Meeting Customer Expectations

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Have you ever seen a long line at a retail store and decided what you needed wasn't that crucial? Have you ever called in search of a simple answer only to be given the runaround? If you answered yes, then you know how important customer service is to the success of any business, including an online business. An Internet storefront must meet the same criteria as a bricks- and-mortar store. Customers expect your full product offering as well as a high level of customer service.


People who shop on the Web likely do so for convenience and to save time. Therefore, making them wait for answers will only prove to be a disservice on your part and turn them away to look elsewhere. Knowing this, companies selling online need to consider the impact of their customer service offering. Many companies who rushed out and launched their Web stores without a solid customer service plan encounter lost sales, a decrease in credibility, low loyalty among shoppers and very few repeat purchases. Unfortunately, they have a small chance of recouping any of that lost potential.


Companies must make customer service issues a priority. Online competition is fierce and customer service is an important feature that differentiates you from your competitors. But with 90 percent of e-commerce companies planning to significantly change their customer service operations in the next year, standing out may be hard to accomplish. To stay ahead of the game, we have put together some tools to consider when dealing with your customer service call centers.


The first step in implementing an effective customer service call center is to assess your target response times. Ask yourself, "Are our customer service representatives responding quickly enough to customer requests?" To help you answer this question, consider the following points:


• Acknowledge all requests and questions immediately. This can be done via an e-mail or an automated voice system that confirms the persons message was received.


• Answer all questions regarding technical difficulty or ordering problems within one hour. The faster the better or sales will be lost.


• Answer all general questions within 12 hours. Answer the easy ones first.


• Ship catalog requests within 24 hours. Schedule to pull these requests once a day and ship.


Use What You Have


If you aren't meeting these suggested response times, don't run out and hire more CSRs. First assess the tools you have. One of the most important tools is your CSRs. A knowledgeable CSR is just as important, if not more so, on the Internet as a sales associate is in your bricks-and-mortar store. This is due the lack of face-to-face interaction. The online visitor can't see someone searching for the answer to their question, which means they are often left to wonder if their question was received or if it was lost somewhere in cyberspace. In most situations, they only know their question has been received when someone sends them a reply.


The next question to ask yourself is, "How can we make our CSRs more efficient and effective in their communication?" This one is easy. Use the tools you already have. You already have a Web site - post a Frequently-Asked-Questions page. This is one of the easiest features and biggest time savers out there. Simply document the questions and answers your CSRs constantly provide and post them on your site. Once they are posted, make sure the CSRs have access to it for updates and quick reference.


Do you use e-mail and the phone? Of course you do, so use it to communicate to your customers. Assurance is a wonderful way to keep customers satisfied and the merchant-customer dialogue ongoing. Track and log the calls you receive to send personalized e-mails. This not only will allow you to capture valuable information on areas that need improvement, but it will also contribute to building customer loyalty.


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


Even with all your existing resources, you may find you still lack in the customer service arena. If that's the case, consider implementing an automated call center. Automated centers take advantage of numerous technologies to allow the CSR to assist online customers in real time. These include:


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


• Text chat. The CSR and customer can 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 back in real time.


• Voice Over IP. This enables the CSR to 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 they have. Unfortunately, this technology is not widespread yet.


• Web call back, This can be in the form of a "call me" button on the Web site. Simply click on the button, enter a message identifying your needs and within a few minutes you will receive a call from a CSR.


Another valuable feature automated centers can offer is built-in routing and tracking functions to gather and report customer information, which is a great time saver for you and your CSRs.


Patience is short when people are searching for answers so the CSR needs to provide the correct answer, or guidance on where to find the answer, in a timely manner. 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 in the order in which they called when a phone line becomes available. This saves your CSRs time by automatically prioritizing the calls.


Another time saver feature that an automated call center can offer is automatedacknowledgment. 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 callback option there is no need for your customers to sit on hold - they can find out their status, hang-up and know when they will be called back. This is great for backlog issues as well as to appease frustrated customers.


So Much to Offer


Today, companies have a plethora of services to offer. When it comes to customer service the more ways to communicate with your customer the better. Here is a checklist of some features that would make up a successful customer service call center:


• Knowledgeable CSRs.


• Quick response time.


• Transfer ability. If the customer needs to speak to someone else make sure your CSR can transfer them. Sales are lost if customers have to call a different number.


• Call tracking. Make sure the FAQ's are accessible, log calls to monitor response times and print transcripts to ensure questions are answered correctly


• Automatic call back option


• Live text chat. This enables the customer to send questions through a separate browser and ask the question, in real time, to an available CSR.


• Constantly evaluate your Web site to ensure customer needs are met.


No Excuses


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 and you can't keep up with the demand? There are more than 20 companies offering automated services plus consulting, books and software are available to help assist your call center and customer service needs. Here are some companies that offer such services:


• eGain's Web Collaboration System gives CSRs the ability to answer customer's questions and offer assistance in real-time. For more information visit www.egain.com.


• eFusion's eBridge Interactive Web Response system delivers Internet-enabled consumers directly to call center agents without the need for a call-back. For more information visit www.efusion.com.


• Davox's Concerto supports inbound call processing requirements, such as routing calls to specific agents, converting telephony-based information into automated screen pops at the agent workstation and facilitating voice/data transfers. For more information visit www.davox.com.


These companies have a broad offering but with the challenge of finding the right solution for your specific needs, controlling costs, and providing the best customer service, we recommend meeting with an e-commerce consultant that can provide valuable information on the most cost-effective and efficient tools available.


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?"

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