April 2, 2004, 12:00 AM

The upward path

The web takes self-service to a level not possible in other channels. But sometimes self-serve doesn’t serve, so retailers are learning how to escalate customers to the next level of service without taxing the contact center.

“WISMO” is more than just a funny acronym to women’s footwear brand Aerosoles. It’s its own cost center at Aerosoles’ call center, where “Where is my order” is the subject of about 11% of all calls. “And we handle hundreds of calls a day,” says vice president of direct marketing Robert Garris. “Thousands in peak seasons.”

Do the math, and it’s clear that even a relatively small 11% can add up to a big headache. But Garris says he expects to reduce such calls by as much as 15% with customer service technology from Escalate Inc., which automates the online order process at the multi-channel retailer’s web site. Among functions, the software allows customers who’ve placed an order online at Aerosoles.com to track its shipment progress online without human intervention.

The caution

In its desire to automate customer service online to reduce costs-while keeping customers happy-Aerosoles, a division of Aerogroup International Inc., is hardly alone. Nor is Aerosoles alone in wanting to automate even more. For instance, customers can now check the status of Internet orders online; in the future, the company hopes to extend that to catalog orders. “Our objective is make the web as self-service as possible,” Garris says.

That goal becomes even more important at call centers that are dedicated to customer service as opposed to Aerosoles’ call center which handles calls from vendors and stores as well as customers. “At those centers, 80% of the calls could be Where is my order,” says Sally Sheward, vice president of marketing at Escalate, whose clients include retailers such as Home Depot and Nieman-Marcus Direct. “If 80% of your calls are WISMO, and you can cut that by 30%, you have freed up time, which redefines your call center costs or lets you do more proactive customer service online.”

But when migrating customer service functions to automated self-service online, smart e-retailers are balancing their desire to reduce costs with the desire not to antagonize customers. “Our initiative has always been to try to reduce the typical interaction with the call center,” says Rafaelle Pisacane, vice president of Internet development at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., which is pursuing that goal using the functionality on its Art Technology Group Inc. e-commerce platform.

He estimates that online self service costs only half or less of call center service. “But if you create the expectation that the customer can be served in the online channel without calling the call center, and it doesn’t work, you could have disappointed customers whose trust is turned against using self-service,” Pisacane warns.

That marks a change in attitude about web self-service since e-commerce’s earlier days. “In the late ‘90s the idea was to push everything to the low-cost channel,” says Ken Jochims, director of marketing at CRM technology provider Kana Inc. That’s self-service, but as Jochims adds, “That worked only so far. We’ve modified that now to the idea of the right channel.”

Hitting that sweet spot of the right automated option for the right online customer service job can pay off. Aberdeen Group Inc. research director Guy Creese estimates that computer manufacturer giant Gateway Inc. cut its call center costs by perhaps $16,000 per day by improving online customers’ ability to answer their own questions while on the site with the installation of natural language search technology from provider iPhrase Technologies Inc.

While Gateway did not disclose cost savings for call center avoidance, Creese calculates that if only 1% of the site’s 80,000 daily visitors found the technical support, product data and customer service answers they wanted online-an estimate he thinks is low-the avoidance of 800 calls at a resolution cost of $20 each would save Gateway $16,000 per day-$480,000 per month.

Those numbers are compelling even to those who operate on a much smaller scale. But with no universal rules for when to push customer service online to automated solutions and when and how to escalate to human intervention in the form of chat, e-mail or phone, online retailers must find their own tipping point.

Best practices, however, are emerging from the experience of marketers who’ve taken the plunge into online self-service options. Those guidelines on what works-or doesn’t-cluster around factors such as the complexity of the customer query and the value of the customer to the site. Another factor in the mix is that web-self-service technology is more sophisticated than earlier versions, for as experts point out, even the most well-reasoned strategy on self-service is only as good as the technology that supports it.

While automating responses to WISMO queries is a no-brainer, today’s technology can do more than that. But will the push away from call center contact to more self-service online satisfy or frustrate online customers? Part of that answer depends on how closely the process for a task customers are seeking to accomplish online maps to how they would do it in the physical world, and whether they can actually accomplish it more easily online.

While so deeply integrated into the online customer experience that it’s not generally regarded as customer service but, rather, part of the core sales function, the web shopping cart is a good example of self-service that works online, Creese says. “It’s a relatively simple process that people understand has certain steps,” he says. “You want to buy something, you look at shipping, you look at taxes, you provide your credit card and that’s it. People didn’t have a big problem with doing that online because they often didn’t get a ton of value there by dealing with a human.”

Another shopping task particularly well adapted to web self-service that’s likewise ingrained in the online customer experience is product research and selection. “If I have initial questions abut hiking boots on REI, for example, FAQs or being able to tap into a more extensive product data sheet might be of interest,” says Jochims.

More complexity

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