December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

When Eight Is Not Enough

(Page 2 of 2)

Coldwater Creek opted for Web Center from Quintis Corp., Fremont, Calif., a package of applications integrating e-mail, frequently asked questions and live help. As customers browse the site, an “instant help” link follows them from page to page. Along with real-time chat, the feature allows them to view pages in tandem with a customer-service rep.

Before adding Web Center, Coldwater Creek logged more than 300 calls a day from customers with questions about the site or its merchandise. The new system has hardly diminished the demand. In fact, the customer-service staff now handles more than 700 e-mails and live help requests daily. Reed attributes the surge to promoting live help on every page, rather than problems with the site. But the introduction of live chat has reduced e-mail. Reed estimates that 80% of online inquires now come via Web chat.

Templates built for speed

At SmarterKids.com, a recently upgraded e-mail response system allows for similar interaction. Like other sites aiming to speed responses, the company’s e-mail system is set up with templates of suggested responses to frequent questions that agents can customize to fit the circumstances. Last November, SmarterKids debuted the third leg of its customer support operation, a Web chat feature it calls SmarterTalk.

Soon, says DeChambeau, the site’s chat function and phone system will be linked to route in queue. “That way, we’ll no longer need reps dedicated to just one function,” he adds. “They can multi-task.” So far, Web chat represents about 4% of the site’s customer contacts, while e-mail and phone run neck-in-neck at 48% and 46%, respectively.

For Internet merchants without Web chat, a fast response to e-mail is the next best thing. Vacuum cleaner manufacturer Oreck Direct, New Orleans, has set six hours as the upper limit for responding. “We try to reply in under an hour,” says Tarry Davis, vice president of customer care. “The best way to do that in a cost-effective manner is to integrate those transactions with your call center.” All Oreck agents divide their time handling sales calls, customer service calls and e-mail.

Timely responses to e-mails become a barometer of customer confidence, contends Debbie Sullivan, product marketing manager at Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, San Francisco. A Web site that’s difficult to use is bad enough; one that fails to respond to inquiries is driving away its customers with indifference. The pressure to serve customers whenever and wherever reflects the fact that many call centers are juggling traditional and e-commerce contacts. “Both brick-and-mortar and Internet companies need to offer a number of ways for their customers to interact with them,” says Sullivan.

With the right enhancements, current call center software can provide the same benefits to Internet interactions as they do to telephone calls, says Sullivan. E-mail, Web chat, voice over Internet and FAQ packages usually can be added to an existing call center infrastructure.

That’s the approach Oreck is taking. “With the increased use of the Net for shopping over the last year, our call center is dead,” says Davis. “Our contact with customers comes from all media-the Internet, faxes, letters and telephone.”

Many of Oreck’s customers start out browsing vacuums on the Web, then go to a store to buy-but others reverse that route. “We don’t care whether they buy from brick-and-mortar stores, by phone center or online,” says Davis. But the company does have to be ready to handle inquiries when and where they come. “I don’t have a lot of questions if I’m buying a book,” says Davis. “But if I’m spending $800-whether it’s an Oreck vacuum cleaner or a Dell computer-I’ll have some questions. Responsiveness is absolutely critical to succeeding on the Web.”

Blurred lines

A new generation of Internet customer-service technologies promises to continue blurring the lines between automated and live service. Web chat, with its mixture of live and canned responses, is one example. And though today’s call center technologies have evolved over 20 years, says Fluss, “Web-based customer-service technologies are maturing on Internet time.” What won’t change is the fact that technology is only as good as the people using it. “Vendors claim savings by suggesting that customer-service reps can handle six simultaneous customer discussions,” Fluss says. “In reality, most can handle two.”

At the same time, Fluss is no naysayer when it comes to the advantages of technology. She foresees universal queue management integrating and routing calls, faxes, e-mail, Web chat and video-based requests, all riding on one infrastructure. It’s a tantalizing picture, Fluss adds. “In a blended environment, an agent can call up a history of all the interactions a customer has had with the business. You benefit from consistent and personalized information.”

Joseph McKendrick is a freelance writer in Doylestown, Pa.

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