December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Reach out and sell someone

Sell to your customers as they want to be sold. That’s the decision facing e-retailers over installing live customer service technologies such as Web chat, collaborative browsing and voice over Internet. “These technologies aren’t must-haves as much as tools retailers must use if their customers expect to be served that way,” says Charles Rider, an analyst at the Patricia Seybold Group, Boston. “When there’s a lot of serendipity in the sale, multiple touch points make a big difference, especially with gifts or big-ticket goods.”

The opinions of Internet shoppers bear him out. A recent poll by Harris Interactive found that human contact had a more positive effect on how shoppers rated a site’s customer service than did e-mail messages and frequently asked questions. But that doesn’t rule out using either one, adds Rider, since they handle routine queries at a fraction of the cost of live service. Nor is live service a panacea: A 1998 Intel Corp. survey found that 60% of people who access call centers hang up unhappy.

Aiming to give its customers options for handling their inquiries, casual clothing e-retailer Eddie Bauer has combined various live and static service technologies under the “Ask Eddie” banner. The service’s knowledge base reflects the fact that about 80% of customers ask the same 20% of questions in the database, says Jeff Whitney, vice president of marketing at ServiceSoft, which developed “Ask Eddie.” Customers pose questions in free-text format, and the product uses artificial intelligence to ask clarifying questions to narrow down to an answer.

Customers who want to talk to an agent live can call toll-free or do so in a chat session. “Some people think of self-service as reducing the level of customer service,” says Whitney. “That could not be more incorrect. By offering customers a way to answer the vast amount of questions, you empower them. No one should have to wait for an e-mail or be forced to call.”

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