Web Site's Additions a Smart Move

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It looks like the customer service options SmarterKids.com put on its Web site will pay off this holiday season.

The online toy vendor added e-mail management and is experimenting with a live chat button on its checkout page. A call-me-now button and a shop-with-a-friend feature, through which customers can push pages to the computer screens of faraway friends, will be added after the new year. In addition, the live chat button eventually will be added to other pages on the site after the company reviews the test results on the checkout page.

"My biggest challenge is volume right now. I want to roll it out, gauge how much volume it will receive and then roll it out in other places," said Mark De Chambeau, vice president of operations at SmarterKids, Needham, MA. "I expect chat to be huge. People want instant gratification."

The move may have been a smart one - a Nielsen/NetRatings report released Dec. 6 listed SmarterKids as one of four lesser-known toy sites that are taking a bite out of the audience of Toys 'R' Us and eToys. The site pulled 271,266 unique visitors for the week ending Dec. 5, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

SmarterKids contracted with Cisco Systems, San Jose, CA, for the Web collaboration, e-mail management and media blending technology - all products developed by the former Webline Communications Corp., which was acquired by Cisco last month. Already, SmarterKids is seeing results from the new e-mail management system.

"Our e-mails go up by a factor of seven over the holidays," De Chambeau said, noting that while it normally receives 600 e-mails a week, the company receives 600 to 1,000 a day during the holidays. "If we didn't have Cisco in place, we'd be buried in e-mail right now."

Cisco's e-mail management software begins with a system that tracks e-mail from the minute it hits a company's firewall. The system then searches for keywords in both the subject and the text of the message to route the e-mail to the appropriate agent. When agents receive a message, they also get several template answers that they can use untouched, modify or discard at their own discretion.

"Some companies like the continuum of a pure live-person response - and at the other extreme, people talk about fully automating responses," said Bob Weinberger, director of marketing at Cisco Applications Technology Group. "We believe the sweet spot is somewhere in between. You should make sure real people are involved in the process because it's easy to send ridiculous or inappropriate e-mail if the system is fully automated, but partial automation saves a lot of time."

Previously, Smarterkids used a system that stored some template answers but required agents to search for the appropriate templates on their own.

"A rep would handle 50 to 80 e-mails a day," De Chambeau said. "Under the new system, I have seen one rep handle 457 e-mails in a day. In that example, most of them were the more basic ones, but it wouldn't have been possible under the old system."

Reports at the beginning of December showed that the company was answering 91 percent of its e-mail within a day, he said.

After the holiday rush, agent call back and the shop-with-a-friend feature, which the company calls SmarterTalk, are expected to give the shopping experience an added dimension.

"The fact is, right now, there is a lot of haziness. There are a lot of dot-com companies, and we try to personalize the experience for the customer. If you can bring a site home and let customers shop with their sisters, their brothers, their dad, it helps break up some of that haziness," De Chambeau said. "When the Web started, many were saying it was an impersonal way of doing business. Now they are realizing customers are still people, and they are still going to have questions, and they are still going to want to speak to other people."

Smarterkids cross-trains its agents to be universal agents, handling all forms of communications. The company hires people who have both oral and written skills and the ability to handle multiple tasks, De Chambeau said.

The company is still deciding whether it will use the voice-over Internet protocol capabilities of the Cisco products in the future.

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