At Your Service

It’s economically very compelling to provide good customer service from your web site. Good web site service can save companies 50 percent or more in the cost of a single customer service interaction versus a telephone call. Unfortunately, many popular web sites have stumbled in attempts to provide good web based service. Not only are we missing the chance to build customer confidence in the web, we are also not realizing the cost advantage and customer loyalty benefits that result from great, personalized web-based customer service. A peek at web-based customer service — done wrong and done right.

Web Service Challenges

Of the 125 major web sites surveyed by Jupiter Communications (11/98), 42 percent never responded to web customer requests, or took more than five days to respond to requests, or didn’t have a system in place to respond to problems by email. It seems that we were in such a hurry to build the prettiest web site that we forgot to handle customers effectively when the ugly things happened. In customer service, it isn’t about what goes right, it’s all about what happens when things go wrong — which invariably they do.

Web retailers are challenged when it comes to providing service via the web and email. Besides the black eye for lack of responsiveness to email, there are other hurdles to overcome:

  • Basic systems making it easy to obtain customer service have not been executed. In general, it isn’t easy for customers to find answers or to find the right people to email or call via a web site.

  • It can be a very complex and expensive endeavor to integrate database and email communications. The use of databases to enable customer “self-service” is still limited in use. And email is quite a headache for both the web retailer and the customer — automation, tracking, responsiveness and intelligent routing are challenges to tackle.
  • Web and email technologies are still young. The good news is that some companies are building innovative new systems that can help.

Web Service That Satisfies

Before embarking on the quest for the coolest technologies in web-based customer service, make sure the basics are covered. Then you can become more sophisticated with other practices and technologies designed to satisfy the most discriminating online customers.

  • Basic — Can your customers easily find answers to simple questions? Can they quickly find the right department to contact via email or phone? You should have an online “user guide” for obtaining customer service from your organization. Take a look at these very helpful customer service pages:’s Help Desk, and’s Directory. You will see that they aren’t fancy, just simple and easy. They provide customers with a choice of methods for contacting the company.

  • Better — Automated and personalized email functionality gives web customers a convenient, 24/7 way to communicate with your company. Email notifications that confirm orders and shipments are very handy and streamlined. Real-time inventory (or at least rapid notification) and order tracking is becoming a standard requirement for web stores. As a customer, I want to know if the item is in stock or available on back order. The process works well at the following companies:, eToys, Marriott,, 1-800-Flowers and L.L. Bean. Remember, respond to email inquiries within 24-48 hours.
  • Best — Personalized account management can really satisfy customers and save you money. You can start with the simple account functions such as change of address, payment method, service options and so forth. I am able to perform many account management functions with the following companies I do business with: MCI WorldCom long distance (demo), American Airlines AAdvantage program, BellSouth local phone service, and Mindspring Internet services.

Of course, many of these online service capabilities require integration with people, processes and systems. Some companies elect to step carefully into web service by dedicating specific people to handle orders and email inquiries.

What’s Coming In Web Service

There are technologies available today (although not yet in prevalent use) that will make web customer service incredibly powerful. So much so that a customer will never have to leave their browser to get advice, answers and resolution. Here are some of the web-enabled service capabilities of the future.

  • Power EMail — Automated intelligent routing much like the “skill-based” routing of call centers where email is routed to the right person based on its content.

  • Online Bill Presentment And Payment — Putting a bill online for a customer to review then paying offline could save you a few dollars per customer, per month. Just do the math, and you’ll see what you can save on paper, processing and postage. Hooking into online payment systems can save on the cost to process the bill when customers remit with a check.
  • Chat — Customers chatting with service or sales representatives in real-time.
  • Web-To-Call Center — Imagine clicking on a web site button to have a customer service representative call you!
  • Audio/Video — The same idea as the chat and phone connections with sales and service representatives. When the bandwidth issues subside, we could see more use of web A/V for highly considered items such as cars, boats, real estate, luxury goods, and all kinds of complex B2B services and products.
  • Outlet Integration — If you have a retail store or sell through a middleman, why not shorten the purchase process so you don’t lose that sale? At the most basic, a store or dealer locator is a must. Also, think about letting online customers return items to your offline retail store. The future in customer service is to be able to receive the same quality sales and service, no matter where the customer buys products or services. I bought a cell phone from a retail outlet, but unfortunately I can’t activate or change services from the company’s web site — I have to drag myself across town to do it. There’s got to be a better way!

Check out a small sample of customer service system providers (covering the many capabilities discussed above, but in no particular order): Silknet, Nortel’s Voice Button, Aptex, Brightware, Checkfree, iChat, Business Evolution, ibill, eGain, Genesys, Vantive, Siebel, and RealNetworks.

Next Week: Another look at the growing use of email.

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