Private investment firm Comvest Partners acquires the financially troubled e-retailer, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.
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Other retailers believe that with the right approach, agents can become proficient in handling all mediums randomly. At the web-enabled call center of multi-channel retailer Palm Beach Jewelry, agents handle the phone, e-mail and chat, staying on course with the help of detailed scripts developed to cover most customer situations.
"I don`t think there is too much different in handling a call for Palm Beach Jewelry versus the same type of inquiry on chat or e-mail, because it`s all scripted," says Tim Holody, call center manager. "There is a bit more training required before agents learn to handle chat and e-mail, but it`s just a few more hours."
The typing, spelling and grammar requirements of working in written online mediums don`t constitute an issue for Holody, either. "We have pretty high requirements going in. If agents don`t have good English skills and pass a typing test, they are not even going to get on the phone, let alone e-mail," he says.
Palm Beach`s call center function is outsourced to Margate, Fla.-based Global Response Inc. After the multi-channel jewelry brand of Seta Corp. decided to consolidate its two contact centers four years ago in order to save on redundant capacity, it tapped Global Response to handle overflow. Today, it`s assigned the entire function to the outsource provider after it measured Global Response`s performance against that of its in-house center.
Holody says the outsource provider did "as good as or better than" its own internal call center on metrics such as the percentage of calls answered without going on hold and the order abandonment rate. Holody also looks at sales generated through the call center given that Palm Beach Jewelry has developed tightly scripted upsell and cross-sell language for agents. Of customers given the chance to learn about additional offers, such as complementary items or discounts on additional purchases, 85% agree to listen, says Holody. Of that number, 15% to 20% accept the offers. "That`s what we were getting in-house, and Global has been able to maintain that," he says.
Though the Global Response agents dedicated to Palm Beach Jewelry multi-task among the phone, e-mail and chat, Holody and Palm Beach do observe one distinction among channels. Currently, e-mail and chat are primarily vehicles for customer support, and upsells and cross-sell offers are to phone customers only.
When the jeweler launches its new web site this fall, however, that will extend to e-mail and chat; again, with the help of some scripted responses. Holody believes that offering the same upsells and cross-sells through web-based touch points to customers poised to order will eventually produce a sales lift similar to what the company now experiences in upselling by phone, about 10%.
"That will depend on how well the products are presented on the web site as well as how it`s handled by agents through chat and e-mail," he says-one reason Palm Beach Jewelry will wait for the improvements in its site before expanding e-mail and chat into active selling channels.
Global requires Internet and computer literacy as well as voice and customer service skills of its blended agents who work across phone, e-mail and chat. Rick Fairchild, workforce management/quality assurance manager, says they`re held to a higher standard of performance than agents who simply take phone orders. "They are more like help desk representatives; someone who has more problem-solving skills and is a little more analytical," he says.
Attitude, an aptitude to learn, the ability and the desire to sell, writing skills and technical proficiency across online and offline mediums constitute the dream retail call center agent. When call centers do find such people, generally they will pay them more. At Global Response, for example, Fairchild says talented agents can make upwards of 150% of their base salary, with commission.
In the future, suggests Gibson, the universal agent who can easily move among phone, e-mail and chat could be easier to find, as a generation that has always known computers will move into the workforce. In the meantime, web-enabled call centers will likely continue to experiment with the best way to juggle the workload, train agents and compensate them so as to cover the growing requirements of multiple routes of customer contact.
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