The Good Old Days Really Were the Good Old Days

There’s a fine line that divides those who roll their eyes at the mention of the good old days from those who nostalgically nod their heads in woeful agreement.

Personally, I have traditionally been an eye roller. However, when it comes to customer service in the retail world, the good old days do seem … well, better. In my lifetime I’ve seen a measurable decline in customer service. Back when I was a child, the place you went to have gas put in your car wasn’t called a gas station – it was called a service station and they actually gave you service.

A service station employee put the gas in your car for you, washed your windows and checked your oil. At grocery stores, freshly scrubbed, polite young men bagged your groceries, being careful to put the bread and eggs on top so they wouldn’t get crushed. These men then carried the groceries out to your car. Pharmacies actually delivered prescriptions so sick people could stay in bed and get better. In stores, employees knew everything there was to know about their merchandise. Employees were actually knowledgeable enough to accurately and confidently advise which option would work best to delight the customer.

This level of service resulted in high customer satisfaction and a great deal of repeat business. However, during the period of time between when I couldn’t wait to look older and when I began to fear that I looked my age, retailers engaged in the fantasy that they could reduce customer service yet still maintain customer trust and loyalty.

Today, in what is ironically called the service economy, I pump my own gas, bag my own groceries, drag myself down to the drug store when I’m sick and read Consumer Reports before making a major purchase. As far as I can tell, most employees of retail establishments exist today to ring up my purchase and/or stop shoplifters. Customer service is so rare today that I no longer expect it and am pleasantly surprised if I receive it. And if customer service has been severely reduced in the real world, it is virtually (no pun intended) non-existent in the online world of e-commerce.

Call Centers Can Help

Are retailers enjoying unprecedented profitability as a result of this reduction of customer service? Hardly. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area that has been lauded as the ultimate demonstration of the power of customer self-service in retailing – the Internet. According to research organization Datamonitor, approximately 237 million online transactions were attempted in 1998, but only 22 percent were completed. Datamonitor, estimates that about $1.6 billion in sales could have been saved by implementing some form of online customer service, either by e-mail, voice-over-IP, Web chat, collaborative browsing or Web callback support.

History suggests that the belief that retailing can be successful as a totally self-service endeavor is a myth concocted by those who don’t understand the role that personal interaction plays in customer satisfaction. Datamonitor’s research indicates that Internet customers will buy more if they are supported by some form of customer service. Interestingly, every remedy suggested is one that can be performed effectively by a call center. Whether in a dedicated inhouse call center or one that is outsourced, call center representatives can provide the personal touch that answers customers’ questions, facilitates Web-site navigation and allays security concerns. Here are just some of the ways that a call center can help close the customer service gap:

* Offer your customers an opportunity to talk to a live human being at any point during their visit to your Web site by placing a click-to-talk button on every page of your Web site. In today’s I-want-it-now world, it’s imperative that service is available at the moment of opportunity, not necessarily at the retailer’s convenience.

* Use a two-tiered approach to e-mail responses. Simple requests can be answered automatically using software that identifies frequently asked questions by picking up on key words and responds with an immediate canned answer. More complex questions and requests can be handled on an individual basis by reps with good grammar and typing skills.

* Increase upselling and cross-selling online by having reps browse your Web-site collaboratively with customers.

* Mine your data to identify your best customers and have reps communicate with those customers either by phone or e-mail to express your appreciation for their business and to offer additional service available only to this elite group of key customers.

Whether you already have an online retail presence or you are considering developing one, do yourself a favor – integrate customer service into your plan. And if you want to be really successful, don’t think of the customer service component of your business as something extra you do in addition to your core business… think of it as the insurance policy that assures you’ll continue to have a core business in the future.

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