June 30, 2006, 12:00 AM

Customer Service/Support

Speaking face-to-face with a salesperson in a store, talking via telephone with a call center-based retailer representative, communicating via e-mail with an ethereal customer service staffer, conversing with a store assistant in an online chat room and conducting self-service research and support through FAQs and other tools are very different experiences, to say the least. The inherent differences create quite a hurdle that customer service-conscious retailers must jump.

Multi-channel contact integration is the ultimate customer service/support goal because it consolidates and standardizes customer service, gaining efficiencies and consistency for retailers; however, it remains elusive to many retailers, especially through the online channel, says Frank Shooster, chairman and chief legal officer of Global Response. The call center and customer support firm processes more than 1 million inbound calls every month. In addition to telephony, the company also handles customer contacts via e-mail, live chat and other methods.

Going outside

One strategy for achieving multi-channel integration is funneling customer service communications to outside agents. Various forces, however, are pushing retailers in different directions, Shooster says. “Employment of remote customer service agents-at home and abroad-continues to grow as more companies learn how to manage telecommuters and begin to realize the benefits of lower space rental and other costs,” Shooster says. Going outside can mean going offshore, but whether to go that route depends a lot on a retailer’s market. “There seems to be little interest by upscale e-retailers to use offshore agents; most believe their customers deserve or expect to be serviced by agents in the United States,” he contends.

Another tactic to meet customers’ multi-channel expectations is crafting a customer service strategy that provides the combination of self-help tools and personal service across all channels, which helps customers obtain the answers they need effectively without feeling pressured, says Maris Daugherty, senior consultant at J.C. Williams Group. “In addition to offering human interactions, retailers should provide technological self-help tools in stores and online and help phone customers with efficient interactive voice response systems,” she says. “Then promote the existence of these tools to customers.”

When it comes to this kind of multi-channel customer service integration, shoppers today have actually come to expect an integrated experience across channels, some industry observers say. “They do not understand, nor are they very forgiving, when a good service experience is not available or breaks down in the channel they choose to use,” Daugherty says. “An inconsistent or negative service experience can damage the brand, develop a negative word of mouth campaign among shoppers and quickly send people to the competition.”

It all boils down to retailers presenting themselves to customers and browsers in a highly unified fashion, says Curt Barry, president of F. Curtis Barry & Company. The consulting firm specializes in multi-channel contact center, fulfillment, systems and inventory management issues. “One customer, one view across channels,” he states.

Stay on message

Beyond the obvious dissimilarities between the types of customer contact lies another, less obvious hurdle: maintaining a consistent style among retailer employees and outsourced customer service reps who use the various sales channels and technologies to communicate with customers and browsers. Retailers, though, have begun tackling this challenge.

“A big customer service trend with multi-channel retailers is securing realistic integration not only with information technology but also with management policy on service and support,” Barry says. “In the firm’s work with retailers we’ve seen all kinds of policy differences among channels. Management has lots of work to do when you consider the varied business rules across channels.”

A key to addressing this issue: It ultimately is more effective to carefully iron out differences across channels than it is to whip up quick fixes, he adds.

Retailers also need to carefully keep an eye on the modes of contact customers choose while simultaneously enhancing other methods for finding answers to product and process questions.

Shooster at Global Response has observed increased interest in live chat rooms where customers can communicate via text with customer service representatives. For retailers, though, an important strategy moving forward, he says, is gently nudging shoppers away from interactions like chat and phone calls toward self-service methods.

“Convincing customers to use lower cost communication channels like FAQs and knowledge databases before they call or send an e-mail, and doing so without turning them off by concealing live support phone numbers and such, is important,” Shooster argues. “For contact center companies, the biggest challenge is the continuing price pressure on margins. Despite increases in the cost of labor because of low unemployment, pricing remains highly competitive and margins have actually declined for cookie cutter services. Consequently, to be successful, contact centers must continue to deliver added value to minimize the risk of commoditization.”

Retailers must remember, Barry says, that they can go too far when it comes to self-service applications. “Self-service does not mean elimination of customer service,” he says. “No matter how good your web site may be at self-service customer support, you still need a contact center.”

And no matter how good a retailer thinks it is at customer service, it still should regularly measure the level and efficacy of the service and support it provides, Barry says. “There is a constant need to set standards and evaluate metrics surrounding customer service,” he says.

Special inventory

To ensure that contacts between retailers and customers are optimal and gauge whether a system needs new technology or processes, Barry advises tracking calls handled, calls abandoned, e-mail turnaround time, chat length, reasons for calls and e-mails, and complete cost per contact, per call and per order taken.

Another metric that retailers should track to aid customer service representatives is inventory. A growing trend in this area is reserving a portion of inventory for online customers to ensure that they can buy what they want without having to go to a customer service rep.

“One method on the rise is the use of virtual inventories,” Barry says. “A virtual inventory reserves inventory for a particular sales channel without separating the physical inventory by channel in a warehouse. This helps during customer contacts because if a product is not in stock when a customer wants to place an order, you are not providing good customer service.”

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