What FAQs Reveal About CRM

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Recent statistics from Media Metrix, New York, show that Internet users spend a little more than one minute per Web page these days, which can be attributed to a savvier, more sophisticated audience.

No longer are users languorously exploring a site, reviewing each detail. They want to get through with the purpose of their visits as quickly as possible. "Get in, get out" -- if that's what users want, that's what e-tailers should help them do.

Helping users get through their online experience expeditiously and pleasantly is one purpose of a Web site's frequently asked questions section. "An FAQ section is a kind of a one-stop shop for information so the consumer doesn't have to go looking all over the site for what it is they need," said Lowell Miller, Frontier Airlines' director of e-commerce.

As such a crucial place for online customer service and communication, you would think that a Web site's FAQs section would contain the types of questions that users would be likely to ask. The problem is that all too often, even the most fundamental information is not provided in the FAQs, nor is it conveniently provided elsewhere on the site.

Most consumer questions for e-commerce sites revolve around the ordering process, and many consumer complaints focus on having to start, or even complete, the ordering process before learning critical pieces of the procedure. "I hate having to get to the credit-card form before knowing what the cost is," said online consumer Ken Briggs. "I wish they would save me time by telling me the price upfront."

The more complex a Web site, the more critically this problem affects the bottom line. E-commerce sites can lose visitors who become frustrated by being unable to find the information they're looking for.

"Since the Internet has eliminated geographical boundaries, it's much more likely to quickly and permanently lose a customer to a competitor if that customer can't find what they're looking for," said Robert Hansen, an e-commerce consultant at Rainier Technology, Minneapolis.

But even basic information seems to get overlooked. "I just filled out an entire form at a site, only to find at the last possible minute that they didn't take AmEx, the only card I use," said Anne Holland of MarketingSherpa.com, Washington. "This is the only card many businesspeople use, and this was a business site."

Other often-unanswered FAQs include questions about:

• Contact information organized by company department.

• Local sales tax.

• Sales outside the United States.

• Return policies and procedures.

• Online order status.

• Saving shopping carts and personal preferences.

• Live-time inventory. (E-tailers gearing up for a big Christmas season would be wise to have this component in place to avoid the disasters of Christmas 1999.)

• Back orders.

Why is it that sites seem to overlook the obvious? In part, it's a function of poor planning. Some e-commerce companies don't take the time to think the simple things through. Hasty decisions and rapid implementation lead to deficiencies in the online consumer's experience, which spawn other problems, much like a domino effect.

A June 2000 survey of online shoppers undertaken by Impact Strategies Inc., Washington, drew the conclusion that "the resulting imperative [for e-tailers] is to put consumers in control of a simpler process for consumption on the Net."

To address this empower`ment issue, a whole Internet customer support industry has cropped up. As e-commerce grows in sophistication, so does the intricacy of online consumers' questions. E-commerce entities need to know that people are different and seek help in different ways. Some are willing to ask for it, and for these people, live help desks are useful; others might be embarrassed and concerned about looking less than competent, which is why more anonymous solutions such as FAQ areas and e-mail may be a better bet.

A solution that presents a kind of compromise is the dynamically generated, software application-driven "FAQ engine," which can be thought of as a kind of self-service FAQ center.

It starts with a database that is pre-populated with the most commonly asked questions. Consumers can search through categories related to their questions or can type the question into a search field. Answers most closely matching what the consumer is looking for are dynamically served, and the user can either click on the related answer or refine the search with another question. The consumer is given the option to pursue help through more traditional channels such as e-mail or more advanced services such as live help.

Another feature of these FAQ engines is that as new questions are asked and answered, they are automatically added to the database so the next customer with a similar question might quickly find more satisfactory answers. Chuck Dourlet, vice president of marketing at RightNow Technologies, Bozeman, MT, one of the companies offering dynamic FAQ engines, described this learning system as "organic." Other players in this marketplace include eGain, People Support, Brigade Solutions and Brightware.

Though it is wonderful to have lots of creative customer service solutions built into a site, if the site does not address the fundamental concerns of its targeted shoppers in immediate ways, the online consumer still counts it as a strike. Looking at consumers' most frequently asked questions is vital to recognize, plan for and constantly reassess online customer service capabilities.

• Hollis Thomases is president of Web Ad.vantage Inc., Aberdeen, MD, a creative online marketing, promotions and public relations firm. Reach her at hollis@webadvantage.net.

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