September 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Customer service strategies that build brand value

Now, more than ever, every customer is precious to a retailer. That’s why forward-thinking online retailers take advantage of new technologies and service providers to respond in a more personal way than ever before to customers inquiries and complaints.

As web shoppers become accustomed to receiving that kind of personal attention at popular e-commerce sites, the pressure builds on all e-retailers to upgrade their customer service strategies and, as always, give the shopper what she wants, when she wants it.

“Online retailers have to be accessible to their customers to answer their questions and provide assistance when they need it because many consumers will determine the value of a retailer’s brand by the quality of the customer service they provide,” says Saurabh Dadu, managing director for LiveSalesman, a provider of live chat, e-mail and click-to-call support services. “It costs more to acquire a customer than it does to properly service them, and in this economy retailers can ill afford to improperly service their customers.”

From a service standpoint, winning customer loyalty begins with how fast retailers respond to shoppers’ questions about a product or a request for help. Shoppers do not have a lot of patience when it comes to waiting to connect to a service agent after clicking on a live chat or click-to-call button. If shoppers feel the wait is too long, they will take their business elsewhere.

“The faster a retailer responds to an inbound customer service call or live chat, the greater the opportunity for them to differentiate their business and increase customer loyalty,” says Greg Fettes, president and CEO of contact center provider 24-7 INtouch. “Shoppers cannot be left at the mercy of contact center volume at the time of the service inquiry to determine when they will get a response.”

The principle of fast response times also applies to e-mail, adds Fettes. While most shoppers do not expect an immediate response to an e-mail message, they do expect to hear back from the retailer within 24 hours.

“We contract to respond to e-mail inquiries within four hours, but our average response time is 37 minutes, because advances in Internet technology have shoppers expecting faster response times,” says Fettes. “Customers that get an e-mail response by the end of the shopping session are wowed.”

On-site help

Another way retailers can wow shoppers on their sites is by reaching out to them to offer assistance via the instant messaging technology known as live chat. Shoppers that appear to be stuck on a page or struggling with a purchasing decision are prime candidates to be sent a message asking if they need assistance. Click-to-call is a close cousin to live chat: consumers are asked to provide a phone number and the technology automatically connects the agent with the shopper.

Retailers need such tools as live chat and click-to-call to proactively reach out to shoppers and match the quality of their service with the service expectations of the customer.

While shoppers may decline an offer for assistance through live chat or click-to-call, it does not necessarily mean they feel the offer was an intrusion. In fact, a forthcoming report from Bold Software shows that chatters who engage via proactive invitation are eight times more likely to purchase than visitors who don’t chat.

“On the contrary, letting consumers know service is available if they need it is appreciated,” says Steve Castro-Miller, president and CEO of Bold Software LLC, provider of the BoldChat live chat product, as well as click-to-call and e-mail management applications. “The key is to find the right balance between repeated offers of assistance and allowing visitors to browse by themselves.”

Visitor monitoring combined with pre-defined business rules can ensure assistance is offered when a shopper needs it. For example, a consumer that comes to a retailer’s site through a search engine may move from the landing page to the site search engine or to a FAQ page. The software tracks the consumer’s path, and if the behavior conforms to rules set in advance indicating help is needed, an agent will offer help.

“If a shopper looks like they need assistance, our software will proactively engage the visitor with an invitation to chat or talk to a live agent, and if they can get the information they need through the self-service channel, our philosophy is don’t get in the way,” says Jim Dicso, senior vice president, enterprise sales and service, for LivePerson Inc., a provider of online customer engagement tools.

Self-service

While many consumers welcome an opportunity to communicate directly with a retailer’s representative-whether through live chat, e-mail or click-to-call-some consumers prefer self-service options such as FAQ pages and site search.

Those shoppers may prefer to start with these self-service options because they don’t want to wait for an answer to an e-mail or find themselves stuck in a queue waiting to initiate live chat or click-to-call. However, in the case of LivePerson software, invitations to chat or talk are fired only when agents are available, eliminating wait times.

Effective self-service tools deliver the content the shopper needs, whether it is product information, instructions on how to initiate a return, store hours or something else. LivePerson can help retailers improve the content of the self-service tools by analyzing questions customers ask through site search, live chat, click-to-call and e-mail. The most common questions are identified and the answers are incorporated into the self-service channels.

Taking this approach can help retailers reduce the number of inbound customer contacts handled by agents, which reduces operating costs.

“Customers will contact a service agent when the self-service channel does not answer their questions,” says Dicso. “If retailers are looking to reduce operating costs by deflecting live agent contacts, they need to publish that information on their site and make it readily accessible. Some issues will require live assistance regardless, but the goal is to optimize site content to reduce the need for contacting a service agent.”

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