Outdoor-Adventure Specialist Gears Up for Web Sales

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Sporting goods retailer and cataloger Recreational Equipment Inc., Seattle, is installing technology in its Sumner, WA, call center this month that it hopes will improve its Web-based interaction with customers, boost sales and give customers more options for communicating with the company. It also is turning its telesales representatives into universal agents who answer phones, e-mails and engage in interactive Web chat with REI's customers.


The outdoor-adventure specialist, whose products include clothing, equipment and just about everything else needed for camping, hiking and climbing excursions, recently installed the WebCenter Suite from Acuity, which it hopes will allow it to process e-mail queries more efficiently and provide instant feedback to its Internet customers. In addition, the new configuration includes a database of product information that customers will be able to tap into online without having to contact an operator.


"The goal is to service the customer in the way that they want to be serviced and provide them with lots of options," said Matt Hyde, vice president of online sales at REI.


Hyde said that with REI's online sales volume expected to reach $50 million this year, the company also needed to upgrade its system to handle the ever-increasing volume it has been experiencing since it first launched an e-commerce initiative in 1996.


The company does not reveal the volume of its e-mail traffic, but Hyde said the site gets more than 1 million visits per month.


Noel Nelson, manager of direct sales, said he expects Internet-based messaging to replace some of the phone calls the center now receives, although he does not expect the center to experience a decline in the total number of phone calls simply because the business is growing so quickly.


Some of the call center's 100 agents handle e-mail queries exclusively, while others handle phone calls and e-mails.


"I think what we'll see is that people will wear multiple hats in the future," said Nelson. "We will have a universal agent with some Web responsibilities in their job descriptions."


Phone agents who answer e-mails can be prompted with a button on their screen that will automatically dial a customer's phone number, if the customer requests to be contacted by an agent.


With the previous system, customers often had to wait until the next day to receive responses to e-mail queries. The new system expedites the process by prioritizing e-mail queries according to several criteria. It also has a mechanism that allows customers to receive an immediate call from an agent, so that the customer does not need to place a call.


"Probably one of the biggest reasons why we're bringing in some e-mail management and live text-chat capabilities is so that we can provide the same level of service using Internet technologies as we do on the phone," said Nelson.


REI can set the system up to route the e-mails according to what part of the site the e-mail originates from or by using other information about the sender, such as whether or not they are a frequent customer. The e-mails then can be routed to agents based on their skills, so that a frequent, big-spending customer might be routed to a more seasoned agent.


The system uses an Internet-centric switch that is separate from the phone switch but can interact with it, so that e-mails and interactive messages can be routed separately from phone calls or can be programmed to be placed in queues with the phone calls the center receives.


REI makes it easy for customers to contact the company by placing e-mail links on every one of the thousands of pages on the company's three Web sites.


In addition, the new system will facilitate REI's efforts to monitor the e-mail messages its agents send out and, thus, Hyde said, provide better quality control.


The new system also allows customers to interact with agents simultaneously through the use of instant messaging. Customers who choose this option will be connected with a live agent who will be able to communicate using an onscreen text-message window. The agent can thus guide the customer through the pages of the site on the customers' browser.


"If you have a question - 'Do you have a green one of these backpacks?' - currently you can either call us or send us an e-mail, but we are going to be adding a third option, where you can type in a textual message, send it to us, and it will be queued to an available agent, so you can get an answer right away," Hyde said.


The database portion of the technology will focus on supplying product information and product-repair information that customers can use in a self-help format.
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