March 11, 2004, 12:00 AM

How to cut call center costs strategically

Marketer’s rationing strategies boost online customers from automated self-service to live help such as e-mail, chat or phone. Escalation triggers include visits to defined pages, patterns of navigation and on-site events.

Customer interactions are more expensive to marketers at the call center than when they happen in a self-service format online--perhaps 50% or greater more expensive, according to some estimates. For that reason, online retailers are developing rationing strategies that escalate customer service from self-help to costlier intervention--e-mail, chat or phone--in situations where it will have the most value. Executives at CRM solutions provider Talisma Corp. describe three types of escalation strategies they’ve seen site operators implement: offering live help to visitors on certain predefined pages on the site, according to visitor’s pathway through the site, or according to the trigger of defined events.

For example, “You can offer an expensive service channel such as chat on a set of pages which are of high value--maybe a page that sells cameras or camcorders,” says product manager Amit Bansal. The second strategy is based on customer behavior. “Based on how the customer navigates the site and the URLs the customer has clicked on previously, for example, we can show a catalog page. The third way is based on events. For instance, if the customer clicks on a cart and then abandons it, it could trigger a chat session.”

Tim McMullen, Talisma’s CMO, likens the multi-tiered CRM approach to the experience of a customer walking into the corner store. “When you’re at the store, they are monitoring your behavior before they walk up to you and ask if you need help,” he says. “That’s human intervention into self service in the retail experience.”

Yet another way to decide when to move customers beyond online self-service to live help is for site operators to set the parameters based on a customer’s value to the company or the value of the transaction. “If I am sitting on a shopping cart and have an immediate question I need to answer, chances are I won’t keep the shopping cart open as I go through a standard process of submitting an e-mail question or making a phone call, and I’m going to abandon my cart,” says Ken Jochims, director of marketing at CRM technology provider Kana Inc. To minimize such bailouts, particularly among high-value customers, he suggests, the site operator could recognize those customers on log-in to allow them instant access to an agent who will respond to questions immediately via live chat.

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