February 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

Beyond Self-Service

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REI is now the Internet’s largest outdoor gear retailer. Customers can do virtually anything via REI’s web site that they can do at a store-from researching products and seeking advice about outdoor activities to making purchases, tracking orders and monitoring accounts. Web visitors can search for things in a number of ways, correspond with customer service via e-mail and receive live online help. REI starts with a goal: to provide customers with the most convenient methods of support contact, as determined by customer input.

From the technology perspective, REI employs e-mail, a sophisticated web self-service application, and advanced chat. To make these tools deliver the desired customer experience REI measures and analyzes data on a daily basis.

Looking at the way chat has evolved for REI is instructive. The company began using chat in 1999 and changed to a new chat partner in 2003 that integrated the chat window within the web page frame, eliminating the use of pop-up windows and reducing related complaints. Customers typically use chat to ask questions while making a purchase. Based on usage patterns, chat links have been inserted on strategic pages, such as checkout, and customers are encouraged to use chat while researching products.

Online customer support breaks down as follows: 9% chat, 11% e-mail and 80% phone. Of all the chat interactions, 58% are pre-order questions, 31% are post-order and 11% are interactions about employment opportunities and other miscellaneous questions. Why are these numbers important? Because REI predicts staffing needs based on usage. They also measure trends related to the topic categories selected and the type of customer questions. They also use chat and e-mail transcripts to measure service quality and as a training tool for customer service agents.

Chat sessions and e-mail messages are automatically routed to the appropriate department or agent queue. Agents answer e-mails and conduct live chat conversations with customers, prioritizing these interactions in real time. The shared knowledge base enables one-click delivery of frequently used text responses, web pages, and files.

Chat allows contact center agents to provide immediate, first-contact resolution to customer questions via the web. The technology captures data from each customer interaction, so REI can continuously improve the customer experience, monitor customer satisfaction levels, and increase ROI with real-time up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.

What it means

What this process management/analytics approach gives companies is a way to customize web interactions according to their desired customer service model and needs as a company. Closing the feedback loop between the web services delivered to customers, and customers’ usage, satisfaction and other statistics ensures that both corporate and customer goals are being met. Taking a process and analytical approach results in coordinated systems, puts flexibility in the hands of the business and prevents costly investment in tools that won’t deliver to expectations or specifications.

The rules for applying this model are:

- Start with your current customers, and make sure any system meets their needs.

- Be clear about your corporate goals for your web self service.

- Use behavioral analytics to develop your customer interaction architecture and as feedback to improvements to your web self-service system going forward.

- Apply technology only as needed, and only that which integrates with your existing approach and business model.

l Use future-friendly tools and services, since technology and customer needs will continue to change.

Companies need to be organized to listen to the customer and then be prepared to provide the knowledge, the product and/or the services the way the customer wants it. An approach that starts with the customer, maps to business goals and feeds back analytics will result in customer support interactions that improve customer loyalty and drive results to the bottom line.

D. Blake Cahill (below) is vice president of marketing and product management at multi-channel customer support services provider SafeHarbor.


Mike Lande (above) has been CEO of online chat services provider InstantService Inc. since 1998. He is an attorney with an extensive background in planning and strategy development for high technology firms.

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