New Company's E-Customer Service Uses Tried-and-True DM Techniques

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The biggest barrier to e-commerce is the horrendous fulfillment and customer service offered by most Web merchants, according to Steve Gordon, a principal with the recently launched online fulfillment company Total Fulfillment Services LLC.


After 18 years with direct marketing firm The Danbury Mint, Norwalk, CT, Gordon helped found Total Fulfillment Services, Westport, CT, in August 1997 to fill what he saw as a gaping hole in the online marketplace.


"Which customer service department would you like to call, L.L. Bean or Microsoft?" he asked.


Gordon recounted a recent experience with Microsoft's online airline ticketing service Expedia (www.expedia.com). He received his tickets quickly but then called Expedia's customer service department with a question.


"Have you tried reaching their customer service group? It is the anti-Bean," Gordon said, adding that Expedia's telephone auto-attendant took him through five layers of selections before putting him on hold for 15 minutes.


"The whole e-commerce thing is a lot of people getting hyped over technology," Gordon said. "And from a technology standpoint, [the Internet] is new, it's huge, and it's a big breakthrough. But at the end of the day, it's just another distribution vehicle and another marketing channel."


Gordon noted parallels between the current state of e-commerce and of the direct-response industry of the late 1960s and early 1970s.


"That was when direct response started really taking off because they figured out that if they wanted to compete, they had to be better at customer service than any retail establishment," he said.


Gordon said the Internet community falls into two categories: "techies" and "business people." Those in the business category "think it's important to have a human contact at the other end of the phone, [while techies] try to figure out how to get their [auto-attendant] to answer 90 percent of the questions."


Among Total Fulfillment Services' clients are Web loan broker E-Loan, Palo Alto, CA, and children's educational material marketer Early Advantage LLC, Fairfield, CT. According to Gordon, Total Fulfillment Services has tripled E-Loan's close rate. E-Loan declined to comment.


David Ward, a direct marketing veteran and president of Early Advantage, said that his marketing program is mail-based but that he is in the initial stages of putting products on the Web. He said the direct marketing industry's successes during the past three decades have placed some high hurdles between Internet merchants and an e-commerce boom.


"People's expectations of direct response on the Web are going to be fueled by their best experience in the world of traditional direct marketing," Ward said.


At the same time, direct marketing's history is a vast resource for Web merchants who care to tap it.


"As traditional direct marketers who have scaled those walls and fought those battles come onto the scene, it's a chance for Web marketing to jump forward," said Ward.


Gordon said he thinks consumers have greater expectations of Web merchants than of their offline counterparts.


"There's a mentality that 'If I press this button, I know what's on your database. So what do you mean you have to go through additional steps?' You need to communicate with them that much faster," Gordon said.


As a result, making "real-time" inventory available to Web users is a crucial function of what Gordon calls e-customer service.


"The people who have been successful on the Web so far are those that don't have inventory issues, like Dell Computer and Amazon.com," he said.


Also, telephone and mail follow-up are critical to e-customer service.


"Consumers don't check their e-mail 17 times a day, or even every day," Gordon said. "At least if you mail a letter to them, you know they'll check their mail box."


Another critical component of a successful online selling program is ensuring that each inbound call-center rep has Web access, he said.


"That way, when a customer calls with a problem," he said, "[the rep] can toggle to the Web site and walk through the transaction with the customer and identify where the problem is."
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