September 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: The Increasing Value of Customer Service

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The information can be used to improve product quality and marketing and merchandising strategies. "This is all data retailers gather in the return process, but they don`t think to apply it to marketing and merchandising or quality control," says Assurz`s Hoffman. "We don`t always get a detailed reason for the return, and we don`t press when we don`t, but you can still track return patterns by the type of merchandise, color, etc. Acting on this information indirectly impacts the quality of service by reducing returns."

One point retailers need to continually keep in mind when refining their customer service capabilities is to be careful about over-automating. While the availability of numerous applications to create self-service customer service platforms makes it tempting to increase the level of automated interactions, live operators must always be available during customer service hours. "The more complex an item, the greater the value of a live customer interaction," says Kohn.

Having a live agent available 24 hours is highly recommended, because the Internet allows consumers to shop at any hour. Many small and mid-sized retailers choose not to because of budget issues and usually offer customer service for 12 hours a day or cut it off after 11 p.m. Central time. "Every retailer has a different approach to agent availability, but during the holiday season, they need to be ready to extend that capability 24/7, because they don`t want to disappoint consumers during the prime selling season," says Assurz`s Hoffman.

A part of the product

Finally, all customer service agents ought to be completely familiar with the products in the retailer`s catalog and committed to the retailer`s brand. "Good service agents are passionate about the product and an advocate for the retailer," says Kohn. "That`s a challenge when agents works for an outsourcing firm."

Having passionate, knowledgeable service agents goes a long way toward building trust between the customer and the retailer. "E-retailing is a virtual world, so it makes consumer trust harder to come by, especially if service agents can`t deliver on the retailer`s service promise," says Maddox. "Customer service is not a cost component of doing business; it is part of the product and the know-how behind that product. But thinking about service as a cost component is a common mistake for e-retailers. When e-retailers think of service as part of the product and their brand, they see its value."

They also see a more loyal customer base, which far outweighs the costs associated with quality customer service.

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