April 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Hello, Customer

A contact center consultant tells how Tommy.com made its contact center double as a site designer.

Is your contact center eating up your e-commerce profits? Reducing your contact center costs might be as simple as moving a Shipping Instructions page or revising your FAQs. The key is to collect reliable data to ensure you know exactly why customers are contacting you, then using that information to better serve them. While contact centers are an essential element of e-commerce support, paying close attention to what your customers are saying to you can mean the difference between cost-effective sales and costly sales.

For example, let’s say a multi-channel retailer’s contact center receives 1,000 calls per day on average. Let’s also assume that 25% of those calls are inquiries about bricks-and-mortar retail locations, and that each of these calls lasts two minutes. With a telecom charge of 75 cents per minute, that retailer spends $1.50 each time a customer calls and asks where a physical store is located.

While $1.50 may not sound like a lot, if the contact center receives 250 of these calls every day, costs quickly add up. In this example, the retailer might want to look at how clearly it has marked store locator directions on its web site. Improvement here could potentially reduce the number of store locator calls by 50% or more, providing an annual telecom savings of over $68,000.

Simple call volume is not the only cost driver in a contact center, however. Call duration, otherwise known as average handle time, also will determine cost savings opportunities. If in the above example an additional 5% of calls are inquiries about return instructions, that adds up to another 50 calls per day. These calls could take up to 10 minutes each, representing 500 minutes per day, or 182,500 minutes annually, or an annual cost of $136,875. Reducing this by half through proactively addressing this question on your web site could realize a savings of an additional $68,000 in telecom costs alone.

Collecting this data can be relatively easy, but it needs to be done carefully for the information to be reliable. The simplest method for collecting data is known in the contact center industry as outcome codes or disposition codes. These are numeric values assigned to each call and e-mail. Each numeric value then is assigned a contact reason.

For example, 001 might be “sale,” and 023 might be “product info inquiry-jeans.” Each time a contact center agent receives a call or e-mail, he or she selects the reason from the outcome code list that best suits the call.

Here’s the tricky part: How do we choose descriptive options and how many to compile our outcome codes list? Too few codes will leave many calls unaccounted for; too many will leave you swimming in data and your agents confused. Getting around this challenge requires going straight to your experts-your agents. Listening to their opinions about the best call code descriptions will set you on the right track for capturing relevant customer contact data.

After one of our agent feedback sessions at apparel designer and retailer Tommy Hilfiger Corp.’s Tommy.com, we found a number of calls were from customers requesting the number for the head office in New York, but our agents had no idea what call outcome code to assign to them. Some agents were using the “other” outcome code, while others were trying to make an existing outcome code fit this call type.

Tweaking the codes
Following further discussion and call monitoring, we found callers were requesting the head office number for a variety of reasons, including marketing opportunities, employment related calls or promotional opportunities at the community level. Adding the “head office” call outcome code allowed us to track how many of these calls came in to the e-commerce contact center and how much they cost.

Not long after we began measuring the cost impact of these calls, we began to look for ways to reduce their number. The solution was to use our web site to answer these requests. By simply posting the head office number on our web site along with better FAQs addressing employment opportunities, we reduced these calls by approximately 40%.

Once a retailer establishes an outcome code list, it’s important to both manage the list by keeping it fresh and work closely with contact center agents to ensure they’re using the codes as planned. Managing the list does not have to be terribly challenging. By reviewing call outcome codes on a monthly or bi-monthly basis with agents, a retailer can be sure the outcome code list enables agents to accurately record reasons customers are calling.

Through frequent review with contact center agents, a retailer will find some outcome codes no longer are relevant, while new outcome codes may have become necessary because of a change in business. Keeping outcome codes fresh is the best way to understand why customers are calling and what you can do to help them before they pick up the phone.

Common understanding
The next step to collecting reliable data is ensuring a common understanding of each code. If you outsource your e-commerce customer support, chances are your agents also are agents for other companies with entirely different outcome codes. This means an agent might have to consider hundreds of different call outcome choices throughout the day.

One way to minimize the volume of outcome codes is to work closely with an outsourcing partner to allow for as much uniformity in call outcome codes as possible. This will help ensure agents are selecting the right outcome code for your calls. The challenge is to keep outcome codes simple and intuitive, and to conduct ongoing training to ensure agents understand each code.

Once agents are coding calls and e-mails, a retailer can observe this data in daily, weekly and monthly reports. Using an Excel spreadsheet, a retailer can sequence these reports to show the most frequently used codes at the top. By allowing agents to time the duration of each call, and listing the duration with each call outcome, you can get a clear understanding of where your telecom dollars are going.

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