Drugstore.com Prepares for Rush of Holiday Inquiries

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Health and beauty products retailer drugstore.com is working to reply faster to customer e-mails as it prepares for a doubling of inquiries from new online shoppers and customers checking orders this holiday season.


The company expects to receive up to 10,000 e-mails weekly from Thanksgiving to the week before Christmas. It typically gets 5,000 weekly the rest of the year.


"For holiday, I'm really looking to respond to customers' e-mails within four hours," said Ron Kelly, senior director of customer care at drugstore.com, Bellevue, WA. "Throughout the year, I'm shooting for an eight-hour response. I'm already achieving 4 1/2 hours."


Response speed is key if drugstore.com looks to sell holiday bestsellers like Burt's Bees 12-piece cosmetics kit for $12.99, philosophy Miracle Worker gift set for $42.50, DreamTime Foot Cozys herbal boots for $55 or the Bronze Synchro Shaver for $139.99.


Upgraded software from CRM applications provider Kana, Menlo Park, CA, will help. A better reporting functionality will inform about processing times for e-mails rather than guessing.


Also, touch points have been reduced. When an e-mail comes in, the customer care representative will look at it and send it to a queue that automatically spits out the correct response. Last year, reps entered many responses manually and individually.


"With this we can really increase our response time," Kelly said. "Twenty-five percent to 30 percent of our e-mails are generically based stuff we may get on a routine basis."


But the other inquiries require more studied attention. Anxious customers may ask about the order process, delivery times, availability of products or security of credit card numbers. Some questions may be after-sale: Was the right button hit? Were credit card details entered right?


Then there are questions that are unique and need speedy, but thoughtful, responses. Merchandisers at drugstore.com are briefing customer-care colleagues about the holiday materials, the various manufacturers, product attributes and benefits and so on.


"You definitely get a lot of unique questions during holiday time you wouldn't necessarily see in the middle of February," Kelly said.


Most inquiries come from drugstore.com's target: Working mothers ages 24 to 55 and an older demographic for the pharmacy products who may not be covered by insurance.


Quick responses particularly benefit drugstore.com's higher-ticket pharmacy business. Take the woman who e-mailed a few weeks ago for a price quote on Propecia, a prescription pill to treat hair loss in men. She had never bought on the site. Drugstore.com responded in four hours, giving her not only the asked quote on the 30 pills for 30 days treatment, but also the savings on 90 days.


That e-mail response and the upsell worked. She mailed in the script on her father-in-law's prescription that same day from work. And she bought a 90-day supply.


Unsurprisingly, customers are getting even more impatient as they switch to a new medium of inquiry. Three years ago, telephone was the chief instrument for drugstore.com customer inquiries, incoming and outgoing. Now, 60 percent come over e-mail and the rest by phone.


That changing ratio may work for online retailers looking to shave customer service costs, preferring cheaper e-mail. However, consumers also expect a quick reply.


"Customers are expecting response times in eight hours or less," Kelly said. "They're sending e-mails at work in the morning and they're expecting response time by lunch, or certainly by the time they leave for the day. So that really forces us to find more ways to be more efficient and to respond to e-mails quicker." n


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