September 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Customer service strategies that build brand value

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Agent productivity

While segmenting customers can help retailers use live chat more cost-effectively, providers of call center technology are building in features to help call center managers improve agent productivity.

Bold Software’s BoldCCM includes a load-balancing feature that routes a shopper who launches a live chat session to an agent available to engage the shopper, rather than the next agent in line to handle a chat session.

This feature eliminates the risk of the shopper enduring a long wait for an agent if the next agent in line is not immediately available to handle that chat session. Agents often handle several chats at a time, and the agent next in line may be involved in a long exchange with a customer, for instance.

The application can also track conversions and order values for each chat session and compare that data to determine the ROI between proactive chat that the retailer initiates and exchanges that begin with the consumer clicking on a chat button.

“In this economic climate retailers need to take a harder look at costs across their entire operation, and the ability to track the ROI around chat can be a helpful metric in determining its overall value and whether current strategies for using live chat need to be adjusted,” says Tharp. “Retailers can also measure the ROI between customer-initiated chat and proactive chat.”

The role of social networks

Making more efficient use of customer service tools such as live chat is only part of the challenge retailers face today when it comes to managing customer communications more efficiently. Retailers must also keep up with shoppers’ penchant for using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and find ways to turn those social networks into customer service tools.

What intrigues-and sometimes frightens-retailers about social networks is the speed with which consumer opinions can travel across that medium. Consumers can broadcast their opinions to entire communities online and have them spread virally in a matter of minutes.

“The customer service challenge for retailers is how to prevent the spread of negative information before it goes too far and impacts their brand,” says 24-7 INtouch’s Fettes.

24-7 INtouch offers a customer relationship management tool developed by a third party that automatically asks shoppers to provide their Facebook or Twitter accounts and then monitors those accounts for comments about the retailer. If negative comments appear, retailers can respond directly to the shopper to address the issue.

“There is a lot of value in leveraging the power of social networks from a customer service standpoint,” says Fettes. “The challenge is finding the right approach.”

Trying to manage the plethora of communications tools to properly service consumers can be a daunting task for retailers, which is why more of them are turning to outsourcing partners for help with customer service. Before choosing an outsourcing partner retailers should discuss with potential service providers their strategies for deploying service technologies and the methods they use to ensure quality and brand integrity.

“Outsourcing is a way to bring operating efficiencies to the contact center and reduce costs, but if the outsourcing partner misses on providing a level of service that delights the customer and endangers brand loyalty, the retailer’s business will suffer,” says LivePerson’s Dicso. “The more the retailer looks to use their brand as a point of differentiation, the more deeply involved they need to be with the customer service experience, especially if it is outsourced.”

Spend the time

A common myth about outsourcing is that once a retailer turns over customer service to a third party, the retailer can simply forget about managing it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“It is in the retailer’s best interest to learn about the outsourcing partner’s work culture, how they service the customer and how that level of service matches up with the level of service their customers expect,” says Live Salesman’s Dadu. “The decision to outsource has to match up with their business objectives from a service perspective.”

A common concern many retailers express about outsourcing is that, “Our product is too complicated for an outsider to be able to support.”

To ease those concerns outsourcing partners should explain that customer support can be divided into multiple levels, according to Dadu. Level 1 support includes handling basic presales queries and information about order status. “Usually it is easy for the outsourced agent to answer such questions based on little training and a knowledge base, plus product documentation,” he explains.

Level 2, which deals with issues requiring investigation, such as refunds, can also be handled by a well-defined business process.

Level 3 includes handling questions that cannot be answered by the outsourced agents. “Such questions are escalated to the representatives at the client’s office in real time for a solution, and the answer is simultaneously added into the knowledge base for future reference,” says Dadu.

Other questions that need to be answered in advance include whether the outsourcing partner measures customer satisfaction the same way as the retailer, how often the outsourcer provides performance reports, and how consistent and frequent is their agent training, according to Dadu.

Once a contract is signed, retailers should talk to their outsourcing partner at least once a week and regularly visit their facilities to make certain standards are being maintained. “We have had clients spend up to two months per visit at our facility observing,” says Dadu. “Outsourcing is an intimate relationship and retailers need to treat it as such.”

Taking the time to talk to an outsourcing partner’s service agents is one of the most effective ways to gain intimate knowledge of the work culture at the outsourcing firm. LivePerson offers its clients this opportunity through its partnership with call center services provider 24-7 INtouch.

“Transparency is important in developing strong relationships,” says 24-7 INtouch’s Fettes. “Open communication in everything you do as an outsourcing firm-from reporting to providing client access to data and personnel-is key to developing a true collaborative partnership where the client feels they have the same control over the contact center as if they were running it in-house, even though it is outsourced.”

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