Human Touch Is Most Important Service Element

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"I hate call centers. You're put on hold forever before you even get to talk to someone. Then when you do get someone, they're either clueless or rude. I'll only deal with online CSRs. They're so much more professional, personable and they actually treat you like a human being online!"


These scathing comments came from a colleague who apparently has had one too many negative call center interactions. But her comparison between call center customer service and online service struck me as odd. How could customer service representatives online be more "personable" than their call center counterparts?


I decided to compare call center customer service with online customer service to see whether there really was a difference in CSR speed, knowledge and friendliness.


The organization I selected for the test was 1-800-Flowers.com. I contacted the online and call center service centers to ask whether they carried a product I had seen at a friend's house - a "chocolate chip rose bouquet." (This is a dozen chocolate chip cookies arranged on stems to look like a rose bouquet.)


First, to the online center. Here's what happened:


5:43 p.m.: I logged on to the 1-800-Flowers.com Web site, easily found the "customer service" tab and clicked on it. This took me to another page that gave me three service options: online chat, e-mail or an 800 service number. I clicked on the first option.


5:43 p.m.: I typed my inquiry on the screen: "Do you carry chocolate chip bouquets?"


5:43 p.m.: Wow! I was surprised to receive a response from Inger R. within seconds: "Please repeat?"


This greeting wasn't exactly warm and fuzzy. I found it mechanical. It really did feel as though I were talking to a computer. Still, I was happy with a prompt response, so I retyped my inquiry. Inger responded:


5:44 p.m.: "Sorry, we donot. But I will check for soemthing cluse."


Three misspelled words out of 11. That's a 27 percent error rate. Granted, they are most likely typos, but it doesn't send the most professional image. But it didn't bother me much since Inger R.'s response was so timely.


But Inger's timeliness started to go downhill:


5:45 p.m.: No response.


5:46 p.m.: No response.


5:47 p.m.: No response.


5:48 p.m.: Finally, Inger posted this message: "Thank you. And if we can be of further assistance, please contact us at 1-800-468-1141 or e-mail us at 1800flowers.com."


I was confused. Did she just want me to go away? Did her message mean that she could not find a suitable substitute?


5:49 p.m.: I keystroked to Inger: "So ... I assume you couldn't find a comparable product?"


5:51 p.m.: No response from Inger. At the very least, I expected her to post a message such as, "I'm still looking for a substitute." But there was nothing.


Since I had been staring at a blank screen for more than two minutes since my last post, I wondered whether Inger was still there. I started to keystroke: "Are you still there?" when I received a post from Inger: "Sorry, I apologize for the wait."


Great! She was back. Finally, I would know whether they had a comparable product. I waited. And waited. Then, finally:


5:53 p.m.: A post from Inger: "Maybe during Valentine's Day."


5:53 p.m.: I posted to Inger: "Thank you for your time."


5:54 p.m.: Inger's final post: "Thank you. And if we can be of further assistance, please contact us at 1-800-468-1141 or e-mail us at 1800flowers.com."


Considering that I had received that message earlier, I felt a little put off. I knew it was a canned response that she probably sent to every customer with just the click of a button. I started the interaction feeling as though I were interacting with a computer, not a person, and I left feeling the same way. I also felt a bit like a number, not a person. My total online service time: 11 minutes.


This interaction had several positive aspects and some aspects that could use improvement.


The first positive experience was the "service options" page. It is always nice when customers are given options.


The next positive was an "explanation" page. It told me exactly what a CSR was, what I could expect from the online interaction and how to use the online forum. 1-800-Flowers.com did a fantastic job of setting customer expectations and informing the customer.


The initial response time was impressive. What a treat to get an immediate response and not have to wait "in cue."


The following are tips for improvement:


The response time after the initial greeting was slow. I would not have minded waiting if Inger had set the wait expectation upfront. This could have been done with a simple post after my inquiry such as, "I'll check to see if we have comparable products. This may take me three or four minutes, so please bear with me."


The greeting itself was emotionless. "Please repeat?" could have been improved to: "Welcome to the 1-800-Flowers.com store! Could you tell me again what you are looking for?" I mean, c'mon! The gift industry is a warm and fuzzy industry. Had I been contacting a computer company, the initial sterile response would have been more acceptable. But 1-800-Flowers.com did not "mirror" their customers in this case.


• The CSR did not offer additional assistance. I liked that the interaction was branded by ending with a "thank you" and the company name. But rather than pushing me off to the toll-free number for "further assistance," it would have been nice to have been asked, Is there anything else I can do for you this evening?"


• The CSR did not follow "best practices" standards. This is a problem I have noticed in many online customer centers: The call center standards for proper greetings, closings and placing customers on hold go out the window in the online environment. Maintaining these standards online is important if companies are to maintain a consistency of service throughout their organizations.


The call center service test. Next, I decided to test the call center service operation at 1-800-Flowers.com to see how it compared with the online center.


9:50 a.m.: I dialed the toll-free number and received an automated response: "Thank you for calling 1-800-Flowers.com. Your order is very important to us. An associate will be with you shortly. If you're short on time, visit our Web site at www.1800flowers.com."


Hmm. This operation is directing customers to the Web site for faster service.


9:52:38 a.m.: Rosemary answers. She sounds very tired and sighs into the phone, "This is Rosemary. How can I help you?"


I told Rosemary I was looking for the cookie bouquet and described it to her. She seemed to perk up a bit by saying, "Oh. That sounds so adorable. Let me check to see if we have anything like that."


9:53:30 a.m.: Rosemary gives me a status update: "I'm still checking. I'm going down the list and it will take a few seconds yet." This was a nice touch; it let me know she was still working on my request.


9:55 a.m.: Rosemary: "I don't see anything." I hear continued clicking on the keyboard. Over the course of the next four minutes, Rosemary continued checking and did a nice job of keeping me updated on her progress:


9:56 a.m.: "I wonder if I'm looking in the wrong section."


9:57 a.m.: "So far, no luck."


9:58 a.m.: "Let me check just one more thing."


9:59 a.m.: "No, we don't have it in that section. Let me check to see if we'll get anything like that in for Valentine's Day."


10:00 a.m.: "No. It doesn't look as if we will."


10:00 a.m.: I thanked Rosemary for her time, and she responded with, "OK. Bye-bye." The total time of this interaction: 10 minutes.


So, even though I had to wait two minutes for a first response in the call center, the overall interaction took one minute less than the contact center interaction. And, just as in the online interaction, the CSR did some good things and some not-so-good things.


Here's what the CSR did well:


• Diligently checked several sources to see whether the company had the product I requested.


• Continually updated me on her search progress.


• After the initial greeting, she did have a pleasant, friendly tone throughout the rest of the conversation.


What the CSR could have improved:


• A more friendly tone at the greeting.


• Just as in the online case, this CSR seemed unsure of where to find the products


• The abrupt "Bye-bye" closing did not follow call center best practices for service. She did not offer additional assistance, nor did she brand the call.


To summarize, the following is a list of things to include in your online service center to leave the best customer impressions:


• An options page. Give customers several ways to get service.


• Include an explanations page that tells customers (who may be new to the online experience) how to use the technology.


• Train online CSRs in "best practices" for setting and managing customer expectations, greeting a customer, placing a customer on hold and ending the online interaction.


• Train online CSRs in ways to make the interaction more "human" and less technical. Examples include using a conversational tone, friendly phrases and emoticons.


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