in my experience the service bureau requires extensive documentation about your products and services in their format, and such documentation - if you don't already have it on-hand and up-to-date - is both expensive and time-consuming to produce.

When it comes to customer service, one size does not fit all. Find the types of service and the delivery options that are most appropriate for your business, and get them implemented now, so you'll have customers with whom to build relationships.

Alexis D. Gutzman is an author, speaker, and consultant on e-business and e-commerce topics. Her most recent book, The E-commerce Arsenal: 12 Technologies You Need to Prevail in the Digital Arena, was named one of the 30 best business books of this year. For more information on her upcoming speaking engagements, please contact her directly at agutzman@internet.com.

Reprinted from ECommerce Guide.

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