December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Multi-channel CRM

The technology is there to achieve multi-channel CRM—if retailers can manage sales and shopping behavior across channels.

1800mattress.com rolled out an online chat function last July to give shoppers more information about its beds and related products. Soon after, the multi-channel retailer began testing a way to make shopper chat transcripts available to stores via the Internet. With the shopper’s permission, the store can access her product preferences online and the salesperson can go right into features and benefits when the shopper arrives.

Sharing customer data across web, call center and storefront channels has been one of 1800mattress.com’s goals since beginning its e-commerce business in 1994, says Joe Vicens, executive vice president. With roots in call center as Dial-A-Mattress and marketed first by classified ads in 1976, the business has grown to include more than 450 corporate and franchise stores and affiliate companies around the country. Technology helps share shopper information across channels and gives visitors multiple options for making a purchase, including online, by phone or in-store.

“We can now take the next step,” Vicens says. “The chat transcript can be transferred to a store via voice over Internet protocol technology. Having the complete transcript of what the customer is looking for onscreen in the store facilitates the sale.” The company is using chat software from Batiz.com.

Slow uptake

Unlike 1800mattress, however, most retailers are slow to use technology to share data collected from one channel to boost sales in another. A report in early 2007 from Retail Systems Research found that only 30% of retailer respondents had integrated customer and shopper data across channels, says Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at RSR, a research and consulting company.

Potentially, managing customer and visitor data across multiple sales channels could drive more sales, experts say, via upselling and cross-selling. For example, a chocolate retailer’s customer who orders products online a few days before Valentine’s Day each year could be a target for discounted offers on a larger quantity and promotions could be sent by e-mail or U.S. mail. The same efforts could be tied to other holidays, such as Sweetest Day, a candy-centric holiday celebrated in October in certain parts of the country.

The term customer relationship management, or CRM, encompasses retailers’ efforts to become more familiar with the shopper’s browsing and purchasing habits and drive sales across channels. And while retailers have been slow to use the technology needed to unite sales and shopper data collected from one or more channels, customers and shoppers are increasingly aware that retailers, especially those selling products online, know their names and have information about their shopping habits. “Customers are telling retailers that it’s frustrating crossing sales channels and not being recognized,” says Rob Bois, an analyst who specializes in customer management at AMR Research.

The main obstacle to retailers investing in CRM technology is cost, analysts say. They have disparate information systems handling data from different channels and the options are to integrate them or replace them. “It’s especially difficult for larger retailers who have a world of legacy systems,” Rosenblum says. “Pulling them all together is like untangling spaghetti.”

Software tools that fall under the CRM heading include order management, fulfillment and customer service, along with online and e-mail marketing. All can help track online and offline shopper and customer behavior, funnel it into a data warehouse, or knowledge base, then analyze it and feed it back to give all channels a full picture of the shopper.

Technical support on product usage or installation offers opportunities for additional sales in such categories as consumer electronics and computers, says Dan Vetras, president and CEO of Talisma Corp. For example, Talisma’s chat module can go beyond answering an online shopper’s question about a computer installation problem. If an e-retailer’s tech support agent monitoring the chat can access the shopper’s history the agent might learn that the shopper recently purchased a computer and accessories but not the right cables to connect them.

Talisma also offers e-mail and telephone-based customer communication applications, along with data-sharing tools that can help employees and customers access an e-retailer’s data, such as purchase history.

A variety of options

Retailers ready to reach across channels and access shopper data have a number of technology options. Software can integrate shopper data from point-of-sale, call center and e-commerce systems to unite information such as customer sales and service history. Retailers can license the software on a per-seat basis for call center or online chat agents, or they can subscribe to provider-hosted applications where the data is stored in a third-party provider’s offsite server.

Merchants can start by analyzing their customer base and identifying knowledge gaps in and across sales channels, says Jim Bengier, global retail industry executive at Sterling Commerce, an AT&T; Inc. subsidiary that provides business process and supply chain management software and services. For example, a consumer electronics retailer’s online chat agent might not know that the customer has placed repeated calls to a store’s service center and that the customer could soon be lost.

If a retailer has not implemented cross-channel technology, the first step might be to acquire simple, less expensive tools such as web self-service software, says Ashu Roy, chairman and CEO at eGain Communications Corp., a customer service and contact center software provider. Self-service software assists online shoppers without human interaction and helps the e-retailer gather information about the shopper, such as tracking questions about shipping charges that might indicate the customer is a target for a shipping offer.

EGain also offers best practice assessment studies to gauge a retailer’s existing state of service and sales across all channels. Then the provider develops a business case for improving service and sales and reducing costs by interacting with shoppers passively with a self-help application, or actively with chat and telephone callback software.

Roy notes that large retailers can expect to pay $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollars to license a web self-service application perpetually, at a volume of 30,000 to 50,000 online sessions per month. A hosted equivalent can cost $100 per subscriber and 6% to 10% of the perpetual license fee per month for a similar amount of sessions.

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