May 31, 2011, 5:38 PM

People Power

Armed with information, contact center reps can add warmth and intelligence that software lacks.

Lead Photo

Asked about their most recent visit to a retail web site, 87% of consumers say they were satisfied with the interaction; but only 73% say they were satisfied with the most recent call they placed to a retailer's contact center, according to a recent Forrester Research Inc. report.

Those results suggest shortcomings in how many retailers provide customer service, says Kerry Bodine, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.

"It's kind of crazy that a nameless, faceless piece of technology that requires the customer to do all the work scores better than talking to another human being," she says. "Talking to another human being should be the best thing. We're social creatures. We're intelligent creatures. And ultimately a human being should be able to help consumers in a way that a piece of technology cannot."

If that's not the case, Bodine says, it's often because contact center agents aren't properly equipped with enough information about the consumer, particularly about the consumer's interactions with the retailer through a variety of sales channels. In other cases, it may be because a retailer's agents are sticking to a script that doesn't ask the right questions, or that limits agents' ability to use their judgment or add a personal touch.

But as retail becomes increasingly complex, with consumers interacting with a merchant in stores, online, on mobile devices and social media, retailers are realizing that they need to enable contact center agents to take advantage of their most valuable asset—the fact that they're human. By providing agents with more flexible procedures and better access to cross-channel customer information they can improve consumers' contact center experiences, says Bodine.

Connecting the dots

Retailers are aware of those challenges. That's why 59% of retailers in a recent Forrester survey said their major customer experience objective this year was improving consumers' cross-channel experiences.

For instance, iRobot, which manufactures and sells room-roaming automated vacuum cleaners and other similar robot-related products, uses a RightNow customer relationship management tool to provide its outsourced contact center agents with a single database that ties together a consumer's interactions with the retailer regardless of whether the consumer called, e-mailed or, in some cases, posted about the retailer on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or various online forums. "We want to have a 360-degree view of our customers because that produces a better experience for them and the agents answering their call," says Maryellen Abreu, the retailer's director of global technical support.

iRobot's web site enables a customer to sign in to access such information as his order history. And, if a customer is signed into the site, the RightNow program can show the retailer's agents what pages he has been clicking on down to a specific page within the site's frequently asked question tab, which can provide clues to the customer's question. "It's helpful to say that you've seen the problems that they've had," she says. "It tells the consumer that you're looking to save them the time and hassle of having to repeat the situation."

Knowing that there are some shoppers who aren't going to call and voice their frustration, the retailer last year began using RightNow's Cloud Monitor application to reach out to dissatisfied customers who express themselves online in other ways. The program monitors conversations relevant to its business, including mentions of iRobot and its vendors and competitors, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and online forums. Cloud Monitor detects whether a post is positive or negative.

If a consumer anonymously posts a negative comment about iRobot, which often occurs on consumer complaint sites, as well as on Twitter and YouTube, one of the retailer's contact center agents posts a note encouraging the consumer to call or e-mail. If the retailer can find the consumer's information because, for instance, the user posted the comment in Facebook where her whole name is displayed, the retailer sends her a private e-mail. Once the consumer calls or e-mails, her information is noted in the contact center's database.

"People don't want to call customer service for support," says Abreu. "So when they do, this enables us to link together everything they've tried to do to fix the problem." The RightNow technologies that iRobot uses start at about $110 a month with a one-year subscription. Since iRobot implemented them, the retailer has seen a 10% jump in the internal customer satisfaction ratings it gathers from customer surveys.

It only makes sense that a retailer's satisfaction ratings rise when its agents show they're aware of consumers' various interactions with a merchant, says Adele Sage, a Forrester analyst. "There should be a graceful handoff between channels," she says. "If I'm on a retailer's web site, can I find a phone number to call? Or if I'm on the phone with an agent, can that agent find the product we're discussing? Or if I receive an e-mail, is it relevant to the conversation I had with the agent on the phone?"

Information, please

To meet those expectations multichannel shoe retailer Walking On A Cloud in February 2010 implemented an e-commerce platform and order management system from OrderDynamics. The retailer operates 36 bricks-and-mortar stores in Ontario, Canada, sells online and operates a wholesale division. The system enables Walking On A Cloud's three in-house contact center agents to access information for each business unit, including being able to look up customer information, in-stock availability and tracking information, says Mark Zuckier, the retailer's president. "We want our agents to have all the tools to help consumers place an order or resolve an issue," he says.

With about 70% of the retailer's wholesale orders placed online and 30% via the contact center, it is essential that agents have access to a consumer's full order history, regardless of how she previously ordered, he says. And, with the OrderDynamics system, all the retailer needs to access that order information is the consumer's name or an order number.

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