July 31, 2009, 12:00 AM

Making Contact

Even as they closely monitor call center costs, e-retailers are adding tools to ensure agents can answer the questions that prompt customers to call.

VistaPrint Ltd. has introduced many new products in recent years and attracted a broad range of customers. That’s helped to boost the online retailer’s sales from under $60 million in 2004 to more than $400 million in 2008. But it has also created new customer service issues.

With products ranging from business cards to e-commerce sites that customers can design to their personal preferences on VistaPrint.com, the company must cater to a larger number of customers who may find it frustrating to use VistaPrint’s online customization tools, says Michelle Healy, vice president of design, sales and services.

So while building out its product line in recent years, VistaPrint has upgraded its contact center operations to care for a more demanding customer base. “As we’ve expanded through the Internet to a broader audience, we’ve attracted customers who need more hand-holding,” she says.

Keeping customers

To provide that level of service, VistaPrint has made better use of call-routing and customer relationship management systems to help customers and agents communicate more efficiently and effectively. With the help of VistaPrint’s Sword Ciboodle CRM application, for example, agents have information about a customer’s needs, such as details of a recent order, flashed on the agent’s computer screen at the start of a communication session, helping the agent address the caller’s concerns more quickly.

“When the customer service experience improves, the customer appreciates you more,” Healy says. “In turn, this has helped generate higher conversation rates, sales and number of repeat customers.”

Not only are more calls from customers getting resolved by agents in a single session, VistaPrint has been able to more efficiently gather customer feedback to improve its products and online customization services, Healy says. When customers started complaining to call center agents about the difficulty of printing out brochures designed and purchased on VistaPrint.com, for example, Vista Print used that information to improve its online brochure-designing tool.

VistaPrint’s new customer service strategy is part of a broader trend of retailers moving beyond a laser focus on efficiency in running contact centers to also emphasizing strategies to make customers happy and keep them coming back, experts say.

“For 20 years, I’ve seen how companies have focused on call center efficiency instead of effectiveness, so they emphasize calls per hour, number of dropped calls and other efficiency metrics,” says Michael Maoz, an industry analyst who covers contact center systems at research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.

But companies have learned the hard way that call center efficiency can leave customers unsatisfied. “Companies would realize that, great, they were handling calls at a less expensive rate, but they were also losing customers at a faster rate than ever,” he says. “They were efficient at driving customers away.”

Retailers still want contact centers to operate efficiently, but also in a way that leaves customers satisfied and provides customer feedback to help improve overall retailing operations.

Retailers are upgrading contact centers with web-enabled tools and services that show on customer service agents’ computer screens real-time data from customer, product and order management databases. That helps retailers better serve customers; expedite call answering for the highest-value customers; automatically route incoming calls to the most appropriate customer service agents; offer live chat sessions triggered by particular online shopping behavior; and provide records of customer feedback that retailers can use to improve products and service.

The ultimate goal, Moaz says, is turning customers into repeat buyers and champions of a retailer’s brand, instead of chasing them away.

Supporting growth

An effective contact center strategy has been supporting growth at the National Geographic Society’s retail division, which encompasses the ShopNG.com e-commerce site, catalogs and a single store at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., says Sharon Cowley, vice president of operations. “Over the past four years, we’ve been growing at a double-digit pace in our combined catalog and web sales.”

National Geographic outsources its retail contact center operation to Global Response, which also handles all web and catalog order processing through the retailer’s Micros-Retail CWSerenade, a Java-based order management system. National Geographic maintains multiple toll-free numbers used by particular types of customers, such as one number for foreign shoppers with a catalog and another for U.S. customers on ShopNG.com.

The Global Response system automatically routes calls from those numbers to particular agents assigned to such callers; it also routes to specialized agents calls on the general 800 customer service line after callers press a number on their phone’s keypad indicating the purpose of a call, such as checking order status or getting product information.

When an agent answers a call, the Global Response system places a greeting script on the agent’s computer screen tailored to each type of caller. The agent will toggle back and forth between the Global Response and CWSerenade software applications to retrieve information on a client’s order history and current order status.

The CWSerenade application, which is integrated through web services technology with National Geographic’s product databases and its Osborne Logisitics shipping and warehouse management system, also lets the agent access information on product details, inventory availability and specific order status.

Small but effective

At Broken Arrow, an online and single-store retailer of custom-printed T-shirts and other apparel, a contact center averaging about six agents accounts for about 80% of annual sales, which rose about 20% last year to about $4.5 million. First-half sales this year are up another 15% over the same time last year, says Kortni Stocker, sales manager at the 50-employee company.

The retailer’s e-commerce site, BrokenArrowWear.com, operates on an in-house platform that doesn’t effectively support online ordering of personalized products, forcing the retailer to rely heavily on its contact center, Stocker says.

Stocker attributes much of the retailer’s sales increases to Broken Arrow’s IP Office call-management system from Avaya Inc., which enables the retailer to route calls to groups of agents trained to handle particular types of inquiries, such as requests for help in personalizing and purchasing products.

The IP Office system lets a caller press a number on her phone to request a particular type of assistance. It also lets the retailer automatically route excess calls to personnel outside of the call center team when necessary.

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