Online Customer Contact: How Much Is Enough?
BY KIRK HENDRICKSON, FACETIME COMMUNICATIONS, INC.
E-commerce site planners once imagined that online shoppers would be able to help
themselves, that sales and customer service calling centers would one day be eliminated
and that e-retailers could simply sit back and watch the money roll in. But the sobering
reality of e-commerce is that whether you are a Web-savvy "dot com" company or a
brick-and-mortar store developing an e-commerce site, you can't skirt the very real need
for direct contact with your online customers.
This was never more evident than during last years Christmas shopping season when
the media reported one e-commerce horror story after another. The good news was that
online shopping appeared to have finally hit the mainstream. The bad news was that online
shoppers spent far less than projected because customer service at most sites was so
deplorable. Since then, companies have been scrambling to optimize the online shopping
experience and turn Web site visitors into loyal, paying customers.
Whether you are Web-enabling your call center or upgrading the companys online
customer service capabilities, your Web site will need to be equipped to handle the
expected influx of requests for assistance. The first step in this task is predicting as
closely as possible the level of customer contact your Web site will require. This, in
turn, will help you select the most appropriate channel for meeting that requirement.
The objective of this article is to provide you with a methodology for
approximating the number of Web site visitors likely to need individualized, personal
service on a regular basis. The process starts with an evaluation of your Web site against
seven key attributes that have a direct impact on the need for customer contact. They can
be categorized into factors that increase the likelihood of contact and those that
Factors That Increase Contact
Purchase price. Typically, the higher the purchase price, the higher the
increase in consumer risk, which translates into a higher number of contacts required per
transaction. If a customer is buying a $30 book over the Internet, theres a relative
certainty of the outcome of the process. But for a $5,000 stereo system, the buyer may
want to interact with a live sales rep in real-time in order to feel comfortable.
Complexity of the item or service. Complexity can often
confuse prospective buyers and thus heighten the risk of making a bad decision. Ordering a
video is a sure thing, but buying a state-of-the-art VCR will require information about
performance characteristics that may not be available via a self-help mechanism.
Availability of contact information. If the first thing you
see on a companys Web site is Click Here To Talk Live, you are likely to
click on it for even minor inquiries. As a rule, the more opportunities provided for
contact, the greater the number of contacts.
Time sensitivity of the transaction. Many Internet
transactions are made on the spur of the moment, as in the typical online trading
environment. In making a time-sensitive financial transaction, for example, customers will
use any direct means available to place the order while the securitys price and
prospects are most favorable. Conversely, shoppers at an online bookstore may not feel the
same sense of immediacy in making a decision and will thus require less live assistance.
Factors That Decrease Contact
Sophistication of the Web site. A sophisticated Web site is easy for
customers to navigate and use. Information is easily accessible, enabling shoppers to make
decisions with little or no live support. Try to be as objective as possible when
evaluating your site for ease-of-use.
Frequency of purchase. The more often a buyer visits a
particular Web site, the less need the individual has for interaction with support staff.
Although repeat customers may occasionally require live interaction, they are generally
Customer experience. Customers who are familiar with online
shopping will require less support than the novice e-shopper. Also, customers who are
familiar with the subject matter of a site, or the site itself, will require less direct
As an example, consider two financial services companies that allow people to trade
options. The first allows all customers to trade options after making only two trades,
while the second allows only customers with extensive trading histories to trade options.
The experience level of the first companys customers will, on average, be lower than
that of the second company. Therefore, the first company should expect more customer
contacts than the second.
In short, as the price, complexity, contact availability and time sensitivity increase,
the number of customer contacts will increase. As the sophistication of the Web site,
frequency of purchase and familiarity of the customer increase, the number of customer
contacts will decrease.
Evaluating Your Web Site
In calculating the level of contact your Web site is likely to require, remember
that this is a qualitative exercise based on experience in the field and does not
represent hard numbers. Although your actual contact may vary slightly, this
exercise will help you make an educated guess as to what you can expect.
