March 28, 2013, 4:15 PM

Rethinking customer service

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Being on a video chat is a more difficult job than talking about a product on the phone or via live chat because it requires an agent to make eye contact and demonstrate how the product looks and operates, Benny Holliday,'s Face 2 Face coordinator, says. That's why promoted six of its "very best" agents who each had sold at least $1 million worth of products the previous year and who were also comfortable transferring their sales skills to selling via a webcam. Most of those agents had experience working as in-home blinds salesmen, Holliday says. "These were people who were used to selling on a face-to-face basis and possessed expertise to come into someone's home, assess their needs and make expert recommendations on the spot based on what they see," he says. For those who didn't have that experience, the retailer trained them how to present themselves and their products while on camera. Riddell credits the face-to-face consults for driving average order values for shoppers who use video chat that are roughly 300% greater than shoppers who don't video chat.

New call center technologies are an important part of the customer service equation, but technology isn't everything, Forrester's Schoeller says. Retailers have to hire capable agents and then provide training that'll help them excel.

To find qualified agents, San Francisco-based SquareTrade Inc., which sells warranties and protection plans for consumer products like iPads and cameras, turned to outsourced call center firm Arise Virtual Solutions Inc. to handle its U.K. customer service operations when it moved into the British market.

The retailer didn't want agents to rely on scripts, which it believes can come across as stilted, so that required Arise Virtual Solutions to find agents with problem-solving skills who were comfortable following more general guidelines. "We want to get the right person to answer the call," says Dave Quillin, director warranty operations, Europe, at SquareTrade.

Arise contracts with home-based agents who undergo a three-week training process for SquareTrade, plus another two weeks when agents are supervised. Because agents can be located anywhere, Arise can cast a wide net to find the skills that its retailer clients' need, Quillin says.

The best-performing agents, determined by each business's goals, such as call length or customer satisfaction score, get first crack at picking their hours. Agents aren't paid by the hour they're available—they are paid for the time they're on the phone with customers. Thus, top-performing agents typically choose the busiest hours, an Arise spokeswoman says. If those agents get overwhelmed with calls, the Arise system contacts other trained agents via e-mail and automated calls to see if they can log on. "That enables us to meet demand quickly," he says.

Social media is also transforming the way SquareTrade resolves customer service issues. "To believe that customer service only happens on the phone is unrealistic," Quillin says. "Facebook is one place where you have to respond. That doesn't mean that every agent has to be a Facebook expert, but it does mean that some have to know what they're doing and have to pay attention to it."

SquareTrade has a four-person internal team that uses a listening platform that it declined to name to find and address consumers' comments on social media. Listening platforms comb through social media posts, and the broader web, for mentions of a particular brand or product category.

It takes a different skill set to respond to consumers on social media than it does to handle phone calls, live chat or even respond to e-mails, Forrester's Schoeller says. Consumers may post anything at any time on many online social networks and forums, and they won't necessarily respond immediately to an agent the way they would in a phone call or live chat. Plus, an agent's responses are typically public, so they have to clearly address the customer's concerns and provide a resolution. "They have to be thoughtful in how they manage their responses," he says.

That's why Yankee Candle promoted its most experienced agents, who are used to handling difficult cases, to post its responses on Facebook. The retailer is training the agents both in the technical ins and outs of how the social network works, and how to ensure that they convey an appropriate brand message. "The challenge is to have the right people involved, who know how to present the brand and who know what to say and what not to say," Wolansky says. "It's not rocket science, but you have to do it right."


Customer service via an app

As the ways in which shoppers browse the web changes, improving technology for consumers using a desktop or laptop computer isn’t enough anymore. The rapid ascent of mobile commerce—the Internet Retailer Mobile 400 estimates that 2012 mobile commerce sales, including the $13 billion sold on eBay, topped $25.14 million last year—is causing retailers to add technology to better serve shoppers on mobile devices.

For instance, ticket broker software vendor and retailer Mobile Ticket App LLC is working with Radish Systems LLC to enable contact center agents to push information like a seat’s location to a consumer via a mobile app.

Mobile Ticket App builds mobile apps for ticket brokers and also operates its own site, LLC. When a consumer calls the retailer’s call center, which is operated by TicketNetwork Inc., for help placing a ticket order or to ask about an event an agent can direct the consumer to open the StubNut app (or download it), then click a ShowMe button. The agent can then show the consumer the view from various seat locations, where the seats are on the venue’s seating chart and nearly anything else that will help make the sale, Steve Nutt, president at Mobile Ticket App, says.

The technology is still new and has yet to gain much traction, he says. However, the consumers who have used the technology have a higher conversion rate than other consumers.

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