Small screen service

The retailers leading the way in mobile customer service have designed strategies and innovations to meet mobile consumers' needs.

Bill Siwicki

The Home Depot Inc. treats the small and mid-sized contractors who visit and purchase frequently like VIPs. When it comes to providing these professionals with customer service, the retailer has rolled out the red carpet—in the form of a mobile app. The Pro App is part of Home Depot's "interconnected retail strategy," which aims to fulfill customer needs as consumers increasingly interact with the retailer through a combination of channels, including its stores, the web and mobile.

When a contractor selects a store in the Pro App the app displays loads of information, including the store's address, hours, manager's name, directions, an in-store map, the services provided at that location and click-to-call access to the Pro telephone hotline (along with fax and e-mail options). When a contractor is on a product page, the app displays how many of that item are in stock at the store, the specific aisle and bay where the product is located, and a store map with a dot indicating the product's location. Push notifications alert contractors when orders are ready for pickup. The app—which is free and available for both iPhones and Android smartphones—also stores e-receipts.

"You will see more innovation from The Home Depot in mobile customer service in the future, including solutions leveraging mobile live chat and video to connect customers at home or on the job and augmenting the in-aisle service from our store associates," says Kevin Hoffman, senior vice president of online at Home Depot, who declines to reveal the cost of the app and related services. Retail apps with high degrees of connectivity, such as real-time inventory updates and in-store mapping, can cost between $100,000 and $500,000 or more to create, mobile experts say.

Home Depot is ahead of the pack when it comes to providing customer service to mobile consumers, say experts. While most retailers are still focused on learning to market and sell to mobile consumers, with customer service taking a backseat, some like Home Depot, Amazon.com Inc., Walgreen Co., W.W. Grainger Inc., B & H Foto & Electronics Corp. and Hachisoft Corp., are pioneering customer service in the mobile channel with innovative strategies and technologies. They say it's increasingly important to provide service to consumers who are shopping via smartphones and tablets.

The most common form of customer service tailored to mobile shoppers is click-to-call, where a hot-linked phone number on a mobile web or app page automatically dials the customer service number directly from the customer's phone. The feature is offered by 316 of the merchants in Internet Retailer's 2014 Mobile 500, a ranking of retailers by their mobile sales. But click-to-call merely diverts a shopper away from the mobile channel to the traditional contact center.

Customer service largely remains an afterthought in mobile commerce, says Kate Leggett, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. who specializes in customer service technologies. "Today mobile customer service is quite limited," Leggett says. "All the customer service capabilities available on the e-commerce site should be made available on a mobile device. Mobile customer service has large potential."

Amazon.com might be the retailer with the most unique mobile customer service offering. In 2013 it debuted a new version of its Kindle Fire HDX tablet computer with what it calls the Mayday button. Whenever a user has a technical question or problem, she can tap the Mayday button and within seconds a customer service agent appears via live video onscreen to assist. The service is free and available 24/7.

Amazon says it has thousands of Mayday "advisors" across the country and that on Christmas the average response time for an advisor to appear onscreen was nine seconds. Advisors can co-pilot users through any Kindle Fire feature by drawing on the users' screens or can complete a task for a user. Amazon declined further comment.

Walgreens takes a different approach, making powerful use of text messages. Four years ago, Walgreens introduced its text program, enabling customers to opt in to receive text alerts when their prescriptions are ready for pickup or when a problem has delayed a refill. By January 2012, 3 million customers had opted in to prescription text alerts, Walgreens says. Walgreens expanded the program to send push notifications when prescriptions are ready to be refilled, and enables customers to refill prescriptions by replying to a text message.

Text messaging makes the prescription process quick and easy for customers, and it's also efficient for pharmacy staff because the text messages often mean consumers don't have to call to place orders or check their order status, says Tim McCauley, senior director of mobile commerce at Walgreens.

Walgreens declined to reveal the cost of the text message program. Customers pay standard rates per text message.

Another retailer with years of mobile customer service experience is Hachisoft, which develops and sells to consumers sports, educational and productivity mobile apps, into which it integrates live chat customer support from technology vendor Hipmob.

Six Hachisoft developers have Hipmob software installed on their desktop PCs and some developers have it on their smartphones. When a chat request comes in from an app user, the first developer to claim it begins a chat. If a chat leads into territory better suited to another developer's expertise, he can transfer the chat to her. If a chat request comes in the middle of the night and everyone at Hachisoft is off-line, the request is routed to a queue where developers can pick it up the following morning. The developer types a response and it's stored as a message that automatically displays the next time the consumer enters live chat.

"A typical chat lasts a couple of minutes," says Tyler Edwards, president of Hachisoft. "But we also get ones where people are providing suggestions and they might last 20 to 30 minutes. We've created more tutorial-type content as a result of some of these longer chats."

Edwards says it cost less than $1,000 to integrate Hipmob mobile live chat technology. Hipmob says it charges between $10 and $64 per month, depending on the level of integration required. The payoff for Hachisoft has been good reviews and high star ratings in app stores, Edwards says.

"People look at your app and say, 'This one has a lot of five-star reviews.' That makes a difference," he says. "There's a direct correlation to your bottom line."

Other retailers that offer mobile live chat include Walgreens, which uses Oracle Corp. technology, and Grainger, which uses LivePerson Inc. technology. Grainger enables customers to share photos with service agents via live chat.

"Historically, our customers have submitted photos to our product specialists to help the specialists answer complex problems, but oftentimes a follow-up call with a specialist has been needed for more context," explains Geoffrey Robertson, vice president of e-commerce strategy and planning at Grainger. "With mobile live chat, the conversation and photo are linked together. A customer submits comments with photos then goes about continuing their work while the answer is being retrieved for them."

While most retailers have yet to develop customer service tailored to mobile shoppers, some merchants say the time has come to meet those consumers' needs.

A customer who places an order on a mobile device expects to be supported on a mobile device, says Jay Topper, chief information officer and chief technology officer at Vitacost.com Inc. Last year the retailer launched a new customer service portal on its e-commerce site that the e-retailer says renders well on tablets and has reduced the number of calls to its contact center, though the retailer declines to share specifics.

This year the retailer is focusing on mobile customer service, he says. Vitacost.com is exploring options for service for customers on smartphones, possibly including push notifications and other app-oriented tactics.

Similarly, Eli Weiss, director of mobile strategy at B & H Foto & Electronics, says the e-retailer with a New York superstore has big plans for mobile customer service this year.

From the start, one of the primary functions of the B&H iPad app was to provide mobile shoppers with the kind of customer service they would get from a sales associate in the superstore. The iPad app features a large amount of information, technical specs, product highlights and high-definition photos. It also lets customers download and store product manuals that can be accessed without web access.

"We have very ambitious plans for 2014 to expand mobile features devoted to further improving our customer service," Weiss says, declining to share the specific initiatives.

55% of time spent with online retail occurs on a tablet or smartphone, and that number is increasing, web measurement firm comScore Inc. finds. It's inevitable that an increasing number of online shoppers will be looking for answers and help from retailers on mobile devices. Merchants selling to mobile shoppers can look to mobile customer service pioneers for inspiration while devising their own plans for taking care of their increasingly mobile customers.