June 16, 2008, 12:00 AM

How Improvement Direct manages customer service

With consumers expecting higher levels of service across shopping channels, retailers need to find new ways to motivate and support customer service agents to reach higher levels of skills, Improvement Direct’s David Boctor said at IRCE 2008.

With consumers expecting higher levels of service across shopping channels, retailers need to find new ways to motivate and support customer service agents to reach higher levels of skills, David Boctor, executive vice president of home improvement e-retailer Improvement Direct said last week at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2008.

“We are now asking more of our customer service reps, so we need to empower them more,” Boctor said in the session, “The New Role of the Customer Service Agent.”

Improvement Direct, No. 148 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, operates an ongoing program to increase the skills of its customer service agents, which helps to keep them motivated as well as more effective and efficient at helping customers, Boctor said. “A lot of companies stop at the hiring and initiative phase, but we’re committed to helping our customer service reps over the long term,” he said. “To build an effective customer service team, you need to make a monetary commitment.”

Improvement Direct, which operates such web sites as FaucetDirect.com, ToolsDirect.com and LightingDirect.com, tries to recruit reps with prior contact center experience and minimum skill levels, such as the ability to type at least 40 words per minute and a multi-tasking ability to handle phone, e-mail and live chat communications with customers. It also tries to recruit reps with at least some college experience, and it looks for technical skills in HTML or other forms of software coding so that reps can help make online self-service features more effective and reduce the number of communications with contact center staff.

The retailer also tests recruits for their ability to do what some employers might take for granted, such as surfing the web for information, Boctor said. It might ask them, for example, to find out the birthday of a fictional TV character to see how well they can search through multiple sources to quickly find information. A more common search might be to find updated information about shipment costs from a freight partner, he added.

Once hired, customer service reps get routine training to learn new skills and improve existing ones. Among the skills Improvement Direct expects its customer service reps to handle are order processing, using information from the retailer’s customer relationship management application, and to simultaneously communicate with multiple customers through phone, e-mail and live chat. “We expect them to handle at least two at the same time,” Boctor said.

Jim Chapman, president of order processing and fulfillment provider Rush Order Inc., who shared the podium with Boctor, said skilled customer service agents are becoming more crucial at a time when consumers expect the call center to provide the same information on products and orders that they receive online, in catalogs and in stores. A study last year of 5,000 consumers found that 65% expect to be able to modify or cancel an order in any retail channel regardless of where they placed the order, he said.

Rush Order has found it’s best to hire customer service reps with experience and knowledge related to particular product areas, such as sporting goods or consumer electronics, rather than experience related to a particular form of communication like e-mail or telephone calls, he said.

Although the contact center industry is still challenged by a high agent turnover rate of about 33%, recruiting reps to work for online retailers is helped by the interest in working for Internet operations, Chapman said. “It’s 100 times easier today to recruit for Internet companies than it was for call centers years ago,” he said.

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