December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM


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The decision to go with an in-house or outsourced live support system is based on the cost of the system and the retailer’s core competencies. The cost factor is based on the price of the technology, salaries of the support agents and office space to house the support center, according to Hite. For start-ups, this means spreading a large fixed cost over small call volume, not an economical solution. “The ASP model is the most economical way for small Internet retailers to get live support,” concurs Giga’s Herrell.

At the same time, customer support is typically not a core competency for Internet retailers. Most dot-coms are started by technology experts with little expertise in merchandising and customer service. “A lot of Internet retailers hire IT people to get their site operational, but they do not necessarily understand retail IT,” explains Peter Keller, business development consultant for Brisbane, Australia-based Cahoots, which offers a web chat network that enables shoppers to communicate with other shoppers at a specific site.

Most web chat programs enable customers to email themselves a transcript of the session, a good refresher for lengthy answers to complex questions.

Customer surveys about the visitor’s experience while at the site can also be attached at the end of a session to measure customer service. Wilmington, Del.-based Wingspan Investment Services, an online brokerage firm, has done this since introducing web chat in last spring. About half of Wingspan’s customer inquires come through web chat.

Wingspan also uses instant messaging, a speedier email, to message customers with pagers and web-enabled cell phones. The simple text messages are notices of news or events pertinent to the recipient’s account. “This is a stepping stone to other technologies such as voice over Internet,” says David Hargarten, Wingspan’s vice president of product management.

As a technology, voice over Internet is starting to grab more attention. The potential is that e-retailers can create a more personal shopping experience by enabling customers to simply point and click in order to talk to a live agent through their PC. Customers need a microphone and speakers to converse through their PC-but those are standard accessories with most new home computers these days.

The target audience for voice is latecomers to online shopping used to catalog purchases over the phone. This audience craves a more human touch beyond text messaging, according to e-commerce experts. “There are a lot of customers that refuse to make a purchase without speaking to a live agent,” says Herrell. “More e-retailers are selling items that require some type of human assistance to sell and most people that have a problem or question during a purchase are more comfortable with a live voice.”

That elusive quality

The boundaries of voice over Internet appear to extend beyond PCs to wireless and web-enabled phones, which is why vendors not marketing a voice over Internet application are experimenting with one. “Voice creates a robust shopping experience,” says Jeremy Verba, president of Mountain View, Calif.-based HearMe, a live voice and Internet telephony products provider. “There are people who want instant communication from the site with which they do business.”

One offspring of live voice is voice recognition, an automated voice application onto which e-retailers can offload basic functions, such as product description, order status and purchases. “The convergence of voice with other customer applications can make it easier to buy your product,” says Robert Levitan, CEO of New York-based, which markets Internet-only currency. Flooz is experimenting with an automated voice application from Boca Raton, Fla.-based NetByTel (see “A pay as you go solution,” p. 45).

Despite the potential for voice over Internet as a live support application, Internet retailers feel the quality of the technology is not high enough yet to justify installation. Some Internet retailers say that transmission quality is poor, which can be a turnoff for shoppers who will abandon a site that does not meet their needs. “I have yet to hear a good voice over Internet transmission in demonstration,” says RedEnvelope’s Mulcahy. “The technology is not quite ready yet and I am not sure consumers are quite ready to embrace it.”

Other angles from which vendors are attacking the market include applications that anticipate answers to common customer questions throughout the site. The anticipated answers appear when customers click on the help icon. “Knowing the point at which customers are likely to ask questions as they drill through the web site and what is the most common question can make customer support proactive,” says Christopher Calisi, CEO of eHelp, which markets such a program. “Making sites more useable can offload volume from customer service representatives.”

Some, however, claim there is a fine line between usability and intrusiveness. Mulcahy cautions that there are times when consumers prefer to search for information and that predicting questions can be a turnoff.

Nor are e-retailers particularly high on embedding links into email responses that when clicked, connect the customer to a specific page within the sender’s site as a service application. “That’s more of a marketing application that builds on service rep’s ability to deliver repeat customers,” says CornerHardware’s Hite.

What e-retailers are interested in is live support technology that can boost long-term sales by delivering a personal touch. “People will only expect higher levels of service as e commerce matures,” says Mitch Johnson CEO of Omaha, Neb.-based E-mail Solutions, which offers instant messaging. “The more human live web site support, the more often customers will return.”

Peter Lucas is a Chicago-based freelance business writer.

A pay as you go solution

Although not new, automated voice technology remains a promising way for e-retailers to reach consumers that are not wired. Selling this concept to Internet retailers, however, is not easy since many are skeptical of the technology’s reliability and lack the capital to build an automated call center.

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