September 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Double duty

By analyzing how shoppers behave on their e-commerce sites, savvy retailers learn when and how to offer help that will generate sales. And they are quick to respond when their brands become the center of attention, good or bad, on social networks.

Satisfied customers buy more, buy repeatedly and remain exceptionally loyal. With consumer spending ebbing and flowing the past year, e-retailers recognize that customer service is more than just a way to address a consumer's questions: It is a marketing and brand-building tool.

That means web retailers must master all the techniques that allow them to provide great service to visitors to their web sites, and to engage online shoppers as they share opinions about their shopping experiences on online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

"Proactive customer service is essential to customer satisfaction because retailers need to reach out to consumers that are in need of help not only on their site, but consumers that are commenting about them in social media and blogs," says Greg Fettes, CEO of contact center provider 24-7 Intouch. "Retailers that don't use the contact center to reach out to customers are missing a tremendous marketing opportunity to enhance the value of their brand."

An effective way to reach out to customers is to ask whether they were satisfied with their interaction with a retailer immediately after the interaction occurs, whether that's right after the shopper visits a site, makes a purchase or has an exchange with a customer service agent. All retailers need to ask the customer is if she obtained the information or help she sought. The outreach can be done through a pop-up, live chat window while the consumer is on the retailer's web site.

"The key is to get to the consumer while the relevant experience being asked about is fresh in their mind," says Suzy Meriwether, product marketing manager for http://www.rightnow.com, provider of on-demand customer experience solutions. "Asking the customer to take an extensive satisfaction survey as they are leaving the web site can be cumbersome and it can take days to receive the tabulated data. It's more effective to ask one question after each service interaction, purchase or receipt of an order. If a customer is unhappy or provides a negative response, an incident report can be created and routed to an agent to immediately follow up and find out why the customer was unhappy and if the problem can be fixed."

When following up on delivery of a customer's order, Meriwether recommends sending an e-mail asking the shopper if the items arrived in satisfactory condition. "It's important for retailers to find out if they met the customer's expectations after each interaction, because if the answer is no, they can act immediately to correct the problem," she adds.

Need help?

There is little risk that consumers will be offended by receiving an e-mail from a retailer following receipt of an order. It's more tricky for the retailer to decide when to engage a visitor to an e-commerce site who seems indecisive or to be having trouble finding what she is looking for. Retailers must be careful to not come across as intrusive.

For that reason, it's a good idea for a web merchant to track customer behavior patterns to figure out when consumers are most likely to want help. For instance, a retailer can identify the pages on an e-commerce site that most often lead to consumers contacting a service agent; those are pages where a proactive chat offer may be welcome. Similarly, once a retailer understands how long consumers typically spend on a page before seeking assistance, the retailer can be sure to wait at least that long before inviting the consumer to chat.

"The algorithms used to determine when to proactively reach out to consumers while they are shopping are highly sophisticated and make it easier to have a softer touch when offering assistance," says Fettes. "If the customer declines, we don't make the offer again. It's the same principle used by in-store sales associates."

Joining the discussion

And it's not enough to be sophisticated about how and when to interact with consumers who come to a retailer's own web site. The broad popularity of online social networks and blogs makes it easy for consumers to share opinions about a retailer. Those opinions travel fast, and they can send a negative message about a retailer's brand to many consumers if the retailer is not ready to present its side of the story.

Retailers that don't monitor social networking sites can't take action to address the complaints of a consumer who had a negative shopping experience, nor can they reward consumers that champion their brands.

"Millions of opinions are shared every day on social networking sites and retailers have to get their arms around it so they can see what's being said about them and their brand, and so they can respond appropriately," says Fettes.

Retailers that monitor social media sites and blogs, and respond to comments about them, not only demonstrate their commitment to delivering great service, they can unearth opportunities to attract new customers and generate sales.

Beauty.com, for example, searches Twitter for references to cosmetics and beauty products. If a consumer tweets she is looking for mascara that provides better curl and definition, the retailer will tweet her back with an offer to contact a cosmetics consultant at Beauty.com.

"Retailers want to monitor and respond to negative comments, but there are also opportunities through social media to proactively service consumers talking about a product to generate a sale and turn them into customers," says Meriwether.

RightNow's SmartSense application monitors social networks and blogs for comments about a retailer's brand or products they carry. Negative comments are flagged and sent to a customer service representative. The service agent is provided a list of possible responses she can tweet back, or she can decide on how best to respond if the prepackaged responses don't seem appropriate. In order to help the agent speak the Twitter user's language, the application also provides abbreviations that many consumers use when tweeting.

Self-service

Although many consumers welcome an opportunity to communicate directly with a retailer's customer service representative, some shoppers prefer self-service options such as FAQ pages and site search because they don't want to wait for an e-mail response or spend time in a live chat or click-to-call queue, or because they fear an agent will try to hard-sell them something they don't want.

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