January 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

Need for Speed

(Page 2 of 2)

Lower-level managers also can pull reports on metrics such as how many e-mails were answered, how many remain in the queue, and lengths of response times. “We have procedures to make sure that no customer is overlooked by mistake,” she says.

Managers also check for the level of service by randomly sampling agents’ replies for quality, accuracy and whether it “just really answered the customer’s question,” Zimet says.

In addition, Crutchfield solicits feedback from customers, Richardson says. “We send them surveys and we review every single survey we get,” she says.

Crutchfield also trains agents to take the same approach to e-mail inquiries as they do to phone requests. “E-mail customer service isn’t any different than regular customer service,” Zimet says. “You want to provide the best service possible and let a customer do that through whatever channel they’re most comfortable with.”

At Bluefly.com, which outsources customer service to Call Tech Communications, one person on staff closely monitors customer-service e-mail inquiries, says Melissa Payner, Bluefly’s CEO. The call center forwards to Bluefly any e-mail inquiries that can’t be resolved in an hour. In some cases, especially ones involving dissatisfied customers, Payner will respond to the e-mail herself.

Quick response

Bluefly.com also has a “premier group” of five to 10 managers who deal with e-mail and phone requests requiring special attention, including requests for fashion advice or a personal shopper. “We manage it very closely so there isn’t really an opportunity for things to get lost in a bucket somewhere,” Payner says. Bluefly had a response time of one hour in the E-Tailing Group survey.

Golesworthy says more retailers are beginning to understand the value of operating e-mail customer-service programs. For one thing, it’s about 70% cheaper to handle an e-mail inquiry than a phone inquiry because e-mail is a batch process that isn’t subject to the peaks and valleys of call center volume, he says.

In addition, given a choice between a well-run e-mail program and the phone, most consumers will select e-mail, the less expensive option, Golesworthy says.

E-mail customer service programs also can serve as a repository of information retailers can use to improve site content and product information. For example, a retailer that receives a flood of questions about shipping can add that information to its frequently-asked-questions page, Golesworthy says.

A retailer doesn’t even need to set up a staff dedicated to answering e-mail inquiries to reap the benefits, he says. Regular call center staff can answer e-mails in the evening and overnight hours when call volume is low. “With e-mail, you have a 24-hour window,” he says.

If retailers don’t want to handle e-mail customer service inquiries, Golesworthy suggests they say so on their web site. “You don’t want to frustrate the customer,” he says.

He cites the example of Southwest Airlines, which states on its web site that it doesn’t accept e-mail and gives visitors a phone number to call. “We would score Southwest higher than someone that allows e-mails but doesn’t respond,” he says. “If you’re not going to set up an e-mail process, tell customers you don’t accept e-mail.”

And they also should post a customer-service phone number or provide links to an FAQ page.

The e-mail program also should be integrated into a retailer’s customer relationship management systems. “The people who have done the best job have done the integration,” Golesworthy says. “When people look at the customer-service metrics they are looking at the big picture as opposed to an e-mail division that does their numbers and a call center that does their numbers.”

A more important role

E-mail will play an increasingly important role in customer service, especially among retailers catering to consumers aged 18 to 24. “The younger the demographics, the more likely they will want to communicate using e-mail,” Golesworthy says.

In addition, consumers who shop online in their workplace also prefer e-mail. “Customers who use the Internet at work might not want to use the phone,” he says. “They’re afraid they’ll be on hold too long or that they will be overheard.”

That means online retailers need to allocate more resources to e-mail customer-service operations or risk losing customers to merchants that answer queries quickly and completely. “Unfortunately, some companies haven’t really understood that,” Golesworthy says.

< a href="mailto:linda@verticalwebmedia.com">linda@verticalwebmedia.com

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