The Human Touch Keeps Customers Happy

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E-commerce is an efficient medium, but it need not be a sterile medium. E-service masters know that the right addition of human touch puts a unique, distinctive face on their endeavors.


Customers expect a variety of ways to access human help, including frequently asked questions, self-service tools, e-mail, chat and toll-free access to live representatives. Multichannel customer response systems combined with automated answer capabilities are table stakes for playing the e-service game. To accommodate these demands, many e-companies are moving to Web-enabled call centers, installing in-site switching gear and scalable software for e-mail routing, queuing and prioritization -- enabling representatives to handle e-mail and real-time Web requests almost as efficiently as toll-free number calls.


When it comes to e-mail, the best way to manage expectations and costs -- especially if you face large volumes of requests -- is through automated e-mail acknowledgment and response systems. According to a study of 158 online retailers by The Boston Consulting Group, Boston, those using auto responders experienced an average cost of 25 cents per e-mail response versus $4 for those who responded to every e-mail manually.


Auto responders respond instantly to e-mail requests, assuring customers that their questions are being researched and that they will receive a full answer within 24 hours. When the final response is made, auto responders can generate templated answers to commonly asked questions, which then can be customized by service reps to make them more personal and ensure that the answer is appropriate.


But do not think e-mail will eliminate the need for those toll-free-number calls. Even e-customers sometimes want to hear a human voice, and nothing makes them meaner than having to search for a number.


Follow the example of OmahaSteaks.com, which makes its toll-free number omnipresent and neon-visible at its site. In large type and bright colors, the toll-free number welcomes customers to call from every page. Fogdog.com also boldly lists its toll-free number on every page, inviting customers to call, as does telebright.com.


Once customers get you live, whether it is on the phone or via online chat, be prepared to answer their questions effectively by hiring service reps who can be trained both to master your products and respond to the needs of consumers. At CameraWorld.com, most customer contacts are answered by professional photographers, and REI.com uses specialists personally familiar with their gear to answer questions.


Make Recovery a Point of Pride


The e-savvy know that despite their best, most focused efforts, things can and sometimes do go awry. The e-service masters know that fixing customer problems and answering customer queries faster, better, more fully and with style give their venture a clear advantage. Customers who have seen these organizations retrieve a lost situation from the brink know the true strength of the organization. And they are reassured in their decision to do business with the organization.


Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has long been known as a vocal advocate of the position that e-commerce will rise and fall on the quality of the service it provides. Living up to that credo is the job of 200 customer service reps who handle 20,000 e-mails, faxes and phone calls with which Amazon.com is inundated every day. Its swift, effective delivery enhances customers' perceptions of the value Amazon brings to the products it sells.


"Internet Customer Care," a study by the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business, Alexandria, VA, prepared by Yankelovich, Norwalk, CT, in May 2000, found a high correlation between online customer care and customer loyalty for e-commerce. Seventy percent of online customers rated themselves "very likely" to repurchase products from e-commerce companies that responded to and resolved their problems. On the flip side, however, ignoring recovery can damage future business opportunities.


A study by the International Customer Service Association, Chicago, and e-Satisfy.com, Arlington, VA, found that to avoid calamitous recovery mistakes, you must invest in your customer service process and empower the people who deliver it. Bill Price, Amazon.com's head of customer service, created Amazon's successful service recovery system by implementing three key elements:


• He hires only people who share his passion for customers.


• He makes sure they have state-of-the-art equipment, processes and solutions to work with.


• Reps are empowered to use their best judgment when responding to customers.


Part of what makes this process work is a database of 14,000 pre-scripted remarks, written by the customer service representatives themselves, which are selectively queued up as customer queries come in. CSRs are free to modify, amend or even discard the pre-written blurbs if they feel the customers require a more tailored response.


At the same time, Price is aware of the pressure of being a first-rate CSR, which is why he pays better than average -- $10.50 to $16 an hour. The investment may seem large, but the payoff is a loyal customer base and the prospect of steadily increasing business in the years to come.


Build a Retention Strategy


The savviest of the e-service masters know that retention -- repeat business -- does not come from luck, great product or happenstance. Retention is a thought-out, iterated and polished plan. It is the master goal -- bring customers back to your site again and again. It is the aim that pulls together the other six principles.


A study conducted by W. Earl Sasser Jr., a consultant and professor at Harvard Business School, and Frederick F. Reichheld, a management consultant at Bain & Co., Boston, found that the longer you are able to retain a customer, the more profitable the relationship becomes. Longevity leads to increased purchases, less price sensitivity, reduced operating costs and high-quality referrals.


An e-customer's decision to continue doing business with you rests on many factors, only one of which is the price/value quotient. The entire experience, from site navigation to product delivery, must be consistent, reliable, useful and efficient.


And added extras, such as incentive programs, go a long way toward further cementing relationships. A 1999 study by Carlson Marketing Group, Minneapolis, suggests that some consumers spend as much as 46 percent more with companies that offer compelling loyalty programs. Recognizing this, many companies, from tiny dot-coms to bricks-and-mortar giants, have implemented their own versions of frequent-flier miles.


CameraWorld.com has a Bonus Bucks programs that gives buyers 1 percent of their purchase as a credit toward future purchases. Hilton Hotels has created Frequent Guest Pages at its site where customers can create their own profiles to search for available rooms matching their preferences. OmahaSteaks.com includes freebies such as two top sirloins or free cutlery with every purchase. And SmarterKids.com uses Click Rewards, which gives customers two frequent-flier miles for every dollar they spend at the site.


All of these little extras keep customers coming back for more. Taking advantage of the value of pleasing customers throughout the buying process and beyond secures them as repeat customers and ensures your future online.


• Ron Zemke and Tom Connellan are principals with Performance Research Associates, Minneapolis, and authors of the newly released "E-Service: 24 Ways to Keep Your Customers When the Competition Is Just a Click Away." Reach Zemke at zemke@aol.com and Connellan at tconnellan@aol.com.
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