May 2, 2005, 12:00 AM

Dealing with the increasing load of e-mail inquiries

Timberland has taken steps to improve e-mail communication with customers without additional costs. As the number of e-mails coming into its customer service reps has mushroomed in recent years to 65,000 in 2004, Timberland has managed to expedite e-mail replies while cutting costs, the company says.

At Timberland Co.’s Timberland.com, communicating with shoppers is a core part of site design. Visitors can learn the details about the materials and stitching that go into Timberland’s footwear, apparel and accessories, and they can read about Timberland’s efforts to support environmental causes and get information about volunteer opportunities in their own community or around the world.

So when it comes to an increasingly popular way shoppers prefer to communicate with Timberland- e-mail-the retailer has taken steps to improve that line of communication without additional costs. In fact, as the number of e-mails coming into its customer service reps has mushroomed in recent years to 65,000 in 2004, Timberland has managed to expedite e-mail replies while cutting costs, says Bill Bragger, global consumer service manager.

Timberland uses the eGain Mail e-mail management application from eGain Communications Corp., provider of software for customer service and contact centers. Since deploying the application in 2001, Timberland has reduced customer service personnel costs while improving average response time to customer e-mails to 6 hours from 24 hours, Bragger says. The system paid for itself within eight months, he says.

In the past, Timberland’s customer service reps too frequently replied to customer e-mails with poorly written messages that left customers unsatisfied, Bragger says. The problem forced Timberland to increase spending on compensation and provide a separate work area for customer service reps with strong writing skills, a situation that created morale issues among lower-paid reps not qualified to handle e-mail responses.

With the new system, Timberland has returned to a single crew of reps, saving the cost of paying for additional skills and improving overall morale, Bragger says. The eGain application is designed with pre-written e-mail responses for common issues. It enables a customer service rep to view the customer e-mail on one side of a computer screen and multiple standard responses on the other side. The rep chooses the most appropriate response and clicks it to send it to a customer.

The system also lets reps modify the pre-written responses if necessary, but a built-in grammar- and spell-checking tool assures that e-mail responses meet quality standards, Bragger says. “About 80% of the time, the pre-written responses are an exact match, so the rep doesn’t have to do any editing,” Bragger says.

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