Well connected

As e-commerce grows, customer service will become an important differentiator in the battle to build consumer loyalty. To be truly effective, CRM agents will need cross-platform skills,

Have you ever found yourself stuck on a website with a query but nowhere to go? On business-to-consumer (B2C) sites this can be a major bugbear, and result in customers rapidly losing patience and taking their custom elsewhere.

Some figures suggest as many as 60 per cent of Web transactions are abandoned before the order is submitted, purely because people get lost and are unable to navigate the site easily or find a lack of explanation about price.

Ian Seedhouse, director of e-business at Brann, suggests online companies need to start improving the customer’s website experience. “If you have an awful experience on a website, would you go back?” he asks. “I think organisations must realise that they only have one opportunity to grab the customer’s attention.”

It is only when customer service improves that companies can hope to win loyalty. This process usually starts by integrating the website with a contact centre. However, the majority of contact centres that claim to be “Web-enabled” are more likely to mean they can handle relatively simple e-mail responses. Professional customer service websites require significantly more infrastructure than that.

Traditional call centres, too, could benefit from adopting a more customer-centric approach. Paul Jackson, general manager at direct marketing agency MBO, explains: “Some of the customer service calls we take last for about ten to 15 minutes. The last thing a traditional numbers-based call centre wants to do is to tie up people with calls for that length of time.”

Companies are striving to Web-enable contact centres in number of ways. One of these is to use “call me” link buttons on the website. One drawback with these is that customers usually have to come off-line before they are able to take the call from a call centre agent, so the immediacy gets lost.

Hence, some companies are starting to advocate applications such as web talk, which enable agents to have a live text-based conversation with customers, while they are still online.

Dave Thomson, marketing manager at CRM company Aspect Communications, believes this live interaction between customer and call centre agent is the best solution. “We advocate the fully integrated method where you don’t have to end your Web session to get the call back,” he says. “The site is connected directly to the call centre. When the call is made to the customer, the agent in the call centre sees exactly the same screen as the customer. So you can start to do interactive browsing, push them along to different web pages, draw on the screen and use web talk.

“Suddenly the whole web experience is much richer. It’s more like a high street shopping experience. You receive advice and then you make a purchase. It’s much more interactive and the company can actually control the situation,” adds Thomson.

However, e-tailer Buy.com which has been assessing help options such as live text-based chat, believes it is still too early in the Internet’s consumer take-up for this technology to be accepted by customers.

“We would have to see greater consumer use of applications such as chat before we would consider using them. The vast majority of our customers are first-time purchasers on the Net. I believe that speaking to them through a chat facility would completely throw them,” explains Buy.com customer services director Gary Jackson.

For this reason, Buy.com has been focusing its efforts on the prompt response of phone and e-mail queries at its call centre, no easy task in itself. “We launched in March and we’ve taken over 20,000 calls at our call centre. The average speed of answer is less than five seconds. In terms of e-mail we’ve answered over 99 per cent of e-mails within 24 hours of receipt, and we now aim to turn round any e-mail sent to us within 12 hours,” says Jackson.

The next evolutionary stage in Web enablement will be voice-over IP. This is effectively a phone call via the Web, with a split line so that an agent can speak to a customer, while they’re both looking at the website.

However, the cost involved in this technology means that there are few companies offering this service at the moment, and there are also some technical issues still to be resolved, such as the availability of sufficiently high-bandwidth connections. When broadband Internet access becomes mainstream, voice-over IP is likely to take off.

But for any of these contact centre functions to work well, good data management systems need to be in place. For example, contact centre agents require fast and accurate customer information at their fingertips, and this is something only the best technology solutions can deliver.

CRM data management company Acxiom offers clients Web hosting, as well as handling their customer databases, call centre and e-mail response. Michael Page, director of Internet services at Acxiom, suggests that often the danger lies in the separate structures responsible for handling all the data involved.

“Often e-commerce sites are run by a client’s new media agency, and completely separately from their own marketing database and call centre, where even the people taking calls from a call-back button don’t have access to much of the data actually on the site,” he says.

Importantly, an integrated service would mean customers not getting different messages at different points of contact.

“Do they want a call back, web chat or to e-mail us? It doesn’t matter to us. Once they have decided, we collect that request from the website and channel it to the call centre and get the right person handling the query,” adds Page.

Aspect Communications offers a similar CRM solution via its CR Portal, which enables companies to handle telephone, e-mail, Internet and fax through a single point of contact. The software allows agents to have multiple text-chat sessions simultaneously, as well as to prioritise communications.

Says Thomson: “We can create rules as to whether e-mail has priority over voice, or vice-versa, or to put customers straight to the top of the queue if they are identified as valuable.”

Offering customers a choice of service options is clearly best, but can only work if companies are able to invest in the system. And even with the best technology in the world, there are still likely to be issues that contact centres will need to address.

With e-mail, companies can at least introduce rules. For example, if they tell customers that they can expect a response in under an hour, it must ensure it has enough live agents on hand to deal with them, as well as customers expecting an instant service – even if the company is suddenly swamped with Web chat customers.

E-mail response also introduces a whole new skill set for contact centre workers to learn. Staff need to be taught good grammar if they are to convey the company image in written form. Buy.com’s Jackson explains that he has formed a team of people specifically dedicated to developing contact centre staff’s written skills.

The growth of Internet usage could also cause problems for organisations which have not yet geared themselves to handle floods of e-mails. If a company is receiving 500 e-mails a day, the projected growth in e-mail usage could see that figure increase tenfold in only a few years’ time.

There are already so many B2C sites competing in areas such as travel and books that it is easy for customers to leave one and go to another. Increasingly, customer service will be the big differentiator. When broadband access finally arrives in the UK, it is likely to open the floodgates on Net usage and increase the pressure on customer service.

Many e-tailers are still just coming out of the early adopter stage and service on websites has already become a major issue. What companies must learn, and fast, is that it pays to interact; it pays even more to interact well.

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