Give A Little Of The Human Touch

Despite the growing acceptance of the internet as a vehicle for conducting business, e-commerce still tends to be regarded as something of a stepchild. It’s a little awkward and not easily embraced, and e-commerce is also often — sadly — nonprofitable as well.

Visitors do come to e-commerce sites. They even poke around. But etailers often find themselves wondering why more of those people aren’t actually offering up their credit cards and buying.

In my view, the reason stems from one simple fact: Most people prefer doing business with other people.

So web sites are great for doing research. But when it comes to making an actual purchase, many customers need the reassurance of human interaction. By simply providing a method for customers to get real-time, in-medium (on the web) answers to their questions, conversion rates can skyrocket and raise customer service levels to an all-time high.

It’s true. Too often, it’s a simple navigation question or product query that keeps customers from completing the sale online. Some of these frustrated customers end up phoning your customer service department, eliminating all the benefits of e-commerce for both the customer and your company. But even worse, some of these customers just surf away, never to return.

Real-Time, Real Answers

Ideally, web-based customer service should include both self-help and live-help capabilities. Most companies will find that a large percentage of web-based customers prefer to help themselves to the information they need. And for those who don’t need real-time assistance, just the knowledge that representatives are available makes the shopping experience more satisfying.

In their minds, they are no longer buying from a virtual company running off a server in some dark warehouse. Instead, they are buying from XYZ Corp., staffed by live representatives who are available at the click of a mouse. Instant assurance instant credibility.

Real-time interaction with an informed representative encourages completion of the sale. In a traditional sales environment, for example, salespeople are available to answer questions, help customers find products, and walk the customer to the register.

By similarly offering customers what they need and want in service and support, e-commerce sites can dramatically improve browse-to-buy ratios. According to a September 1998 study by Jupiter Communications, 47 percent of people are more likely to buy online with the addition of real-time customer interaction.

Profit margins increase as well: A live person can effectively cross-sell and upsell to the customer. A static site simply doesn’t have what that takes.

The ability to have a conversation with a live representative also makes customers feel more secure. No matter how much web-based security is pooh-poohed, many customers are still hesitant to enter credit card information into an online form. But these very same individuals will hand their credit card to an anonymous waiter in a restaurant or offer their information over the phone to an unknown mail order catalog representative. The difference, of course, is human interaction.

Staff Your Online Store

Most e-commerce sites provide customer service via either an 800 number and/or an email address. But both these options fall short of customer needs.

Not only do both methods delay the completion of the sale, they are also inconvenient. For customers with only one available phone line, using the 800 number requires disconnecting from the internet, calling your company, and waiting on hold.

Once the customer is connected with an agent, they have to remember where they were on the site when the question arose, and explain the query without the benefit of viewing the actual web page. Then, after the representative helps them, the (now frustrated) customer has to reconnect. Optionally, the customer can choose to complete the transaction over the phone, eliminating all the time, convenience, and cost savings of e-commerce.

The alternative-email-is even worse from the customer perspective. The potential customer faithfully fills out the online form, wondering if someone will actually receive it and reply to it. And God only knows when that might actually happen.

Answering all emails individually can also become a burden on the company. As more customers use a site, the volume can grow to an overwhelming level, further delaying responses. By the time the company answers the query, the customer has likely moved on to another vendor.

Listen to what Forrester says: “Forrester believes the demand for email interaction will mushroom as customer emails grow from a nit to almost 10 percent of all contacts by 2001.”

Already, many companies are being caught off-guard by customer demand. One company interviewed by Forrester said, “Our internet service proved frustrating. We didn’t have anyone trained to answer email. We were not warned early enough to respond to staffing demands.”

Another company confided that, “The webmaster receives customer service email, then forwards it to us. We still aren’t prepared or staffed the way we need to be.”

In today’s economy where service equals success, companies need to provide a better option for real-time ecommerce service and support. The answer lies in allowing customers to help themselves to the information they need without leaving the web site: Through robust data repositories with an intuitive search capability, automated email response, and the option of interacting with a live customer service representative. All of these technologies are available and can be implemented today.

By combining customer self-help and the option of live help from a customer service representative via text-based conversations, internet phones, and online video, the e-commerce process becomes much more engaging, user-friendly, and successful. Web-based customer interaction is a win-win solution for companies and customers.

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