The Maturation of Customer Care

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The advent of e-commerce marks a watershed for business. Merrill Lynch estimates that e-commerce is likely to approach $1.4 trillion worldwide by the end of 2003.


That's the digital equivalent of a Ferrari going from zero to 60 in a fraction of a second. In a few short years, the Internet has blossomed into a 24/7 newsstand and global shopping mall, offering everything from erudite tomes to the latest cutting-edge business services.


Despite all the hype surrounding e-commerce, however, one can make the case that customer care on the Internet lags far behind its offline counterpart. E-commerce is, after all, just one of many channels available to consumers. Judging from the level of potential customer support available from bricks-and-mortar stores and traditional call centers, Web-based customer care is still very immature. But this may be changing shortly.


A new software and services market is emerging that is aimed at raising the level of customer care offered at any Web site, especially e-commerce-oriented ones. Called collaborative e-commerce, this market includes live Web-based customer care tools, e-mail response/automation technologies and self-help applications, as well as the integration of these systems with existing call centers.


Collaborative e-commerce is about fusing the strengths of legacy automatic call distribution, computer telephony integration and customer relationship management systems with the latest Internet-based customer interaction products and services. Collaborative e-commerce is heralding the era of contact centers, which support customers via all channels (and with a unified view of these interactions from the perspective of the customer and the agent/customer service representative).


But research indicates that implementation of such tools is wise only under certain circumstances. For simple items such as books or gum, a static order entry form and an automatic credit card transaction may be good enough to move items in volume. But as the complexity and price of goods and services rise, people are less satisfied with "insert your dollars face up in the slot" transactions, because more details are relevant to the sale. When there is more information available than the customer can absorb and interpret, they are much less likely to make a purchase. In this type of scenario, there is a clear disconnect between the old way of buying and the new way of selling.


Most of us who have shopped for something online have probably been there at least once: Drowning in a sea of irrelevant information about a particular product or service, we thirst like Tantalus for the details we are seeking. So we sit there clicking away in vain, wondering, where's the phone number to call? What are all the products and services this company offers? How do I negotiate terms and conditions? Once I place an order, what exactly happens to my form? What if I have a billing question?


In many cases, e-mail response management tools can help answer customer questions. Some of these tools have built-in automation technologies that respond to such customer requests, reducing the number of e-mails that live human agents must answer. But while this may increase efficiency from the vantage point of the organization delivering the support, this approach does not necessarily raise customer satisfaction. Whether an e-mail is answered by a software application or by a live person, the response may not come for hours, days or weeks. By that point -- even if the answer addresses all the issues outlined -- the customer may have changed his mind or been forced to resort to other means to find the answer.


Self-help and other customer-oriented automation technologies clearly have a place on the Web. But while customer profiling tools, "smart" frequently asked questions, context sensitive inventory technologies and natural language search engines may approach the efficacy of a human, they will never be human. People are the best adaptive problem solvers, period. Especially as one approaches real time, few can argue with the notion that a properly trained and equipped human being can deliver better customer service than a software application. In a real-time sales environment, one must expect the unexpected and be prepared to resolve complex issues "on the fly."


Most sales situations are unique in some way, and it is nearly impossible to define enough business rules to support flawless instant automation. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for marginally better customer automation past a certain point, with less and less clear return on investment (if measured by higher customer satisfaction). If customer satisfaction is the goal, at that point the question becomes whether increasing the functionality of call/contact centers to include a live human collaborative e-commerce tool outweighs the cost associated with dissatisfied customers.


Though there are scores of collaborative e-commerce software vendors, there are only a few features that support real-time online customer care. These features include text chat, collaborative Web browsing, callbacks, instant messaging, voice over Internet protocol, application sharing and even two-way video conferencing. Some vendors support just one of these features and are generally regarded as "point solutions" by their competitors. Others offer the gamut of technologies and beyond, including integration services for call center systems and e-commerce servers. While the former may cost less than $100,000 to support dozens of agents over the course of a year, implementing the latter type of platform or suite solution may cost millions and take a year before it is formally launched.


It appears the best action is to implement collaborative e-commerce tools on top of (or in some cases to replace) existing automation and self-help tools, both online and in terms of interactive voice response systems. This approach is wise, especially in cases where the goods and services are expensive and complex. As long as these requirements are met, collaborative e-commerce can offer a number of benefits. Such tools should help:


• Increase customer satisfaction and loyalty by meeting customers' needs on the first point of contact.


• Raise Web site traffic eyeballs and stickiness, and increase sales by creating a new avenue for upselling and cross-selling.


• Create a competitive advantage by providing a superior continuum of services to customers.


• Boost organizational efficiency by helping create a contact center that fuses traditional call centers with the Web.


Real-time online customer care appears to be growing out of infancy and maturing rapidly. Collaborative e-commerce seems poised to raise customer service to the level of its offline counterpart and perhaps beyond over the next decade. Until then, we probably can expect online customer service to suffer from all the awkwardness of a gangly teen-ager.


They say patience is a virtue -- and everyone who shops online will need plenty of it until collaborative e-commerce is more widely adopted. Millions of people may avoid crowded shopping malls by going online this holiday season, but without solid online customer care, more window-shopping is likely to occur than actual buying.


• Lewis Ward is a senior research analyst at management services firm Collaborative Strategies, San Francisco. Reach him at LewisW@collaborate.com.

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