Good experiences rule in multichannel

The combination of declining customer satisfaction levels and current economic concerns has created a fiercely competitive environment for multichan­nel retailers. As a result, many retailers are looking to their online channels, not only for growth, but also as a way to improve the customer experience.

Overall customer satisfaction declined 0.4% in the fourth quarter of 2007, mark­ing two subsequent quarters in which a decline was posted, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, released last month by the University of Michigan. Customer satisfaction with the retail sector dropped 0.3% to 74.2 on ACSI’s 100-point scale.

E-commerce, however, provided a mea­sure of good news, with the overall sector posting a 2% gain in customer satisfaction for a new high of 81.6.

“In this environment, those companies that have satisfied customers, which lead to loyal customers, will be the ones that do the best,” says Larry Freed, CEO of ForeSee Results. He expects to see more of a focus online compared to offline in 2008 as multichannel merchants try to improve the overall experience for cus­tomers. “Improving the customer expe­rience on the Web is a win for both the customer and the retailer” because cus­tomers are able to get the information they want more efficiently, Freed says. He adds that retailers can cut costs by eliminating phone calls into their call centers.

ServiceXRG recently released a study titled Influencing the Online Experi­ence. It examines how the Web is changing the way businesses engage with customers and the impact online interactions have on shaping customer perceptions of companies.

Tom Sweeny, principal and co-founder of ServiceXRG, says that “The burden for creating the customer experience is increasingly reliant on good information, less human interaction and more technology to facilitate the inter­action.” Satisfaction, he continues, is a function of “providing the right content [online] and the means to find that content in the context of a customer need.”

Advanced search offerings are some of the leading enhancements planned by online merchants and service provid­ers interested in improving the customer experience, according to Jason Hekl, VP of mar­keting at InQuira, which co-spon­sored the study.

“Everybody seems to have some sort of simple search capability,” but more robust tools that can really understand a customer’s needs and satisfy it “are not widely implemented yet,” he says.

Of the 311 companies surveyed for the study, 33% said they are planning to invest in advanced search capabilities in the next year.

While search is the tool that provides customers with the ability to find the right information, customers aren’t just looking for answers. “They’re also looking for validation, and the ability to provide ancil­lary material such as recommendations, reviews and ratings all go toward satisfy­ing customer needs,” Sweeny says.

Freed says that the ability to post and read reviews is “fast becoming an expecta­tion of customers,” according to research from ForeSee Results. During the past holiday season, consumers who recalled seeing customer reviews on a Web site reported 9% higher customer satisfaction levels, were 9% more likely to make a purchase and 8% more likely to purchase the next time they came to that site.

The goal for some online companies is to create a self-service customer support portal along the lines of what electronic design automation solutions provider Mentor Graphics has done, accord­ing to Hekl. Understanding its customers’ needs and crafting an online experience around that allows the company to engage with and respond to customers quickly.

“Once the company shifted all of its cus­tomer service online, the number of times customers interacted with it increased tenfold,” he says. “This is the future — where everything is going.”

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