October 16, 2002, 12:00 AM

As customer service demand peaks in Q4, retailers look to contain costs

92% of retailers polled by Jupiter encourage customer queries by e-mail vs. 88% who promote toll-free numbers. But only 35% promote online self-service.


More retailers will try to handle customer service via e-mail during the upcoming holiday shopping season, according to findings from Jupiter Research Inc.; 92% of those polled are actively promoting e-mail service, a recent survey found. Yet retailers are losing out if they don’t also focus on reducing the number of customer service contacts, including both e-mail and phone, via searchable self-service tools online, Jupiter says. Only 35% of retailers surveyed are actively promoting such cost-saving tools on their sites, Jupiter found.

With more consumers than ever online this year, retailers could receive as many as 230 million customer service related e-mails in the fourth quarter, almost the same number as the 240 million received in all of 2001. “This increase, coupled with a greater reliance on lower-producing seasonal customer service reps, will make e-mail management a painful experience for some retailers this season,” says Jupiter analyst David Daniels.

To keep their costs down, many retailers attempt to get around the high cost of maintaining a large customer service representative staff year-round by hiring temporary reps at the holidays. But this isn`t likely to yield significant savings in per-contact costs as seasonal hires handle fewer calls per hour and hiring and training a seasonal rep can cost up to $10,000 per individual on top of base pay, says Jupiter.

To achieve the best balance of cost and customer service during peak shopping times, the answer is not in one operational solution but several, says Jupiter. These include building in a compensation bonus that seasonal staff receive only at the end of the season, to retain workers throughout the season and avoid the cost of training additional reps. Managers also can help retain temporary staff through season by putting in place effective team leaders recruited from the ranks of experienced customer service reps on staff, as well as staffing levels sufficient to handle e-mail within six to eight hours. Jupiter also recommends that retailers pinpoint trends in last year’s e-mail messages, and develop canned content to address these issues where possible.


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