Begin by assigning a rating of very low, low, medium, high or very high to each of the
attributes discussed above. The total number of contacts per order will depend on the
rating, and the relationship of each attribute either positive or negative with the
total number of contacts per order. For the purposes of this exercise, we have assigned a
number to each of the ratings so you can apply the numbers to your Web site attributes
- Very low = 0
- Low = 1
- Medium = 2
- High = 3
- Very high = 4.
Considering the nature of your business, the makeup of your customer base and the
status of your Web site, take each of the attributes and assign a number to it. Keep in
mind that the first four attributes price, complexity, contact availability and time
sensitivity will increase contact (expressed with a plus sign) and the last three
frequency, Web site sophistication and customer experience will decrease it (expressed
with a minus sign). In both cases, the minimum impact will be expressed as very low
with the ultimate impact expressed as very high. Your task is to evaluate each
attribute and rate it based on the impact you think it would have on your customers
need for live contact. Use Worksheet A to keep track of your calculations.
Chart A provides examples of how the process would unfold for four
different online companies: Online Bookseller, Online Brokerage, Online Insurance and
Online Clothing Retailer. This analysis may help you determine your requirements based on
similarities between your company and those listed in the chart.
Doing The Math
Once you have plotted Worksheet A with ratings of your Web site attributes, it is
easy to calculate the number of contacts your companys e-commerce site may require.
First, add the numbers in the column and write your answer in the Overall Score box. As
with the figures in Chart A, these numbers can range from minus two
to plus six or above. Use the formulas below to score your Web sites Expected
experience for customer contact:
- -2, -1, 0 = one contact per three transactions
- 1 or 2 = one contact per two transactions
- 3 or 4 = one contact to one transaction
- 5 or 6 = two or three contacts to one transaction
- 6 or above = four or more contacts per one transaction.
As a practice exercise, lets say you are implementing online customer contact for
Online Brokerage Company (See Chart A). Following is an explanation
of how each Web site attribute received its rating. The first four attributes are rated
with a plus because they tend to increase the need for contact, while the last three are
scored with a minus because they decrease the need.
- Price. The total value of an Online Brokerage transaction
could be many thousands of dollars, so the price trait receives a very high (+4) rating
because customers are likely to need a great deal of assurance in making decisions.
- Complexity. Online Brokerages products are not extremely
complex and many, but not all, customers will already know about a stock before they visit
the site. In this case, complexity gets a medium (+2) rating because there are many
intricacies involved in buying securities.
- Contact availability. Assume for this example that Online
Broker-age provides some, but not many, opportunities for a customer to directly contact a
customer service agent online. In this case, the site gets a low (+1) rating for contact
- Time sensitivity. Online Broker-ages customers are under
pressure to buy and sell at the best price and at the most opportune moment, so the site
gets a rating of very high (+4) for time sensitivity.Minus Traits
- Frequency. Many of Online Brokerages customers may visit
the site several times daily and require little or no contact when they do, so the
frequency attribute for the site will be rated very high (-4).
- Web site sophistication. The brokerage gets a high (-3) rating
for Web site sophistication because it has invested heavily in making its facility
easy-to-use and navigate, thus requiring less need for customer contact.
- Customer experience. Most of Online Brokerages customers
are experienced in online shopping in general and online trading in particular, so the
site gets a very high (-4) rating for the customer experience attribute.
Online Brokerage rates an overall score of 0 (zero), meaning that it can expect one
customer contact per three orders.
Making Your Own Projections
You now have a way to project the impact online customer service will have on
your organization and can plan accordingly. While this is a subjective exercise, it will
allow you to plan your Internet customer service operations more realistically.
Understanding the impact your Web site could have on your customers shopping
experience will enable you to anticipate their needs and prepare your call center and
Kirk Hendrickson is a business practice director for FaceTime Communications, Inc.
In this role, he works with companies to define and implement customer service programs to
support their e-commerce efforts.