July 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Customer Service

Social networks and mobile: new ways to serve customers

Lead Photo

Delivering good customer service online is a challenge. Retailers increasingly are leveraging social networks and mobile technology, along with more established methods like live chat, to do a better job.

The challenge emerged from results of a May 2010 cross-industry survey by consulting firm Temkin Group. Among the 400 companies surveyed, 85.1% reported offering good customer service in stores, but only 77% said the same about their phone service, and an even smaller 68.6% were satisfied with their online service.

Social media is one way e-retailers are looking to improve. For instance, Vistaprint Ltd., which sells print-related services via the web, has at least one member of its outsourced customer service team dedicated to monitoring Facebook and Twitter and responding to customer service issues that emerge on those sites.

Jeff Esposito, who heads Vistaprint's social marketing initiatives, says the e-retailer typically can fix customer service problems more quickly through social media than through phone calls and e-mails. And a question answered on a social network may keep other consumers from asking the same question.

Other online retailers are following suit. A Forrester Research study from March 2010 reports that 21% of the online retail respondents plan to launch Twitter-based customer service programs, and 16% already have them. "2010 could see a dramatic increase in these social customer service channels," the report says.

Who's who

Live chat also is helping many e-retailers improve their service. 24-7 InTouch was one of the vendors that helped retailer ShopNBC.com launch its live chat program in late 2008.

The technology employed provides ShopNBC agents with such information as how long a shopper spends on a page, how much the consumer spends on average and where the shopper is from. Agents can use that data to identify customers most likely to welcome an invitation to engage in a text chat.

According to another study from Forrester, the program has resulted in a 38% increase in spending for live chat users, along with a decrease in returned orders. Encouraged by such findings, the retailer recently extended the program from high-priced items to all products.

The lesson to retailers, even if they outsource such customer service tasks, is to pay attention to the people behind the service, says Greg Fettes, president and CEO of 24-7 InTouch. "The staff and management behind a chat program are critical," he says.

Ample possibilities

Retailers have ample possibilities when considering outsourcing all or some of their customer service functions. A company such as AMT Warranty Corp., for instance, offers call center staff who can respond to customers who are not satisfied with their purchases, and arrange for the repair of defective items, including through extended service plans and extended warranties for products.

"More and more, when customers make a purchase—and not just high-end items—they're treating it as an investment, and many times they're willing to spend a little extra on an extended warranty to protect that investment," says Bruce Saulnier, president of AMT Warranty.

The next frontier in customer service is likely to be mobile, according to the Forrester report from March. Though only 4% of the online retailers that responded to the survey said they offered customer service on mobile devices, 25% of respondents plan to offer customer service via text message by year's end. Writes Forrester analyst Diane Clarkson: "Savvy retailers realize that a mobile customer service channel will support their mobile commerce and promotion efforts."

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