August 29, 2001, 12:00 AM


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Himes says that not only can a retailer improve relationships with customers through this system, but it can also reduce costs. “Today we get a lot of inbound phone calls from customers seeking that information,” he says. “It can be outrageously expensive to give customers the kind of customer service that customers like to have.”

How expensive? Depending on volume, inbound calls cost 75 to 95 cents a minute and a typical call is three minutes. Thus one follow-up call from a customer to check status could cost $2.25 to $3. One such call per order may be part of the cost of doing business, but Himes recounts the case of one retailer last fall who received 12 customer service calls for each order. And one to 2.5 calls per order is typical, he says.

NewRoads operates as an application service provider, hosting the information at its site and sending e-mails from its system. After what Himes describes as a modest set-up cost, there is a volume-based transaction fee. “You come out ahead if you can eliminate one call per order,” he says.

Let the customer choose

Eshare, too, is building off existing products and services to offer eCRM to retailers. It believes that as consumer technology becomes more high-tech, retailers need to keep up and communicate to customers in the format the customers prefer. “As customers become more sophisticated, they are more willing to work online, so we give them the option of receiving their messages via the phone, the Internet, even a PDA,” he says.

Eshare traces its history to 1979, when it started as Melita International. Melita developed predictive dialing technology that outbound call centers use to contact customers and potential customers. In 1999, Melita bought eshare Technologies, which developed web-based customer management products. The combination allowed the company to offer both telephone-based and web-based products. Melita took the eshare name after the acquisition.

With customer service information coming from both the web and the telephone, eshare has created a service by which all customer contact information is integrated into a single database. If a customer contacts a retailer via web chat, the system automatically archives a transcript of the exchange in the customer’s file. Similarly, if a customer calls the company, the customer service agent records notes of the conversation and stores them in the database. And the same is true with e-mail communications. “It allows the customer to communicate with the CRM system in the format they choose and it puts all the information right there the next time the customer has contact with the company,” Olson says. “We call it personalizing the CRM system.”

With the eshare purchase, Melita also acquired the NetAgent product, which today is a key part of its customer relationship management services. NetAgent allows customer service reps to push pages to customers on the web, allowing the agent to intervene if it appears that a customer is having trouble with, for instance, a form that needs to be filled out. “A good share of people who bail out online do so when they get to a form that they’re having trouble filling out,” Olson says. NetAgent can monitor how long a visitor has been stalled at a page doing nothing and alert an agent who can send the customer a message asking if the customer needs help. “This humanizes the enterprise,” he says.

The most recent enhancement to NetAgent has been to make it available to wireless devices.

Touching all touch points

Retek, too, takes the big view of CRM. The company, which has been providing technology to retailers for 10 years, is leveraging its customer order management system to help retailers improve their customer relationship management. “It’s the database behind all touch points,” Baskin says.

With this system, retailers can improve service in stores by helping store personnel know where products are when they are needed, by allowing customers to buy on the web and pick up in the store and by doing away with rain checks on sale items because store personnel can order out-of-stock promotional items via the web and have them delivered to customers. The Retek system manages the inventory process, so that when stocks get low, it generates automated replenishment steps for retailers to take.

Baskin says the Retek system is particularly useful when creating a special order from a store. Using the web, store personnel can order not-in-stock items directly from the vendor, using a purchase order that the system generates. For instance, Baskin says, a customer in a home-furnishings store can pick out a fabric pattern and design, the clerk can enter the customer information, enter the order information, immediately generate a purchase order and submit the order to the supplier. The supplier is alerted that it has an order, then logs onto the Retek web site to retrieve it. The supplier can then update the status as the order progresses. “This eliminates all the paperwork and dropped balls with the old systems,” Baskin says. “It provides a Dell-like order status capability.” The result: “I’ve achieved the Holy Grail,” Baskin says. “I’ve cut costs, I’ve created efficiencies and I’ve exceeded the customer’s expectations.”

When Retek sells its system to retailers, it focuses on the technology and lets the retailers work with systems integrators to create how the material is presented to customers. “We are less about the presentation layer than about the plumbing behind the scenes that makes this all work,” Baskin says.

Retek has worked with a number of retailers who are using its system in a variety of ways. It has a contract with Nordstrom Inc. to install a web-based system for special orders. “They chose us to institutionalize their world-class customer service,” Baskin says. It is also working with Best Buy Co. Inc. and Gap Inc. and is in a joint venture with Tosco Corp., Accenture Technology Ventures, and Amerada Hess Corp. to develop a system for convenience stores.

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