Live Customer Service On The Web

If last year was the year everyone discovered e-commerce, then 1999 is surely gearing up as the year that online customer service takes center stage.

With e-commerce estimates ranging as high as $135 billion for 1999 (Giga Information Group), many sites are shifting their focus from the continuous refinement of the site’s user interface, search engine and/or shopping cart capabilities, to improving the quality of customer care. And with the fourth quarter holiday season rapidly approaching, the crunch time is near.

E-commerce sites have spent the last couple of years aggressively marketing themselves in an attempt to attract customers and build market share. More often than not, they have done so at customer acquisition costs far in excess of what they might have realized through more traditional “offline” means. Now, they need to make those marketing dollars pay off. Consequently, sites are shifting their focus to improving online conversion and customer retention rates.

How will they accomplish this? Through increased customer satisfaction.

How will they increase customer satisfaction? By offering better customer service.

According to a recent Jupiter Communications survey, only 12 percent of online browsers are satisfied with their shopping experience. That leaves a lot of room for improvement. Part of the reason for such low satisfaction is that up until now, the online shopping experience has been mostly uni-directional. Visitors to any given web site are often left to navigate and answer questions on their own accord. Products and content are presented to site visitors, who determine the path by which they arrive at this information, but it is mostly a one-way dialogue.

Not that web sites haven’t recognized the need to answer questions: Alas, the now infamous and omnipresent FAQ lists found on virtually every site. However, FAQ lists are often inadequate. For starters, it is difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate all the possible questions your site visitors may have. Even if the FAQ list does cover the question being asked, many times these lists are poorly categorized and difficult to search, thereby making it a frustrating experience for the user. However, the real problem with FAQ lists lies in the fact that you are forcing your visitor to work for their answers — an inherently dissatisfying experience.

Recognizing that FAQ’s can’t cover every question, virtually all web sites offer email links, whereby visitors can send questions in the hope of getting a response. Unfortunately, “hope” is the right term to describe awaiting a response. According to another recent Jupiter report, nearly 42 percent of web sites either responded to emails in five or more days, never responded, or didn’t provide an email contact. What are they thinking? There’s no faster way to destroy a relationship with your customers than by ignoring their questions or not getting back to them in a timely manner.

So why have so many sites fallen victim to this approach? The main reason has been the lack of attention paid to online customer service. Until recently, most email management solutions were developed internally, with little to no routing or subject matter classification. In addition, operators have been required to continuously create, revise or search for answers to these questions. However, as volumes have increased and the need for more sophisticated solutions has grown, a number of vendors have entered this market to provide enterprise-class solutions addressing this problem.

While there is a definite need for systems of this nature, most of these solutions are large-scale software deployments that often require significant upfront expenditures and IT resources to implement.

Need one for the holidays? Fuhgeddaboutit! And email management solutions, while significantly reducing the amount of time it takes to respond to your customers’ inquiries, still can’t provide instantaneous answers.

Imagine walking in to your favorite department store: There’s no sales person in sight, and you need to ask a question. Now imagine you had to write down your question, slide it under the window at the information booth and then keep checking back each day to see if your answer arrived. Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Yet, that’s exactly what we do on the Internet when we offer email as a customer’s only online service solution.

If you believe that service helps sell, you can understand why e-commerce sites relying solely on FAQs or email for customer service are missing a great opportunity to interact at the point of sale. And the chance to build ongoing brand loyalty, and develop a true one-to-one relationship with customers.

The real-time nature of the Internet only serves to heighten customer expectations regarding response time and service. An instant medium requires instant answers. Anything less can lead to a disappointing online experience. And when all is said and done, the simple fact remains: Humans still prefer interacting with other humans. The personal attention and feedback received from a live customer service representative is ultimately more satisfying. Just think about what your customer would rather interact with on December 23. An email based customer service system or a live text-based solution?

Unlike many email management systems, most live customer service solutions can be implemented relatively quickly. Typically, all that’s required is a link placed within the appropriate sections of your site. Once clicked upon, a pop-up window appears within which your customers can begin a text-based “conversation” with live customer service representatives. Think instant messaging. Except your operators on the “other end” are solving problems and closing sales – in real-time. Live customer service could be just the ticket you need to improve your site’s conversion rates and customer satisfaction levels during the critical fourth quarter holiday season.

So what are you waiting for? The holidays are almost here.

Hello, my name is Robert. How can I help you?

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