September 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Double duty

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Effective self-service channels provide detailed information about issues consumers frequently ask about, such as shipping and return policies and complex products. The web site can offer links to additional sources of information, such as customer reviews, as well as the option to contact a service agent if the consumer needs more information.

"An FAQ page on how to configure a bicycle should include links to pages that go into greater detail about certain features, and options to launch live chat sessions for more consultative aspects of the configuration," says Meriwether of RightNow. "If a consumer that elects to contact a service agent has to wait in a queue, there should be an option to search the web site for the answer they need so they are not left hanging and end up leaving the queue."

The outsourcing option

With service becoming a more crucial part of a retailer's marketing strategy, and more technologically complex, many retailers find themselves wrestling with the question of whether to outsource this component of their business or operate it in-house. While outsourcing provides economies of scale and access to the latest technology, retailers worry that outsourcing cedes control of customer service to the outsourcing partner.

"A common myth about outsourcing is that retailers will lose control over how they service customers and that will negatively impact their brand. Nothing could be further from the truth," says Fettes. "A good outsourcing partner deeply involves its clients in all aspects of how the contact center operates and how its service agents are trained."

24-7 Intouch records 100% of inbound customer service calls and captures screen shots from each agent interaction with a customer, and makes both available to its clients for review. In addition, 24/7 Intouch provides its clients with unfiltered access to all agent performance reports and to team leaders working on their account.

Still, knowing when outsourcing makes sense can be difficult. "Retailers that get less than a few thousand calls a month, which is not enough to warrant the expense of the 24/7 service customers expect, should consider outsourcing," Fettes says. "And retailers that need more than 10 service agents, which is a large expense, should consider it as well."

While the operating efficiencies gained by outsourcing can provide retailers with substantial cost savings, Meriwether cautions that retailers should make sure that service agents have first-hand knowledge of their product lines.

Consumers are more informed than ever about products they are looking to buy, thanks to customer reviews, social networking and other online sources of information. Subsequently, many of the questions consumers raise require that agents have a thorough understanding of a retailer's product catalog.

"It benefits service agents to use the product so they become intimately familiar with it," says Meriwether. "We have a furniture retailer that has a showroom in the contact center."

The 6% solution

Reviewing recordings of in-bound calls, chat session transcripts and e-mail responses provides insights into what improvements each agent can make in his interpersonal skills and knowledge about products and current offers.

"New products are always being added and promotions and incentives are constantly changing, so training must be ongoing," says Fettes. "We devote 6% of every agent's working time each month to training."

Given the uncertainty about the future of the economy, and how confident consumers feel about their finances heading into the 2010 holiday season, merchants can't afford to miss an opportunity to win a consumer's loyalty.

"Retailers that take time to follow up with customers after every point of contact will not only deliver great customer service, but generate more sales," says Meriwether. "Retailers that don't focus on providing superior customer service will inevitably create bad customer service experiences that cause consumers to take their business elsewhere."

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