December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Customer Service

Online sales continued to surge in 1998, with the recent holiday season exceeding the expectations of even the most optimistic experts.

Despite all the promise and potential of electronic commerce, though, many online merchants discovered that there is much more involved than simply taking orders. As Jerry said in a Seinfeld episode when he discovered that his rental car reservation had been lost: “It’s not just the taking of the reservation. Anyone can do that. It’s the holding of the reservation.”

In other words, you can promise to deliver a product or service from your online site, but you better deliver on that promise. And a big part of that promise is customer service.

1-800-FLOWERS started in the online world in 1992. We launched our first Web site in 1995. In those Dark Ages of electronic commerce, the consumer came with a much lower set of expectations. He (mostly male in the early days) was happy if you had a site that he could visit; if he could buy something, so much the better.

But today the Web is much more mainstream. Now our customers (who are now almost 50/50 male/female) are demanding the same types of services they would from a traditional bricks-and-mortar retail store. And woe to the online merchant who doesn’t, or can’t, provide them.

An essential ingredient

During the 1998 holiday season, many online merchants found themselves with huge customer service issues. A selling season that started with the emphasis on just that-selling-quickly turned ugly as problems fulfilling orders led to thousands of dissatisfied customers. Just as problematic, many companies discovered that answering their customers’ questions in a timely and effective fashion had much more of an impact on sales than they had imagined.

How did 1-800-FLOWERS approach this problem?

This past fall we implemented real-time customer service using “chat” software. Using the Net Agent product developed by E-Share Technologies (today there are at least four or five other products on the market), we are able to “speak” to our customers in real-time, answering questions before they become problems and, more important, turning those answered questions into sales.

The advantages of a customer service model like this are many, including:

Real time means real sales

Prior to implementing real-time customer service, we prided ourselves on the fact that we answered every online question within two hours. There’s a problem in that equation, though, a variation on the old “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound” riddle. WE might answer the question within two hours, but what if our potential customer is no longer at the computer? Maybe he or she logged on from home, went to sleep, went to work the next day and, twenty-four hours later, returned to the home computer and read our answer.

If your customer can’t reach a decision with you, he may very well use a competitor. Or he may decide to buy something completely different, forgoing your CDs for the books of another online merchant.

Can you afford to lose this sale? And not just this single sale, but the thousands like it every day? We can’t afford it, and I’m betting that you can’t either. Not with the arena taking on characteristics of the Oklahoma Land Rush, with thousands of potential new competitors charging online every day.

Browsing can equal sales

Many online customers are still learning how to navigate this crazy e-commerce world. It’s your job to help them. Assume I’m one of those new to the online world. I’m browsing your site, trying to act like I know what I’m doing and hoping desperately that I don’t do something stupid. I’d love to buy your product, but I have many questions before I’m going to be comfortable making that step. Maybe, I think, I’ll just look around your store and a few others and then one day in the future I’ll be ready to make an actual purchase.

Now suppose that when I reach your site, I see a clearly marked area that not only promises to answer any questions I might have, it ENCOURAGES me to ask those questions. Once you take me, figuratively, by the hand and walk me through the process, I’m yours. I’m much more likely to buy from you right then. But, even if I don’t, you’ve made it much more likely that I’ll return to you when I am ready to buy.

The same theory holds for veteran online shoppers. They might be comfortable with the process, but they sure know the importance of comparison shopping. They want to check out your products and your competitors before making their decision.

If you can answer their questions right away and your competitor can’t, who is most likely to get the sale?

Staffing, training

First, you must have the staff to effectively implement the program. Your customer service team must have PC skills and be comfortable using “chat,” specific skills that do not come cheaply. The grammatical aspect of chat is something that’s easy to overlook, until the first time one of your associates responds to a question with “we ain’t got none of that today.”

Should you cross-train your existing customer service team (we do)? Should you hire a new team? Do you pay these specialists more? There are a lot of questions.

You’ll need special classes to train your new customer service group. And, since this is so new, you’ll find you need to retrain them several times as the technology changes.

What’s the cost?

There is no doubt that real-time customer service is more expensive-at first-than your traditional phone support. You’ll have to invest in equipment, people, and training.

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