September 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Customer service: Raising the stakes as customers expect more

As more consumers shop online they expect e-retailers to provide the same level of personalized, proactive customer service they could receive in a store. For small and mid-sized retailers that do not have the financial resources and personnel to invest in customer service that their larger counterparts have, those expectations can be a heavy burden.

“Consumers expect customer service representatives to be knowledgeable about the retailer’s brand and available to them when they want,” says Herman Shooster, chairman of Global Response, a call center outsourcing firm. “The technology and tools are available for retailers to make the customer service experience as informative, productive and pleasant as possible for the shopper regardless of their size.”

Applications such as live chat and CRM, FAQ pages, and e-mail are some of the most common tools that retailers use to meet consumers’ heightened expectations for customer service and stretch their own budgets.

Lots of options

“Retailers need tools like CRM and live chat to match the quality of their service with the service expectation of the customer,” says Greg Fettes, president and CEO of contact center provider 24-7 INtouch. “The good thing is that retailers have a lot of options for stretching their customer service budget and avoiding the cost of fronting the money to build the infrastructure to support them.”

Determining which options are best and whether to implement them in-house or outsource comes down to figuring the cost of the interaction with the customer versus the cost of making the sale.

“There is a balance between cost of service and customer satisfaction,” says Kelly O’Neill, product marketing director for ATG, which offers web-based customer service applications as part of its e-commerce solution.

Determining that balance starts with identifying the types of shoppers that frequent the retailer’s site, which service tools they use and whether they require more high-touch service or prefer self-service methods, such as FAQ pages.

“Knowing the customer’s behavior and preferences is the starting point for building any customer service unit,” says O’Neill. “If the customer is anonymous, such as a first-time visitor to the site, retailers can still identify methods to service the shoppers, such as offering live chat or directing them to self-service pages by watching the actions that lead to the service request and the pages browsed on the site.”

Don’t forget the phone number

While shoppers’ actions may indicate whether they can be helped in a self-service environment, one of the most common mistakes retailers make when creating a self-service environment is to neglect posting click-to-call, live chat buttons, or an 800 number on the information pages.

“Even though the shopper can be helped in a self-service environment, there are shoppers within this segment that may feel the need to have contact with a service agent if they don’t get all the answers they are looking for,” Fettes says. “Self-service tools are great, but they are there to service the customer not just save money, so the option to contact a service agent needs to be available at any time in the servicing process.”

Failing to provide the option to contact a service agent on an FAQ page can not only cost the retailer a sale, but also diminish the quality of the brand. “No customer should feel abandoned in a self-service environment,” says Wendy Shooster, co-CEO at Global Response. “Online or in a store, when a shopper can’t find anyone to help, it makes them wonder if the retailer values them as a customer.”

Proactively feeding live chat and click-to-call buttons or pushing a short survey to gather more information from customers using the self-service environment are other ways to guide shoppers to the best content and enhance FAQs and other information pages. The triggers for making these service tools available are powered by rules-based engines that are programmed to take a specific action based on a shopper’s behavior, such as viewing a page for a predetermined time or constantly toggling back and forth between certain product and information pages, according to O’Neill.

Dismantling silos

“Retailers don’t want to have self-service tools operating in a siloed environment because that makes them less effective,” says O’Neill. “Self-service tools need to be surrounded with as wide a variety of service options to be as effective as possible.”

Implementing a wide variety of customer service applications to put around service tools can be expensive. The technology alone needed to operate a 50- to 60-seat contact center can cost retailers $400,000, according the Fettes. Space to house the contact center, personnel to staff it and all other related costs are extra.

One option to reduce the cost of building a contact center is to outsource the center, as the cost of agents, technology and agent training are spread out over a large customer base.

“When retailers compare the cost of outsourcing to hiring the customer service agents to provide 24-7 service coverage alone, outsourcing makes a lot more sense,” says Fettes.

24-7 INtouch provides such services as live chat, e-mail response, 24-hour help desk, IVR systems, web-based customer care, and order-taking services.

Other benefits outsourcing firms provide include creating call center redundancy in the event a natural disaster knocks out the primary call center. “Few retailers have the resources to provide that kind of back-up,” Herman Shooster says.

Global Response provides live chat, interactive voice response, data and document processing, in addition to call center services. Clients include Crate & Barrel, Lord & Taylor, FAO Schwarz and National Geographic.

Economics aside, however, before retailers make the decision to outsource they must ask whether customer service is a core part of their business. It is important that retailers consider this question carefully because failing to do so can cause them to stretch their expertise too thin, according to Fettes.

“Managing inbound customer service inquiries and live chat applications are not necessarily core to a retailer’s business,” Fettes says. “The benefit of outsourcing is that it allows retailers to focus on marketing, merchandising and product selection, which are core functions that ought to be managed in-house.”

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