June 13, 2006, 12:00 AM

Virtual agents help Hammacher Schlemmer cut contact center costs

By using a hosted, on-demand system of computerized virtual customer service agents, gifts and innovative products retailer Hammacher Schlemmer has reduced by 19% the number of order-status calls into its contact center, the retailer says.

 

By using a hosted, on-demand system of computerized virtual customer service agents, gifts and innovative products retailer Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. Inc. has reduced by 19% the number of order-status calls into its contact center, Don Rogers, vice president of operations, tells InternetRetailer.com. “So our reps can spend more time handling more difficult consulting and revenue-generating calls.”

“In terms of savings, we’re looking at $1.20 to $1.50 per resolved call,” Rogers says. Those figures relate to calls handled by Hammacher’s own staff of contact center agents. Savings are larger for calls not forwarded to outsourced contact centers, he adds.

The Voxify hosted virtual agent system, which Hammacher began using last summer, has proven to be particularly helpful during peak shopping periods, Rogers says.

During the 2005 holiday shopping season, for example, the lion’s share of calls were received during a 6-week period during the fourth quarter. Although Hammacher hires as many as 300 seasonal contact center reps to help meet demand, it still must rely on more costly outsourced contact center operations to handle all calls. With the Voxify virtual agents, the retailer has decreased the number of calls to its outsourced operations as well as to its regular contact center, Rogers says.

Hammacher first looked at virtual agent technology several years, but it’s only been recently that the technology has matured to offered the level of quality Hammacher demanded, Rogers says. “Five years ago, we didn’t like virtual agent technology because customers had to use their telephone keypad to work through the call, the recorded voices asked rote questions, and the investment was too high,” he says.

By comparison, current technology provides a hand-free conversational style of communication with a level of voice quality that suits the Hammacher Schlemmer brand, Rogers says. Hammacher Schlemmer is No. 243 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide to Retail Web Sites.

Hammacher routinely works with Voxify to modify virtual agent offerings based on customer usage, and it’s able to view real-time reports on call completion rates. Abandonment rates for virtual agent calls have been almost non-existent, Rogers says.

The retailer’s regular staff of contact center reps was initially wary of the virtual agents for the possibility they could replace human agents, Rogers says. But the staff quickly learned how the virtual agents fit into the mix. “Our core people understand the challenges before us, especially in the fourth quarter,” he says. “We’ve had no reduction in our customer service staff, and the virtual agents have had a positive financial impact.”

 

 

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