Can I help you?

Retailers using tools like proactive chat are good at helping customers before they buy, but post-purchase service needs work, IRCE speakers said.

Amy Dusto

Many consumers like to find answers on their own when browsing web sites, which is why retailers have spent significant time and energy developing tools to help them help themselves in online stores. In recent years, however, e-retailers have also increasingly turned to more direct, proactive means of customer service, such as identifying a shopper stuck in the shopping cart and opening a chat window asking if she'd like assistance. Or, a retailer might pop up a tutorial for a customer who has spent several minutes in an online product configurator.

Forrester Research Inc. recently identified proactive engagement as one of the top customer service trends in 2014, noting that this approach lets retailers anticipate the what, when, where and how for customers, and move them more quickly to the Buy button.

As part of this trend, retailers large and small monitor their customers' activities and comments on social networks so that they can reach out when doing so would make a difference. That doesn't require having an extensive, 24/7 support staff either. IRCE exhibitor Yahoo Inc., for example, this spring released a mobile app for small online business owners to see who's on their site, what they've been doing and how likely they are to buy—as determined by Yahoo algorithms that take into account the number of page views and items in the shopper's cart.

Then, if the owner has a moment and identifies a shopper who could likely use some help—perhaps she keeps backpedaling to site search—he can send a pop-up message to the web page she's on asking whether she'd like to chat. Yahoo also allows the shopper to respond to the chat request by calling the owner back instead of typing if she's browsing on a tiny smartphone screen. The feature enables a small business owner who can't afford to hire customer agents to help shoppers himself.

Matt Ruggle, director of e-commerce for CustomBoxesNow.com, a division of Great Northern Corp., spoke at IRCE about how his company's entire site is built with self-service in mind, while at the same time being carefully tested and optimized for performance. The site offers step-by-step customization tools and web page footers that include large prompts to visit a help center or to call, chat or e-mail with a customer service representative.

Jordy Leiser, co-founder and CEO of StellaService Inc., a research company that rates customer service performance, in his IRCE presentation pointed to three initiatives that are helping give e-retailers an edge on the competition. Those initiatives are improving chat, shipping and delivery, and the returns process. Leiser said that Macys.com now delivers orders to the West Coast faster than department store competitors Nordstrom Inc. and The Neiman Marcus Group Inc., thanks to its move to ship more online orders from nearly all of its 800 stores.

He said e-retailers should also work on processing returns faster. He noted Amazon.com Inc. refunded 35% of returned orders within one day of the consumer handing the package over to a shipping carrier. No other e-retailer tracked by StellaService came close to matching that refund speed, he said.