Meet Customer Needs With Call Centers

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Have you ever seen a long line at a retail store and decided what you needed wasn't crucial? Most of us have, which highlights the importance of customer service for any business. The same holds true for online businesses. An online storefront needs to meet the same criteria as a brick-and-mortar store. Customers expect your full product offering as well as a high level of customer service.


People shopping on the Web most likely do so for convenience, and making them wait for answers only drives them elsewhere. Many companies who rushed to launch their Web stores without solid customer service encountered lost sales, a decrease in credibility, low loyalty and few repeat purchases. Unfortunately, they have a very small chance of recouping any of that lost potential.


Online competition is fierce and customer service could be the feature that differentiates you from everyone else. But with 90 percent of e-commerce companies planning to significantly change their customer service operations in the next year, standing out may be difficult.


The first step in implementing an effective customer-service call center is to assess your response times. All requests and questions should be acknowledged immediately. This can be done via an e-mail or automated voice system that confirms the message was received. All questions regarding technical difficulty or ordering problems should be answered within one hour. All general questions should be answered within 12 hours. Answer the easy ones first. All catalog requests should be shipped within 24 hours.


Use What You Have


If you aren't meeting these suggested response times, don't run out and hire more customer service reps. First, assess the tools you already have. A knowledgeable CSR is just as important on the Internet as a sales associate is in your brick-and- mortar store.


The online visitor can't see someone searching for the answer to their question, which means they often are left to wonder if their question was received or if it was lost in cyberspace. In most situations, they only know their question has been received when someone sends them a reply.


This isn't a problem when your response times are fast; but if you find your response times are lagging, you may find you have unsatisfied customers. That's why quick response rates are a vital component in customer service goals.


Use your Web site to post a frequently asked-questions page. A FAQ page also is an effective way to communicate to your customers about essential information such as: When is your next conference? How do I get a catalog? Are your products offered online?


Use e-mail and the phone to communicate to your customers. Assurance and follow-up is a wonderful way to keep customers satisfied and the merchant-customer dialogue going. Track and log the calls you receive so you can send personalized e-mails or make follow-up phone calls to ensure your customers' satisfaction.


Anyway you look at it, live human assistance works. Companies offering such assistance on their Web sites have seen a dramatic increase in conversion rates of shoppers to buyers, repeat customers, customer satisfaction and loyalty.


Automation Is the Future


Even with all your existing resources, you may find you are still lacking in customer service. If that's the case, consider implementing an automated customer service call center, which takes advantage of numerous technologies to allow the CSR to assist online customers in real time. Some examples are:


• Browser sharing. This allows the CSR to view and share the customer's browser to discover what is causing the problem.


• Text chat. This allows the CSR and customer to communicate via text in real time. A text box appears when the customer clicks on a "talk now" button. They then type in their questions, hit send and a CSR will reply.


• Voice-over IP. This lets the CSR talk to the customer over the Internet. This is the most effective method because the Internet session is not interrupted and the CSR can walk the person through any difficulties he is having.


• Web Call Back. This can be in the form of a 'call me' button that is on the Web site. Simply click on the button, enter a message identifying your needs and within a few minutes receive a call from a CSR.


Another valuable feature of automated centers is built-in routing and tracking functions to gather and report customer information.


Patience is short when people are searching for answers so CSRs must provide correct answers or where to find them quickly. Anything after 24 hours may be too late. A great way to ensure a timely response is to have an automatic call-back option. This feature automatically calls the consumers when a phone line becomes available. It also saves your CSRs time by automatically prioritizing the calls.


Another time saver is automated acknowledgment. This tells the visitor the status of their question and when it will approximately be answered while they are on hold. If used in conjunction with the automatic call-back option, there is no need for your customers to sit on hold. This is great for backlog issues as well as to appease frustrated customers.


By now you know that good customer service is crucial to your online survival, but what if your inhouse resources are stretched to the maximum? Turn to one of the more than 20 companies currently offering some of these automated services as well as consulting, books and software.


According to Jupiter Communications, the retail and catalog industry is leading in online customer service with 64 percent of retail Web sites responding to questions within one day. While this is good news, it also shows that we can all use an improvement in this area and now is the time to do it. Lastly, if you still aren't sure if you are living up to your customer's expectations ask yourself one final question, 'How long do I like to wait?'


Kimberly Williams is vice president at R.R. Donnelley Online Services, Downers Grove, IL. Her e-mail address is Kimberly.Willams@rrd.com.
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